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Tuesday, 15 September 2015
Page: 6887


Senator URQUHART (TasmaniaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (19:55): I rise to talk about one of the progressive initiatives of the former Labor government of which I am most proud. That triumph is the National Disability Employment Scheme. This scheme is already providing people with a disability and their families with personalised assistance and control over the assistance that they receive.

In 2009, the former Labor government recognised an urgent need for reform of disability services. We then tasked the Productivity Commission with thoroughly scrutinising the system and proposing improvements. The resulting report was very clear. The Productivity Commission denounced the current disability support system, labelling it 'underfunded, unfair, fragmented and inefficient'. It clearly identified many problems and it clearly laid out the way forward. What Australia needed was a national scheme that would provide insurance cover for Australians with significant and ongoing disability.

The Labor government's disability reform minister, Jenny Macklin, worked tirelessly to lock in the details, get stakeholders on the same page and open up the national conversation to garner vital public support. The end result was not an evolution; it was a revolution. It was a complete reworking of Australian disability services from the ground up. It rightly placed individuals and their families and carers at the centre of decision making. It gave people with a disability the autonomy to make the choices about the services they needed and the providers they wanted to work with. Choice and control became the central driving philosophy.

My home state of Tasmania has benefited from a trial rollout for 15- to 24-year-olds in 2013. Last week I met with Judy Huett from Tasmanian disability advocacy group SpeakOut Tasmania. Judy told me that the young people who have been on the Tasmanian trial program have reported to her that they feel more independent and more included in their communities than they have ever felt before. I often meet with the mother of a fine young man from Ulverstone on the north-west coast of Tasmania who regularly tells me of the change to her family's life since the NDIS. Her son has a rare condition known as floating harbour syndrome and also autism. Mitchell's life has taken an entire turnaround since he has been part of the NDIS. He has control over what he wants to do with his life, and it has opened up opportunities he never thought could exist for him. He spends every second weekend with a host family. They participate in new adventures with him, helping to broaden his social skills. This time also gives his family a much-needed respite break.

This scheme is changing lives. But I am not here today just to recognise a great initiative of the former Labor government. I am here to shine a light on the government's attempts to interfere in the NDIS and delay its delivery. I am here to sound a bell on the NDIS timetable and demand that the government keep their promise to the Australian people to deliver the full NDIS on time. Before the election, people on all sides of this place recognised the value of this historic plan. We were united in our commitment to a program that would deliver autonomy and dignity to hundreds of thousands of Australians. We recognised that disability could happen to any of us, and thus disability insurance should be available to all of us.

But, as with so many things in this place, things started to look very different after the election. Those opposite started to talk down talk down the NDIS, which they had strongly supported before the election. We started to hear murmurings about the burdensome cost of the NDIS. Within a few months of gaining power, the coalition government's politically motivated Commission of Audit recommended that the NDIS rollout be slowed down by three years. It talked about the 'ambitious' rollout schedule and the need to implement it in a 'fiscally sustainable' manner. Then we started to hear public rumblings from government members about the funding for this scheme. Mr Scott Morrison called into question the financial sustainability of the NDIS. He even had the gall to say that the government's vicious welfare cuts were necessary to fund the NDIS. In doing so he completely misrepresented the savings and funding measures that were put in place by the former Labor government to support the scheme. The reality is that Labor clearly outlined to the Australian people before the election that the NDIS would be supported by a 0.5 per cent increase in the Medicare levy. At that time, this increase was supported by the then opposition. We also made sensible budget savings to put towards the program, including a $6.5 billion saving from means testing the private health insurance rebate. The NDIS is costed and sustainable.

More recently, we have seen Senator Fifield try to weasel out of previous assurances that the NDIS would be delivered on time and in full. When he was asked the question less than a month ago on Sky News he ducked and dived and dodged and weaved, but he would not give a straight answer. The NDIS is not just a line item on the budget balance sheet. It is an investment in a more inclusive, fairer, more productive society where people with a disability have control over the assistance they receive.

First, those opposite talked down the NDIS. Then, recently, they set out to attack the NDIS board, with the unprecedented re-advertising of board jobs with completely changed criteria. In doing so, the Liberals are laying the groundwork to turn their backs on the crucial requirement for the NDIS board to include nominees from each state and to be representative of people with a disability. Instead the advertisement for board positions stipulated that the candidates must have:

… substantial board experience either in a large listed company or a significant government business enterprise.

Why would the government set out to replace members of a high-quality board that has delivered a groundbreaking scheme on time, within budget and with high levels of participant satisfaction? There is no reason. There is just a transparent agenda of sidelining the states, removing board members and stacking the NDIS board with their big business mates.

The Australian Federation of Disability Organisations slammed the move, saying:

The Australian Federation of Disability Organisations (AFDO), and people with disability and family organisations are extremely concerned that the proposed process and timeline to appoint a new Board will undermine the continued good governance of the NDIS.

This is absolutely right. There is no reason to replace a board that has been working well and has effectively shepherded the NDIS over the past three years.

Let's not kid ourselves that Mr Turnbull did not support this petty and vindictive move. In fact, when asked the question about his government's blatantly political board-stacking policy, he said:

I think it’s fair to say that the government has had a policy or a practice of, by and large, not reappointing people, with a view to refreshing government boards … That has certainly been the preference.

Those opposite have a tendency to see investment in social services and support for our fellow human beings as a 'budget drain'. They fail to recognise that it is an investment in our people, our communities and our national productivity.

The government has been dragging its feet on the NDIS from the beginning. It has been confecting problems and putting roadblocks in the way of the full rollout. At the end of last month, Mr Tony Abbott missed a vital deadline to sign the NDIS agreement with the states. This deadline was integral to ensuring that the rollout proceeds without delay. People with disability have waited long enough. Over 400,000 Australians living with a profound and severe impairment and their families are relying on this government to fulfil its promise. The government has plunged these people and their families into uncertainty and created enormous anxiety.

The Turnbull government, as a matter of urgency, needs to stand up and honour its longstanding commitment to deliver the NDIS in full. It does not matter who is at the helm: every single member of this government bears responsibility for the severe trust deficit they have created in the Australian community. They broke their promise that there would be no cuts to health. Now it looks like a rock-solid commitment to deliver the NDIS in full and on time is in grave peril. Mr Turnbull needs to stop dithering on the NDIS, sign the agreement with the states and deliver on the government's promise. People such as Mitchell and his family deserve it.