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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 1970

Senator THORP (Tasmania) (21:27): There is much to celebrate about life in Australia today. We consistently perform above international averages on a range of measures, including life expectancy, air and water quality, and employment. In fact, Australia is unsurpassed on scales used by the OECD to determine which countries offer their citizens a better life. This places us ahead of 35 other countries, including the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. It is something of which we should all be very proud and grateful.

But other OECD research tells a much more uncomfortable story: a story of those who have been limited in their capacity to share in the economic and social wealth of this country; a story of those who, through no fault of their own, have been marginalised and disempowered from participating fully in society. The reality is that in 2010 Australia ranked 21st out of 29 OECD countries in employment participation rates for those with a disability. In addition, around 45 per cent of Australians with a disability live close to, or below, the poverty line. This is more than double the OECD average, and over 2½ times the rate of poverty experienced in the general population.

In 2009, this government recognised that something had to change. We tasked the Productivity Commission with investigating ways the current system of disability services delivery could be improved. The resulting report was unequivocal, labelling Australia's disability support system as 'underfunded, unfair, fragmented and inefficient'. People living with a disability told the commission that they did not have enough say in their own care, that they were left on their own to navigate their way through a complex, fractured and inconsistent maze of bureaucracy, and that the support they received often did not match their needs. Participants also reported being under great stress and worrying about what may happen to them and their families in the future. Some talked of how poor care had led to isolation, loneliness and feelings of helplessness and despair.

The report left no doubt that the disability services system has been failing these individuals and their families day after day, year after year. This failure has also placed an unacceptable burden on what has been termed the 'shadow care economy'—the millions of people who work tirelessly and without pay to care for people living with a disability. But today is not a day for dwelling on those failings. It is a day for looking forward with hope to the future. It is a special moment in time when both sides of politics stand united in the belief that the situation is unacceptable and a moment when we are equally united in our determination to change it.

As part of its work the Productivity Commission outlined a coherent vision for Australian disability services. It recommended a national scheme, a scheme that would provide insurance cover for all Australians who have a significant and ongoing disability. In doing so it recognised the unfairness of the situation where the victim of a workplace accident or car accident will receive fair compensation, while people living with disabilities are forced to rely heavily on a broken system and informal, unpaid care arrangements.

The NDIS Bill, which establishes Disability Care Australia, is one step along the path to achieving a vision that was first proposed 40 years ago by Gough Whitlam. It represents a doubling of the funding for disability services. More than that, it represents fundamental and historic change. This is not an evolution; it is a revolution. It is not a series of incremental fixes intended to patch holes in the existing system; it is a complete rethink of what is needed and a complete rework of disability services from the ground up.

Disability Care Australia will bring dignity and support to millions of people living with a disability as well as their families and carers. One of the greatest strengths of this approach is the underlying philosophy of self-determination. The individual will be placed at the centre of decision making and family members will be recognised as partners. Psychologists have long known that people who feel they have autonomy and power over the direction their lives will take are also more likely to report high self-esteem and general life happiness. Similarly, they are more likely to participate more actively in their communities and the workforce. To my mind this is what sets Disability Care Australia apart from traditional welfare models.

Choice and control will be embedded in all stages. For the first time, participants will have an opportunity to be active contributors in decisions about the individual support services they need, where they get them from and how they receive them. In doing so, the scheme respects the capacity of individuals to make their own choices on the issues that affect them and recognises that this choice should no longer be a luxury afforded to the very few with the resources to pay for it. Underlying all of these decisions is the goal of more independent living, greater community participation and increased self-reliance.

To my mind, this bill embodies so many core beliefs that drew me to the Labor Party many years ago. It echoes the values of other equally ambitious and nation-changing Labor initiatives, like Medicare and compulsory superannuation. It is about fairness, equity, self-determination and inclusion. It is also about unwavering support for the most marginalised people in our community who, by dint of circumstance, have so many challenges to face. In doing so, it recognises that disability could strike any of us at any time in our lives. The Prime Minister captured it perfectly in her speech to the House last year when she said, 'Disability can affect any of us and therefore it affects all of us.'

In my home state of Tasmania, disability affects a vast number of people. According to a 2007 report by the state government, around one in five Tasmanians are living with a disability and a further 10 per cent of Tasmanians over 15 reported providing unpaid assistance to a person with a disability, long-term illness or problems relating to old age. I am very proud that Tasmania will be one of five launch sites for the NDIS. This pilot project will help around 1,000 young Tasmanians over its life span. As someone who has worked as a special education teacher for many years, I am especially heartened that the launch site will focus on young people between 15 and 24 years. This age range was chosen in recognition that it is a vital transition period, a time when the foundations are laid for adult life, as young people move from schooling into the workforce or further study. The goal of the launch site is to explore the supports that need to be in place for this transition to be as successful as possible.

Importantly, setting up Disability Care Australia is not only the right thing for us to do but the most sensible, prudent thing for us to do. One thing that concerns me about some policy debate today is the false dichotomies that are constructed around social justice. Welfare issues are often presented as a question of moral responsibility versus fiscal responsibility; people versus dollars, if you like. Either we choose to care for marginalised people in our community or we look after the budgetary bottom line. However, if we take a wider perspective and a closer look at the research, we often find that these sorts of initiatives not only help individuals to lead fuller, happier lives but actually contribute positively to the bottom line.

In its report entitled Disability expectations: investing in a better life, a stronger Australia PricewaterhouseCoopers found that the NDIS, as part of a package of reforms, can also achieve strong economic gains. Its modelling found that the scheme could lead to an extra 450,000 people living with a disability and their carers participating in the workforce by 2050. To put this in perspective, this workforce boost is not too far short of the entire population of Tasmania. This extra employment is estimated to be able to return $50 billion to the nation's economy. The report summarised the situation by saying:

The NDIS is an economically responsible proposal, providing an investment in people with a disability and in the future of Australia. It pays for itself.

Quite simply, we cannot afford not to act and I, for one, am glad to be part of the government that is.