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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 1966

Senator BACK (Western AustraliaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (21:08): I rise, with a great degree of interest, to support this legislation, the National Disability Insurance Scheme Bill 2013. My own vision, as a senator, is:

Towards an Australian community in which every member is safe, feels valued and contributes to a sustainable future.

I think the legislation before us points directly towards those principles. We are an Australian community. The objective is that every member within the community will feel safe, will be valued and will contribute to a sustainable future. I am very pleased to endorse the sentiments being expressed throughout the chamber by the government of the day, by the Greens and by members of the coalition for this particular principle. I quote the words of our parliamentary leader of the coalition, Mr Abbott:

The NDIS is an idea whose time has come.

And that is the case. I was interested in Senator Polley's comments in the last few moments that, at the moment, there are differences between the support that is available, the compensation and the financial wherewithal in different states and territories. Of course, the legislation determines largely the level of support whether, for example, a motor vehicle accident has occurred or whether the person has a hereditary condition or a congenital condition. If you are born with a disability, as we all know, or acquire one later in life, it can be a very different story. We are a wealthy nation; we are a nation of compassion; we are a nation capable of actually coming together in a bipartisan way to give effect to this legislation.

I would be remiss if I were not to point out the contribution by the coalition, along with that of the government, in advancing the principle of the NDIS and hopefully seeing it through to its conclusion and its inclusion in the Australian way of life. The coalition supported the initial work undertaken by the Productivity Commission; the $1 billion that was allocated in the last budget to be able to start the pilot schemes; the five launch sites as they are to be known when they commence in the middle of this year; and the agreement between the Commonwealth and the New South Wales government for a full statewide rollout after the launch in the Hunter Valley. As has been indicated by our shadow minister in this area, Senator Fifield, we support this legislation.

Nobody has actually given more physical or more obvious effect to his support and commitment in this area than Mr Abbott in the sense that last year in his well-publicised Pollie Pedal, in which he influences other parliamentarians to join him in a 1,000-kilometre ride, I believe they raised some $540,000, which was contributed to Carers Australia. Along the way, the party met with people with disability, their carers and their organisations. I understand the next two Pollie Pedals will be in partnership with and raise funds again for Carers Australia. I can only say how pleased I am that he does not do his Pollie Pedal on the west coast because I might be forced to participate. I do not know why you are shaking your head, Senator Brown. It is my understanding that is where—

Senator Carol Brown: I am sure that it is, but not once did they put the legislation forward themselves.

Senator BACK: Expenditure has been undertaken, so there is very constructive support, and I look forward to you joining the Pollie Pedal at some time so that you can give effect to that support.

The comments that we make, and those that Senator Fifield has made, are offered in a constructive spirit in an endeavour to help make the NDIS the best it can be. Amongst other reasons, it speaks very much of Liberal and National values, and they are the fact that under the NDIS, the person is at the centre. It is self-directed funding. It is aligned with the objectives of empowering the individual and removing government from people's lives and at the same time reducing red tape. I hope that everybody in this chamber would actually share those aspirations.

It is, as has been said, a once-in-a-generation reform that will unfold over the life of several parliaments, not just this one or the next one but over a number of parliaments. For that reason, it needs to have bipartisan support. It will have a high degree of consultation, and we need far more attention to detail than we have seen to date. Interestingly, Senator Polley reflected on the comments as she quoted Mr Hockey in terms of the expenditure for the NDIS. I am not sure whether she was being complimentary or critical when she said, as Mr Hockey indeed did, that this is a cost to the Australian taxpayer. Of course it is a cost to the Australian taxpayer. It behoves all of us in this chamber and in this place to make sure that the funds of Australian taxpayers are spent as wisely as they possibly can be.

I come back again to the bipartisanship. I recall Senator Fifield did move in this Senate to establish an oversight committee. I stand to be corrected but I do recall at that time the government and the Greens actually combining in the Senate to vote that particular oversight committee down. I am not sure why that would have happened.

Senator Carol Brown interjecting

Senator BACK: I return to the interjections that Senator Brown is persisting with. Mr Abbott said in a recent Press Club speech:

The Coalition is so committed to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, for instance, that we've offered to co-chair a bi-partisan parliamentary committee so that support for it doesn't flag across the three terms of parliament and among the nine different governments needed to make it work.

It is disappointing if we are going to have interjections to the extent that the government seems to believe the coalition is not interested in or committed to an NDIS, because I believe those statements made very publicly indicate that they are. The government knows very well that it is in everybody's interest, particularly those who are waiting for the success of this legislation—waiting for it to be funded and waiting for the outcome of the early programs to see what further changes need to be made. Every government and opposition in this country—state, territory and federal—needs to come together to make sure that these events can take place.

We have seen bipartisanship. We have seen, for example, Premier O'Farrell and Prime Minister Gillard sign an intergovernmental agreement in December last year for a full statewide NDIS rollout after the Hunter launch. We also saw the agreement within the federal government and Victorian coalition government to give that effect. I make that point again: there can be no full NDIS without an intergovernmental agreement with each state and territory.

There are those who have criticised my own state of Western Australia, for example, in not hosting a launch site. There is nothing unusual about that. The original Productivity Commission's findings did not recommend that there be a launch site in every state. Nevertheless, during the term of his last government Premier Barnett wrote to the Prime Minister proposing a joint WA-Commonwealth NDIS. I believe that Queensland Premier Newman wrote to the Prime Minister with a proposal to be part of a full national rollout.

The coalition supported the government's commitment of $1 billion to the NDIS in the federal budget in this current year but we are having some difficulty in reconciling that $1 billion with the $3.9 billion that the Productivity Commission said would be necessary over the forward estimates. So it remains for us to learn what that outcome will be. I am sure the government will explain it and make appropriate provisions. We will be watching in the budget session to see just what allocation has been made in this area.

If there is a concern—and it is a concern being expressed through the wider community as well—of course it is in the detail. One would hope that there will be more complete consultation and that there will be a wider area in which to engage and to come to a conclusion as to who is and who is not eligible. We have been learning, for example, in recent times that those over the age of 65 at the time the scheme is implemented may not be eligible whereas those who do reach that age after implementation may be eligible. So it is fair to say that more information is required, that there is scope for more questions to be asked and that we do need further information on the sets of rules that will govern this activity when it is underway.

I do want to turn to some of the personal impacts. Only today I read about a Sydney fireman in the media, a gentleman by the name of Mark McFarlane. He suffers from chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, a debilitating disease which has regrettably a relatively high mortality rate in younger children. This man is absolutely to be admired because right through the time since his diagnosis—and that has been some 14 years—Mr McFarlane has through great willpower mostly been able to ensure he does a day's work. He has rarely missed a day's work even when undergoing heavy doses of chemotherapy.

This brings me to a point which I know Senator Polley addressed in her contribution. It is that our objectives must be towards, as much as possible, returning people with disabilities who are able and want to work to the workplace. Mr McFarlane has said that what has kept him going has been pride in his work and the drive to want to be able to continue to present himself in the working environment. I, for one, am firmly of the view that, if the NDIS in some way can lead to an improved sense of wellbeing for people in their workplaces, this in itself will have been a tremendous benefit. I had the honour last year in August to address the Disability Employment Conference in Melbourne and to talk about some of the aspects that are relevant to this discussion. Of course, the NDIS came up for discussion.

There really is quite a positive story to be told in this area. If one has a look at the current circumstances in the overall Australian labour force, one will see there is about 2.2 per cent annual growth. I am pleased to record in my own state that figure is closer to three per cent. But nevertheless the Productivity Commission estimates that by 2020 that growth will have reduced from about two per cent to 0.5 per cent per annum, so clearly there is going to be a need and a demand for more people in the workplace. At the moment 67 per cent of the population are in the working age category. By 2045 that will reduce from 67 per cent down to 56 per cent. So, again, we will see fewer people in the workforce.

Participation for abled Australians of working age at the moment is 81 per cent, but it is only 53 per cent for disabled people: clearly we are again pointing at an opportunity. I also recall quoting in that speech from information made available to me that some 6,000 people ready to work are on an employment service program of some sort with the Commonwealth, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that some 17 per cent of working age Australians have a disability—about 2.2 million people have a disability of some sort, of whom more than 100,000 are ready for work but are unemployed.

We can see an extension beyond just the straight NDIS into the personal lives of people who may, through the agency and through the tools that will be made available to them through the NDIS, actually see themselves back in the workplace. Of course, we would all be looking for longer term employment, but disabled people, and I think that is what drew me so much to the activities of Mr McFarlane—as a fireman, this is an industry in which I have had the pleasure of being somewhat involved as the chief executive of a bushfires board in the past—need abled jobs. There are plenty of people who have disabilities that are not declared, but nevertheless they successfully undertake what we would regard as normal work activities. We need to recognise that disabled people may not be able to do the equivalent of an abled person in hours of work per day or the degree of stress of a job or the nature of certain jobs, but nevertheless this is where we need to be aiming. We need to examine the person's ability rather than their inability or their disability, and we need to accept limitations. In the workplace we need to build in flexibility.

I am very pleased to be able to record again the tremendous support of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in this area. They launched in 2011-12 the business case for employing people with disability referred to as 'Employ outside the box'. This was dual in its objectives: firstly, to be able to provide a better quality of life for disabled people and, secondly, to be able to address the declining number of people and declining productivity that we will see according to the numbers I quoted earlier. The capacity to be able to improve workforce skills, to improve employment participation, to better use unskilled and semiskilled workers to improve their skills level—of course we need to mount a case to do so.

In my concluding remarks, I simply want to go back to the earlier comments made—that is, strong support. As Mr Abbott has said, 'The NDIS is an idea whose time has come.' It really is the time now to put to one side those partisan comments, be they from our side or be they from the government or be they from the Greens. We need to move forward in a more productive climate of consultation and we do need to know at the end of the day that we can fund this well into the future.