House debates

Thursday, 16 February 2017


National Disability Insurance Scheme Savings Fund Special Account Bill 2016; Second Reading

1:05 pm

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As I mentioned yesterday, the NDIS is deeply personal to me, and I find the government's National Disability Insurance Scheme Savings Fund Special Account Bill 2016 quite offensive. The funding issues are well known; they were not suddenly spirited away. The NDIS is fully funded, as had been discussed previously. In reality, this is just another case of confected outrage or of the government looking for ways to wriggle out of the commitments it gave before the 2013 and 2016 elections. That is what this whole argument is—it is a politicised confection, a big pavlova of rubbish used to politicise what previously had been supported in a bipartisan manner.

Anyone who has followed Australian Defence expenditure on major items of capital equipment since the ordering of the F-111 in 1963 will struggle to find an instance where there wasn't some sort of cost overrun coupled with an extended delay of delivery. And more than the odd one or two would make any alleged shortfall in the NDIS forward budgeting look pretty puny indeed. Let us be real about it too. Anyone obliged to estimate how things might play out over 10 years down the track with respect to a new, vast and complex scheme would know the hazards involved. It still seems to be part of the coalition mindset that some forms of spending and government largesse—the proposed unfunded and untargeted corporate tax breaks are a contemporary example—are scrutiny free. Spending on the poor and weak, though, always sends some minister's inner bean counter a full spreadsheet of frenzies. This government want to demonise some people—the poor and the weak—and do not understand the psychology of what they are doing to families who have been waiting for the NDIS for years.

The NDIS remains Australia's most important reform in the area of social policy since Medicare. I can name personally many families in my electorate of Macarthur who are extremely grateful for this support—many families who I have seen over many years who feel just that little bit lighter now that now a burden has been lifted from their shoulders. Despite some understandable and not unanticipated growing pains, it is a huge opportunity to improve substantially the life chances and the daily lives of over 450,000 Australians. If government is, as Barack Obama wrote in his last days in office, something of a relay race, then there is plenty of credit to be had by the government which successfully brings this game-changing scheme from the planning and early development stage to full fruition. But if it is to claim credit for any good work, this at times begrudging government needs to rid itself of a mindset that sees NDIS as some sort of fiscal irritant and start seeing it as an opportunity to build something lasting that makes a real difference to people's lives.

This bill has been presented in a way that has caused an unnecessary divisiveness in its efforts to pin social welfare recipients up against each other. People with disabilities are sick of being used as a pawn in the Liberal government's game of political football and they are sick of being seen as a burden and a drain on resources. The Treasurer may well be seeking to make come cheap political points, but he should reflect on why we have the NDIS and what it is doing for families all across Australia. I include some of the core objectives of the NDIS that were agreed upon unanimously: support the independence and social and economic participation of people with disability; enabling people with disability to exercise choice and control in the pursuit of their goals; and promotion of high-quality and innovative supports to people with disability.

In 2011, the Productivity Commission recommended that Australia replace existing systems with a unified national insurance scheme to provide long-term, high-quality care and support for all Australians living with a disability. There is a real opportunity to see if self-empowerment and user choice can be extended to more services and other forms of assistance delivered by government. The NDIS is life-changing for so many Australians and something that the Labor Party will always fight to protect. I have seen dramatic changes with early intervention and support for people with disabilities. Now these children have the means to fulfil their potential, and their families acknowledge that we are all now part of their journey. I want to see all of us in this parliament be unified in our support of the NDIS, as we all move forward in a true gesture of bipartisanship as a real Commonwealth. The families that I have cared for rely on the NDIS. This government needs to change its mindset. It needs to see this system as a way of supporting people who are a part of our society and have as much right to partake in the benefits of living in the Australian society as we all do.

I support the NDIS wholeheartedly. I was encouraged that it was bipartisan and I am very disappointed that we are now seeing conflict and politicisation of what was previously a unanimous vote in this parliament for a scheme that will change the lives of many of the kids and many of the families whom I look after. I really encourage the government and, in particular, the Treasurer and the Prime Minister to reflect very hard on what they are doing. I ask that they see the NDIS as a true bipartisan benefit to all of Australia.

1:11 pm

Photo of Gai BrodtmannGai Brodtmann (Canberra, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I start my speech, I want to acknowledge and thank the member for Macarthur for that outstanding contribution. He underscored the point that this is a bipartisan initiative that has support from both the major parties. It is vitally important that that is not forgotten today. The attacks by the government on the NDIS, particularly what we have heard in recent days about the funding issue, ignore the fact this extraordinary initiative, this nation-changing initiative, actually has bipartisan support—a point very well made by my colleague the member for Macarthur and one that we should not forget.

When we are looking at these issues, we have to remember those vulnerable families in our communities, those families who are doing it really tough. There is one family I always think of when I am talking about disability issues. They are people from overseas, from a CALD background, with relatively limited English. I met them at Koomarri in my first term. Their daughter has quite a severe disability and she had just graduated from Koomarri from one of their transition-to-work courses. The mother was in tears—she was probably in her 60s and her daughter was in her mid-20s—and was absolutely terrified about what would happen when she passed away or if she got sick. How on earth would her daughter get on? Who would look after her daughter? Her husband was in ill-health and had just retired. I recently found out that he tragically died from a brain tumour.

This is a family of very modest means doing it tough in many ways, particularly now with this daughter and her poor mother on her own now after going through the tragedy of losing her husband from a brain tumour. This poor woman who is now on her own is absolutely frightened, fearful, scared witless and staying up wide awake at night worrying about what will happen to her daughter should something happen to her, should she fall ill or pass away. These are the people we need to be thinking about when we are talking about the NDIS. That is why I applaud the member for Macarthur for that point and the fact that this is an initiative that has bipartisan support and we should not forget that. I cited that one experience of the family that I met at Koomarri in the first year of my first term. It is with the experiences of Canberrans in mind that I rise to speak against the National Disability Insurance Scheme Savings Fund Special Account Bill 2016.

The ACT is one of the eight initial trial sites for the NDIS and the first state or territory to be fully operational under the NDIS rollout. We have had our fair share of experiences. I have had a lot of conversations with Canberrans about the rollout and about the agency, about what is working and what is not working, about their individual tailored plans, and about the challenges that they are sometimes having with the agency in getting what would seem to be bleedingly obvious services, or bleedingly obvious supports, to help with their lives and give them greater autonomy, greater independence and greater choice. It does seem that there are some interesting deliberations at times.

When I talk on this bill, I think of the experience of Elise, who has been waiting for months on approval for a medical bed from the NDIA's technical advisory committee. The reason for the delay is a backlog in the committee's consideration of individual cases, and this has been a significant issue for my electorate. There are some really interesting assessments of what people can and cannot have. I have a friend who has a leg disability, and he needs supported shoes. But he was essentially told by the agency that he only needed one pair of shoes per year and that two pairs of shoes was a bit of an indulgence. The backlog that has been caused by the committee's delay in consideration of individual cases is causing anxiety and delaying treatment for Canberrans, as well as many other Australians, I am sure.

It is the number of Canberrans who have a debilitating mental illness and do not qualify for the NDIS; it is the questions we get asked about what the difference is between disability and impairment when it comes to eligibility; and it is the number of Canberrans who are waiting on meetings to review and update their existing plans. It is the experience of a mother of four children whose daughter is unable to attend primary school due to severe health issues. Her health issues are so severe that they leave her bedridden and in paralysis. The mother tells me that her daughter is unable to access the NDIS, and she cannot receive any assistance payments. It is also the experience of Brianna, who has asked why there is no support for carers by enabling respite options. These are just some of the stories of vulnerable Canberrans that stay with me—and they do stay with me—like the story of that couple with their daughter who I met at Koomarri all those years ago. They have helped to inform my views on this legislation.

The reason for my opposition is that the government has failed to make its case for the bill. This bill in its current form fails to address concerns that disability organisations, the key stakeholders, outlined in submissions and evidence presented to a Senate inquiry in October last year. These concerns focused on the government's targeting of vulnerable Australians on the disability support payment to help fund the NDIS. These organisations saw through the government's smokescreen. There was no way that they would support this bill, which would see future funding provided on the back of payments torn from other vulnerable people, like so much of what this government does.

The only argument that the government has made is that Labor did not fund the NDIS. That, of course, is not true, as we have heard in this chamber over this last week. Labor absolutely did fund the NDIS, and let me remind my colleagues opposite of how we did this, because this has been the topic du jour of the last few days.

In the 2013-14 budget, Labor clearly set out how the NDIS would be funded for 10 years—well past the transition to the full scheme. Our plan to fund the NDIS included $6.5 billion in reforms to the private health insurance rebate, $6 billion in retirement incomes reform, and $20.6 billion in other long-term savings proposals. These long-term savings included    changes to tax concessions for fringe benefits, changes to tax concessions for net medical expenses, changes to the indexation of tobacco excise, and increases to import processing charges. As we know, the Medicare levy was also increased by 0.5 percentage points to two per cent. Together with the contributions from state and territory governments, these measures covered the cost of the NDIS for 10 years. Coalition members should remember this because they voted for almost every single one of the savings measures.

Labor referred the bill to a Senate inquiry so that we could better understand what the government is attempting to achieve in establishing the special account. The inquiry report was tabled in November 2016, and it makes for interesting reading. Both in their submission and in evidence provided to the inquiry, the minister's own Department of Social Services proved that the NDIS is fully funded. What the special account does is hypothecate funds from consolidated revenue, and either sets them aside or quarantines them for a particular purpose: the NDIS. But the NDIS is already fully funded. Any future additional funding would come from consolidated revenue as these funds are allocated towards government priorities during the budget process. Based on this, the government needs to explain why a special account is needed, and—this is the important thing—what priority will be given to disability support and the NDIS by this government.

Submissions from key stakeholders showed significant legitimate concern for the NDIS savings fund and the special account. Alan Blackwood, from the Young People in Nursing Homes National Alliance, said:

… the alliance does not support the savings fund as constructed in the bill.

…   …   …

… the notion of a funding shortfall, portrayed in the bill and the minister's speech is, actually, concerning and perplexing.

Stephanie Gotlib, from Children and Young People with Disability Australia, said,

It is believed that the creation of this special account … places essential disability services and support as non-core business of the Australian government, with their full funding being dependent on other budget-saving measures identified by the government of the day.

This bill gives the minister significant discretion over what happens to funds in the social services portfolio, with very little external oversight. External oversight is provided only for those decisions that must be brought to this place for debate by both sides of parliament.

This bill would legitimise government cuts in the social services portfolio. Stakeholders raised concern about the level of discretion that the minister would have in relation to the funding of the NDIS. Information provided by the department in its submission caused concern amongst disability organisations in relation to how funds would be credited to the special account. In particular, ACOSS said:

This has rightly caused concern amongst the disability sector, as a core part of the NDIS is the independent management of Commonwealth and State government funds by the NDIA. In addition, the funding cap sends a message that funding for the NDIS could be restricted, and consequently services and supports made available under the scheme would be limited. There is already a level of unease amongst the community and the disability sector that means-testing and tightening of the definition of ‘reasonable and necessary’ supports could take place if the scheme is inadequately funded.

This bill creates a new special account that key stakeholders believe must be a smokescreen for more cruel cuts imposed by this Turnbull government on vulnerable Australians. For example, the government's 2016 budget identified savings of $2.3 billion to be credited towards the NDIS special account over the forward estimates, but the devil is in the detail. Unpacking the $2.3 billion figure shows that $711.2 million comes from savings identified in the transition of states and territories to the full rollout of the NDIS. The remaining $1.6 billion in savings is attributed to social services payments, subject to legislation on savings proposals being enacted by parliament. This means that the bulk of the savings are coming from cuts within the Social Services portfolio. Isn't this a bit reminiscent, Mr Deputy Speaker, of what is also happening at the moment on child-care and other social benefits?

Many of the disability organisations who provided submissions to the inquiry were opposed to this. ACOSS strongly opposed the link between savings in the area of social services for people with a disability to fund the NDIS because of the false economy that it creates. The example that ACOSS provided to the inquiry is the movement of up to 90,000 disability support pensioners from the DSP onto Newstart allowance after they have been subjected to medical reviews. The impact on many of these people would be the loss of $175 per week, which will push some into poverty.

Children and Young People with a Disability said:

Addressing the present NDIS funding gap through savings made from other areas of the budget will take vital funding away from vulnerable people and requires the NDIS to compete for funding with other areas of need … Given that the DSP is an essential income support program that provides a vital safety net, tying NDIS funding to reduced DSP spending creates a concerning tension between two areas of essential services.

The Australian Network on Disability sought assurance that existing social services would not be adversely impacted. Unfortunately, they did not get the assurance they were looking for.

What we have seen from the Turnbull government is an attempt to now hold the NDIS hostage with a disgraceful political game of brinksmanship. This government is seeking to use $5.6 billion in cuts to families, new mums, pensioners, people with a disability, carers and young jobseekers to fund its policies. With this policy, it is the people with a disability who will be hurt the most, with people being moved onto Newstart. This is a disgraceful act of political brinksmanship. People with a disability do not deserve to be treated with such contempt by the Turnbull government. The Liberals have no right to hold the NDIS hostage to their cruel cuts. It is just endless. I remind Australians that what we are seeing now is 2014 all over again.

This government is making one group of vulnerable people fund another group of vulnerable people—robbing Peter to pay Paul. It might be the order of the day for this government, but we are not going to have one bit of it. Australians will not accept more cuts from this government under the guise of funding the NDIS. The National Disability Insurance Scheme has already been funded. The NDIS—designed, funded and introduced by Labor—is being delivered on time and within the budget. Already thousands of people are having their lives transformed by the NDIS. People with disabilities and their families and carers know that Labor will always protect them—unlike this government, which is constantly attacking vulnerable people, constantly pitting one group of vulnerable people against another. It is absolutely appalling. Labor will protect those who are most vulnerable in our community.

1:26 pm

Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Most of my generation, as we grew up, did not see people with disabilities in our communities. We did not see kids with disabilities in our schools, we did not see them in our sporting clubs—we did not see young people with disabilities. The truth was not that they were not there. They were in someone's back room; they were kept out of society. They were seen as being an impediment to a family. Mr Deputy Speaker, our generation—and I am talking about those who make up this parliament—are going to be judged on how we treat people with disabilities. They do not want compassion; they want inclusion. They want to make sure that they get all the opportunities to live the most fulfilling life that they possibly can and reach their potential. That is what we want for our children and that is what families of children with disabilities want for theirs.

This week the Prime Minister spoke about how proud he was to have been here when we had the apology to the first peoples of this nation—and it was; it was a very moving period. But can I say how proud I was—as, I would say, was every member who sat in this House—when we introduced the NDIS legislation. We knew we were making a change for the better for our community. We knew we were moving to do something about an issue that we had spoken about but that local families had always had to deal with themselves. Disabilities are not an issue for families; they are a matter for community. If you look at the distribution of disabilities in our community, you will see the pattern follows the same bell curve as the distribution of intelligence. That is why the NDIS was so important. And what we have seen this week is the government moving to change how we are going to fund it.

The member for Canberra mentioned robbing Peter to pay Paul. I would use another analogy: it is robbing the poor to pay the poor. When we talk about people with disabilities we are talking about people who need every bit of assistance they can get to live the most fulfilling lives they can. I can speak from personal experience. I want my grandson to have the best opportunities in life, but he is on the autism spectrum. I know what this might mean for my daughter and her family. We do not need to play politics with this. We do not need to go out and say, as those on the other side say, 'We are going to maintain a $50 billion tax cut for big business, but if you want to have these other issues dealt with we are going to take that out of pensions, we are going to take that out of disability support, we are going to take that away from some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our community.'

That is not how you play politics in this country! What people expect is leadership. That is certainly not leadership. I think that Laura Tingle belled the cat when she wrote in The Australian Financial Review this week that the government's latest attempt to pass the savings, playing off the poor against the disabled, is just appalling.

Photo of Mark CoultonMark Coulton (Parkes, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour, and the member for Fowler will be given an opportunity at that time to continue his remarks.