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Wednesday, 20 March 2013
Page: 2129

Senator SINODINOS (New South Wales) (10:07): This is a landmark piece of legislation: the National Disability Insurance Scheme Bill 2013, which is supported by both sides of the house. Some people may be surprised at that; they talk about this parliament being fractious and in some ways dysfunctional. Whatever the government's contribution to that, on this occasion we have come together on a matter which we regard as being in some sense above politics. That is a very serious statement to make, to say that something is above politics. I think what we have here is a recognition that we as a parliament have listened to the community and to a section of the community who for too long felt that they were being shunted aside, being ignored, being discriminated against; many families and their carers, disabled people and their families have had to suffer in silence. They could not get access to the range of services they needed on the terms that were appropriate to their particular circumstances.

This legislation, this scheme, seeks to remedy many of those considerations. That is why I certainly support it and that is why my side of politics supports it. It is gratifying that all sides of politics seem to be keen to move on this matter now. In saying that, I am conscious that we are embarking on a very ambitious enterprise as a nation. This is a very complex, long-term, significant set of reforms. In some ways, it provides a precedent in other areas of social support, but it also provides some warning bells about how these sorts of schemes should be considered and implemented.

We face an extra bill when the scheme is fully matured of around $6 billion to $8 billion and possibly more per annum extra, on top of what we now spend. That is a significant expending of public resources, and it is premised on not only compassion and social desiderata—if I can put it like that—but also an economic component in the sense that there is a view that going down this road with the National Disability Insurance Scheme will yield more benefits than costs over the longer term.

There will of course be the social benefits for those who are directly affected, but what we are saying is that there will ultimately also be national benefits, public benefits, over and above those private benefits and that some of those benefits will be economic benefits, because people who are being helped will be in a better position, potentially, in a number of cases, to participate more fully in the economic and social life of our country. That is very important. Tony Blair once made the point that fairness in the workplace begins with the prospect of a job. So anything we can do to help disabled people to realise their full potential, so that they become full and participating members of our economy and society, is very important—not only for their self-esteem and meaning in their lives but also for the contribution they make to the country and how that ultimately enriches all of us socially and economically. So there are some very important issues at stake in this bill and in this legislation that we are debating today.

We are not, as I said before, debating this in a rancorous, partisan way; there is agreement. But, in making comments on the legislation, I do want to raise a couple of points on the way through. These are not points that are necessarily the most significant and some may say, 'Well, you are raising points which are more economic or financial, or sort of bean-counter points,' but I raise them anyway in the spirit of saying: let's make sure that, in adding to the pool of funds available in this area, we are getting the best value for money out of what we are already spending in this space, not in order to cut what we are already spending in this space—that is not what we are intending to do—but, like all these things, let us make sure that the spending we are putting into the system is going on top of a level of spending that is itself the most efficient and effective way to deploy existing resources to help disabled people.

In negotiating with the states, this government or a future government must make sure that there is genuine additionality in the resources that those states are providing to the table. I commend the New South Wales and federal governments for coming to an agreement recently and, like my colleague, Marise Payne, yesterday, I commend the New South Wales Minister for Ageing and Minister for Disability Services, Andrew Constance, who is a very smart, pragmatic and committed minister in this space. He has done a great job on behalf of the people of New South Wales in this space, and I commend him, Premier Barry O'Farrell and their federal counterparts for coming to an agreement. But my point is: let's make sure that the funding going into this space from the states is additional funding, so that we get the best possible deal for the Commonwealth from the states and we are maximising the resources available for disabled people.

In that context, I refer back to the Productivity Commission, which handed down a landmark report on this space. In part, the report went to this issue of funding and the profile for funding. The point made there was that something like $3.9 billion was needed over the next four years, or this current four years, in order to begin to realise the vision of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. To date, the government has provided $1 billion over the forward estimates, and in this budget we wait to see what the longer term funding plan will be.

There had been speculation in the press that the government might well publish forward estimates that go some way beyond the traditional three or four years—perhaps out to 2020—to indicate how it was funding significant additional responsibilities, such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski education reforms. I welcome a commitment by the government to provide a longer term set of forward estimates which explain clearly how we build up the funding to the National Disability Insurance Scheme over time so reach the peak funding—which I think at this stage is expected to be in 2018.

We have to be careful that this does not become one of those cheese-paring exercises, a bit like what we do in the foreign aid area. There we make laudable commitments in the context of the Millennium Development Goals and then say, a bit like St Augustine, 'Make me pure but not just yet,' and we keep putting off the day when we lift the ratio of our foreign aid to our GDP. Over the last couple of years there has been a tendency to do that. I hope for the National Disability Insurance Scheme we do not fall into the same trap simply because over time we find our budgetary situation is deteriorating and we are unable to meet this full commitment.

That may not be an issue for this government. One of the reasons I raise this now is that it could be an issue for a future coalition government. This is a dilemma that we all face, but the point that we have made and the point that the government has made is that schemes like this would be accommodated by reducing spending elsewhere. It is important that we note that it is better to go down the route of reducing spending in other areas rather than seeking to raise taxes further, given that most of those taxes will fall on middle-income earners. From an economic perspective that is the more appropriate way to pay for a national disability insurance scheme.

As I said before, this has bipartisan support. I commend people on both sides of politics who have supported the scheme from its inception, or conception. On my side of politics, I commend our leader, Tony Abbott, who through early support for the scheme and through his work with the Pollie Pedal has been a visible and genuine, committed supporter of doing more in this space. I commend our shadow spokesman in the area, Mitch Fifield. He is a flint-hard economic rationalist who on this occasion has seen the light and decided we must do more. He has handled a difficult area in dealing with stakeholders and the government on the matter with great deftness, skill and authority. I commend him for the work he has done within the party room in bringing us all along on this journey. I also commend Senator Sue Boyce, who has been quite a vocal supporter of the scheme, based in part on personal experiences.

I will not mention others, but my point is simply to say this: the field evidence is very strong that people from both sides of politics have been very strongly supportive. On the other side of politics, outside this chamber, I commend John Della Bosca, a very skilful New South Wales ex-Labor minister and operative. He is an organisation man who has done an excellent job in helping to mobilise public opinion on and support for the scheme. It would be remiss not to say something about some of the people involved in the conception of the scheme: John Walsh, a partner at PwC, who conceived it. It was progressed by Bruce Bonyhady, the president of Philanthropy Australia. I knew Bruce Bonyhady 20 or 30 years ago in the Treasury. I think he was in the forecasting or modelling space. He is a rigorous thinker and he brought that rigour as well as his commitment to helping people with disability to the table. He has done a great job in further fleshing out the concept and helping to sell it.

I note in passing that this matter was first canvassed at the 2020 Summit in 2008. That summit was notable for three things: first of all, Kevin Rudd telling us who the best and brightest in Australia were; some of us were very disappointed in the outcomes of that exercise. Secondly, it did not necessarily yield that many things. I think the bionic eye came out of that process and something is being done on that. Thirdly, there was tax reform, which came on the table when Kevin Rudd had to go on the 7:30 Report and describe the outcomes of the summit. He then decided, 'Let's have a tax review,' and that was the Henry review, which in turn led to other things. But this item, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, is one of the better outcomes of something that was first canvassed at the 2020 Summit.

One of the features of the scheme that I am particularly attracted to is the fact that it is a person-centred and self-directed funding model. It is aligned to the objectives of empowering the individual, removing government from people's lives and reducing red tape. To be honest, we will wait and see how far it goes in reducing red tape and removing government from people's lives. I am a bit sceptical about the extent to which the government gets out of people's lives and reduces red tape, but empowering the individual, setting up a model which is person-centred and which that person drives through their command over funding and resources, drives the package of measures necessary to help them, so it is a customised package. I think that is what this NDIS is trying to get at. It is also trying to provide greater certainty to people about what is available to them so that they do not have to wait in queues and all the rest of it. One downside of all of this that we have to make sure we address is that people who are providing services to the NDIS do not ratchet up their prices because they think that demand is going up as everybody wants everything immediately. We have to guard against people exploiting the situation. That is a footnote.

I support the person-centred and self-directed funding model. I think we showed more of this across government activity, more of a—for want of a better expression—life-cycle model of how government interacts with individuals. I think that is very important, particularly because in an area like this there is some focus on early intervention to 'mitigate, alleviate or prevent the deterioration of' a person's functional capacity. Early intervention to minimise later problems means that there is greater capacity for people to potentially be more self-reliant and better able to do things for themselves. Getting people, to the extent possible, to be mobile and to be able to hold down a part-time or full-time job is important for their self-esteem and the contribution they can make to our nation.

So I support the person-centred and self-directed funding model. It would be interesting to apply this more across government activity. I suspect it would be expensive to do that, so perhaps it is not as appropriate in other areas because of cost; but, certainly, in this area, it is a new model and it will be interesting to see how it goes. I support that element of the model. As the notes say:

The individual needs to be at the centre and in charge, able to pick the supports, the aids, the equipment and the service providers of their choice. This is the vision of the Productivity Commission's landmark report …

I make the point that for some time now, as a reflection of that bipartisanship that I mentioned earlier, the coalition has called for the establishment of a joint parliamentary committee to be chaired by both sides of politics to oversee the establishment and implementation of the NDIS. This is not only a good idea on policy grounds but also a good idea on political grounds for the government to lock the opposition into ongoing support for the NDIS. I do not understand why the government seems to want to shut the opposition out when embracing the opposition and locking them in is the best guarantee that the NDIS will have not only safe delivery but also a reasonably robust childhood growing to maturity with the right sort of support from all sides of the parliament. A parliamentary oversight committee would lock in all parties and provide a non-partisan environment where issues of design and eligibility could be worked through cooperatively. In other words, the parliamentary committee would seek to take out some of the political pointscoring and debate around what I said before was a matter above politics.

In bringing this vision to fruition I think people on the Labor side should avoid the temptation to claim this reform as some reflection of quintessential Labor values. There are very big Australian values around fairness and looking after people who cannot look after themselves, and they are shared by all sides of politics. We sometimes differ about the means to achieving that fairness, and that is a legitimate discussion. Our side of politics—the right-of-centre parties—always put more focus on how we can equip people to better look after themselves, to exercise personal choice and responsibility. That is where sometimes there is quite a marked philosophical difference and therefore a practical policy difference between the two sides of politics. But this is not about something which is quintessentially a Labor value; this is quintessentially a pragmatic Australian response to an important social issue. I am disappointed that on occasion Labor have sought to exploit this for partisan purposes. I say that gently and in passing to underline the point that this is all about bipartisanship.

As Tony Abbott reiterated at the Press Club recently:

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.

I commend Tony Abbott for that. I do not commend the Prime Minister for attacking some of her state colleagues in the lead-up to the Council of Australian Government meeting and seeking to portray them as somehow being against the scheme. State governments have legitimate responsibilities to argue about how their funding and their services link into this broader national scheme. In the spirit of cooperation, these are issues that are best hammered out behind closed doors and are not the subject of public rancour, pointscoring and mud-slinging. That will not achieve anything.

This is also reflected in the fact that we do not have to have launch sites in every state. The fact that we have launch sites in a number of states is a good thing, but the Productivity Commission never envisaged every state hosting a launch site and never saw the absence of a launch site as a bar to taking part in a full national rollout. The Premier of Queensland, Campbell Newman, has written to the Prime Minister with a proposal to be part of a full national rollout, and Premier Colin Barnett of Western Australia has written to the Prime Minister proposing a joint WA-Commonwealth national disability insurance scheme. The coalition will continue to place this issue above politics and is prepared to work with state and Commonwealth governments towards a better deal for people with a disability.

In the time remaining, I make the point that the bill before the chamber is essentially a framework establishing the transition agency, the board, the CEO and a general definition of eligibility. The mechanics of the scheme will be established by the rules. A discussion paper on the rules was released on 1 February but it was essentially a series of questions. It is not a draft set of rules. The government released seven sets of draft rules on the final day of hearings of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs on 5 March: draft rules for becoming a participant, draft rules for children, draft rules for privacy, draft rules for nominees, draft rules for support, draft rules for registered providers and draft rules for plan management. These draft rules are still the subjects of consultation with state and territories and with stakeholders in the disability sector. We will study them carefully. The government has also indicated that there are potentially dozens of batches of draft rules still to be released which need to be released quickly and well before the passage of the bill through parliament. We need as much information as possible to understand the implications of where we are going in this very important space.

Finally, I commend the legislation and the scheme to the chamber. I think it can make an important difference to the lives of disabled Australians. I have heard too many stories of parents who despair about what will happen to their disabled children after they pass on. It is very important that we assure them that the Australian people are there to take on that responsibility and that task.