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Tuesday, 19 March 2013
Page: 2000

Senator SMITH (Western Australia) (13:24): It is also my privilege and honour to make a contribution to the National Disability Insurance Scheme Bill 2013. The introduction of a National Disability Insurance Scheme is the culmination of years of dedication and struggle by people with disabilities, their families, carers and friends. This outcome is not one that belongs to a particular side of politics, or even to this parliament.

This legislation is a tribute to those often unsung heroes in our community who look after disabled family members or friends and the incredible sacrifices that so many of them have made and continue to make so that those with disabilities can still enjoy lives of some comfort and dignity, and can still make a contribution to our society. However, the passage of this legislation is a beginning, not an end. The introduction of an NDIS will extend beyond the life of this parliament, and beyond the life of the next. It will involve all the state and territory governments across Australia.

What we do now in this parliament will allow the real work to begin, but we cannot allow these reforms to become bogged down in partisan sniping. As the Leader of the Opposition said in relation to this legislation during the debate in the other place:

… for this scheme to successfully come to fruition for the mighty benefit of people with disabilities throughout our country, it cannot simply reflect Labor values; it cannot simply reflect Liberal values. It must reflect national values. It must reflect the values that are held deep by members on both sides of this chamber, values that are common to members of all parliaments right around our country.

I think there is genuine goodwill from all parties on this issue, and all of us are keen to get on with the implementation, and start delivering real outcomes for people with disabilities and those who care for them.

My own side of politics has proposed a bipartisan committee to oversee the implementation of the NDIS. Given the length of time it will take—the remainder of this parliament and the two that follow us—it would be prudent to ensure involvement from all parties, so that there are not interruptions or delays in the event of a change of government.

There is much work still to be done on the NDIS. Despite the fact that we are on the cusp of passing the legislation, there is still much we do not know. We do not know who is and who is not eligible for coverage, we do not know precisely how the scheme will operate and arrangements of funding for the scheme have not yet been finalised. I am not saying this to pick holes in the scheme, but rather by way of making the point that the NDIS will take many years to bed down. It is a long-term reform, and given that, I would have thought it was eminently sensible to have both sides of politics working together on its implementation.

For whatever reason, the Prime Minister has not seen fit to take up this bipartisan approach. That is her prerogative, of course, and I am pleased that the leader of my own party has given a commitment to establish such a bipartisan group should the coalition win the next election. I think that will give some further certainty to the process and ensure that all of us in this place are focused on what is important, which is the delivery of real outcomes for people with disabilities.

As a member of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, I participated in the committee inquiry into the NDIS legislation. I would like to acknowledge the hard work of the committee secretariat on this inquiry, which attracted over 1,600 submissions, and my appreciation to the chair, Senator Moore, and to the other members of the committee, including Senator Siewert, who is in the chamber at the moment, for the work and diligence that they demonstrated. I attended many of the hearings around Australia on the NDIS, and have been privileged to hear so many inspirational stories from those of our fellow Australians who each and every day make tremendous sacrifices to care for those in our community who cannot care for themselves.

I would just like to touch on a couple of the issues that came out of those considerations, because I think they are matters worthy of bearing in mind and drawing particular attention to as we move into the implementation phase of this initiative.

Earlier this month, the community affairs committee heard evidence from the Community Living Association, which is based in Albany in WA. The association was formed in 1991, at a time when those with a disability living in the Albany region were often forced to relocate to Perth to access support services. The association worked to enable those with disabilities to remain living in the community where they had grown up and felt most comfortable. The Community Living Association now provides services to around 75 people in Western Australia's great southern region who have varying levels of disability. The services provided help people to remain living in their own homes, develop their skills and access the amenities offered by their local community. That is very important for people living with a disability.

From the submissions the community affairs committee received it is clear that for a significant number of people living with a disability a sense of social isolation is perhaps the most difficult thing to deal with, along with a sense that in many ways they are not in charge of their own destinies. In addition to the challenges of having a disability, they are at the mercy of other people's decisions. Along with many other people, I hope the NDIS can go some way to addressing this. People are at their happiest and most productive when they feel they are in control of their own life, and that is really no different for those with a disability. The dignity that comes with still being able to live in one's home and to undertake some form of education or employment is very important for mental wellbeing. Organisations such as the Community Living Association play a crucial role in making this happen, ensuring that those with a disability are still the decision makers rather than simply having services foisted upon them that may not meet their individual needs. That is why I am particularly keen to take note of some of the concerns the association expressed.

Mr Iain Campbell, the Community Living Association's CEO, did express some concern to the committee that the introduction of the NDIS, if not properly managed, may have some negative impacts on the services his organisation provides. By way of example he advised the committee that the average cost of packages for people who have services provided by the Community Living Association is $95,000. A conference in Western Australia on the NDIS was addressed by Senator McLucas, who advised that the average package under the NDIS would be $15,000. Quite naturally, they worry about the gap. It may be that these concerns can be easily addressed. I certainly hope that that is the case because this is a sector that desperately needs some certainty.

Mr Campbell also expressed the concern that has been repeated by many service providers across Western Australia. By and large, service providers are happy with the relationship they have with the state's Disability Services Commission. They have built up relationships with that body and, being locally based, the commission understands some of the additional challenges posed when providing disability support services in regional and remote areas across Western Australia. The concern that many Western Australian providers have expressed—and this was reflected in Mr Campbell's own comments—is that a body with whom they have built trusting and understanding relationships could be usurped by a more remote one that will not be as understanding of some of the challenges particular to Western Australia and the vast geography it covers. These concerns were echoed by Mr Gordon Trewern, the CEO of the Nulsen Association, who attended the committee's hearing in Perth and focused on the evolution of disability support services in Western Australia over the last 30 years.

Something that perhaps escapes the attention of many commentators outside Western Australia is that the way the state's services have developed over the last three decades has been quite different to the experience in some other jurisdictions. The risk in moving to the NDIS is that some of the success and innovations from Western Australia may be lost in that transition. I think that would be an unfortunate development. From early on—certainly earlier than in some other jurisdictions—the state government worked with service providers to close down the large institutions and place more of a focus on supporting people to live in their own homes.

There is a strong record in Western Australia of the state government, service providers and families working together to build capacity and ensure better and more effectively targeted service delivery. I think this is a function of proximity—people living in Western Australia understand the challenges unique to our state. Again, the concern among WA providers and families is that the NDIS will be administered by a distant east coast body that will not understand those issues as well and some of those innovations and flexibilities will be lost. If that occurs we will lose some of the responsiveness in the disability services system. Of course it may be that some of those concerns can be allayed as more detail is provided by the government and following the ongoing discussions between the Prime Minister and Premier Barnett. However, I feel it is important to place these concerns publicly and clearly on the record.

I hope that in establishing the NDIS the government will give careful consideration to its impacts in regional and remote areas and will monitor those carefully. Some of those who provided evidence to the committee felt a working group focused on rural areas should be established as part of the NDIS. I endorse that view. This would be particularly important given that none of the launch sites really encompass rural or remote communities. We need to have some mechanism in place to ensure the needs of these communities, which are very different from metropolitan or even larger regional centres, are being properly met and addressed.

Again these comments are offered constructively. We on this side want to make sure that the NDIS is the best it can be, and for that to happen we need to ensure all these matters have been thoroughly considered. I must say that it has been a little disappointing to hear some of the commentary about the approach of the Western Australian state government in relation to the NDIS. Yes, there is no rollout in Western Australia. However, the Productivity Commission did not envisage every state hosting a launch site. Hosting a launch site was never a precondition for taking part in a full national rollout. I understand discussions with the WA government are continuing. Premier Barnett has written to the Prime Minister proposing a joint Western Australian-Commonwealth NDIS.

We have just been through a state election in Western Australia so perhaps it was inevitable, but some of the mischievous commentary designed to imply that the WA government is somehow not supportive of the NDIS not only is wrong but I feel disrespects the sterling contribution so many carers and service providers in my home state are making. Spreading inaccurate information about the WA government's position to create fear is in my view unnecessary and counterproductive.

The cooperation of the state and territory governments around Australia will be crucial in this and critical in the success of the NDIS. The scheme will only be national if we get all jurisdictions on board and issues properly addressed. It is a complex piece of policy and none of us should be under any illusions about the challenge of implementing it. Again, this is where I think the Leader of the Opposition's call for a bipartisan committee would prove invaluable. So I implore those on the other side who would like to see a genuinely united approach—and I know there are some; perhaps many—to make their views known to the Prime Minister.

The funding aspects of the NDIS will of course be significant. The opposition supported the $1 billion initial allocation in the last budget. I note that the Productivity Commission said that the first phase of the NDIS would require $3.9 billion, so no doubt further provisions will need to be made in this year's budget. I urge the government to provide certainty with regard to this critical aspect of the scheme for the sake of those carers and service providers who so desperately need it.

As we all know, this is not a reform that has come about quickly, nor is it a reform that has come about without a good deal of toil and, let us be honest, tears from those who have family members and friends with disabilities and those who work as service providers. I want to thank them, particularly those who took the time and trouble to share their stories with me and my colleagues on the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee. Thank you for broadening our understanding of the challenges you face each day and helping to bring into sharp focus the importance of establishing the NDIS and getting the implementation right.

The NDIS will not be the solution to every problem faced by disabled people, their families and carers but, along with my colleagues, I am confident that it will be of great assistance if we can get the implementation right. That is a responsibility that will fall to all of us in this place, whatever our party, over the years immediately ahead and I look forward to playing my part in that role. This is one group of Australians who we cannot afford to let down.

In conclusion, can I remark that I think the passage of the NDIS is a great statement in our democratic process. Reflecting on the comments of Senator Williams earlier, it does show the Senate committee process at its best. It gave many Australians an opportunity to share their stories and to make a contribution to this final piece of legislation.