How to Change a National Conversation

person skiing around outcrop

How to Change a National Conversation

Reframing Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme as a social investment, not a cost.

Jordan Smith crested down the ski slopes, in mode. He didn’t have a care in the world. He was on holiday. He was athletic, talented, and could do anything he wanted. The sun shone gold on the white powder. He barrelled down behind his friend. The bottom of the run was rough, but there was no chance of getting injured. His friend became airborne. Skiing was like flying. Bliss.

One second later, Jordan was flying. But a ski became caught on a snow-capped rock. Jordan catapulted head-first into the ground. There was a hard impact. Crack! The world went black.

In that split second, Jordan’s life changed forever. And his mother’s career was finished.


Julia Gillard had won the national election by the width of a cigarette paper. It was a hung parliament, which means both sides of the political system had a relatively equal balance. She formed a minority government, but minority governments are difficult places to advance anything too revolutionary. Somehow, Gillard managed to pass a record number of laws in Parliament — through strenuous dealmaking, horse trading, and relationship-building across the political divide. She was a lawyer and negotiator. She was in politics to achieve social justice outcomes and wasn’t going to waste a day.

In 2010, the Australian Government asked the Productivity Commission, (the Australian Government’s independent research and advisory body) to investigate new approaches to long-term disability care and support. They proposed a national disability insurance scheme (NDIS).

The NDIS was radical. Rather than funding being given to organisations, the NDIS switched the centre of control to people with disability.

“Without reform, a series of demographic fuses will ignite time bombs across every Australian suburb, each one creating a costly and sometimes heartbreaking crisis that can be avoided if we implement the NDIS.” John Della Bosca (former NSW Minister for Health)

To get the NDIS through parliament, Julia Gillard spoke of the carers required to “stretch the bonds of obligation and kinship past breaking point”. She said that because the risk of significant disability was universal, the response should be universal.

Eventually, the NDIS was to be paid for by a half percent increase to the Medicare levy. But did it make financial sense? There was a good business case for it.

The golden ticket for regional economies

The thirty billion dollars given to the neediest in our economy created new industries. In every city and regional town, there were shopfronts offering NDIS services. Psychology, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. Jobs for support workers were plentiful. Students without the academic aptitude for university could find rewarding and meaningful careers in human services. Young mothers who needed flexible work were able to find employment that suited their availability.

A new market emerged. With money going to the people who really needed it, the economy was stimulated. Australia was just overcoming the worst of the western financial crisis. The scheme’s rollout was staged and would take several years, beginning in Tasmania and ending in Western Australia.

As it made its way across the country, the NDIS became a golden ticket for regional economies. It was value for money because unlike tax cuts for corporations, the money was spent. The money didn’t sit in offshore accounts or pad bottom lines. It flowed through the economy —into small businesses, support services, professional services, employment, and helped mothers’s with stagnant careers who’d become carers get back into the workforce again and pay income tax. But therein lay the ideological problem. It was the sand in the oyster.

The drums of election war

Sure enough, the story of the life-transforming NDIS began to change. The conservative Australian Liberal and National parties formed the next two federal governments. Between 2013 and 2021, much media antagonism began to foment and exploded in the Murdoch-owned press, particularly towards the end of the second term and the May 2022 elections.

In 2019, the Coalition government was elected for a second ‘miracle’ term and belts tightened even further across Australia.

Known for their effective three-word slogans including STOP THE BOATS and BIG FAT TAX, it was playbook propaganda. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t effective. Early in 2020, the federal government botched national plans to prioritise the Covid vaccination of people with disability. When the vaccines didn’t materialise, the vulnerable cohort was secretly de-prioritised It was a move that incensed the entire sector. Meanwhile, individual NDIS plans were being slashed and the National Disability Insurance Agency (which oversees the NDIS ) legal and admin costs skyrocketed.

The seeds of cost unsustainability, wastefulness, and exploitation by organised criminal gangs were planted in the electorate.

Meanwhile, NDIS plans were being slashed and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (an independent body to oversee the merits of government decisions) was swamped with reviews. Between July and November 2021, the AAT received 2,503 NDIS appeals, compared with 590 for the same period a year earlier.

The NDIS was no longer a fairer, better system. It was a bureaucratic nightmare. NDIS started to cost a fortune. Rather than a social and economic reform, it was simply unsustainable. The costs were “blowing out”, according to the headlines. and “eye-watering”.

Former NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds with text reading Cost blowout crushes NDIS with masthead The Australian
Screenshot from newspaper website.

For the conservative government, which enjoyed perceptions of strong economic management, the NDIS was cast as a welfare scheme. Fear and distrust about the future of the scheme began to seep into the disability sector.

Screenshot from Australian Financial Review website July 8, 2021.


Not everyone was happy about this. Essential Media was among those you thought it was time to change the conversation. The alarmist spin being spoonfed to the masses — a gelatin congealed with bad data and mistruths that cast all spending as bad and cuts as good — had to be replaced. Essential made an unsolicited pitch that was ultimately successful.

If you don’t like what’s being said, change the coversation.

Don Draper, Mad Men

don draper from mad men winks in front of office blinds

The Magic Phrase

In reality, no one knew the government’s methods for assessing costs and therefore it was difficult to scrutinise any blowouts. The government’s data had been opaque and used flawed assumptions. Expenditure on the NDIS had been in line with the Productivity Commission’s early projections. There were no surprises. But ‘all is well’ and ‘this is what we expected’ are not the kind of headlines that sell newspapers. What was needed was the magic phrase.

The consulting firm Per Capita (a research-based think tank) was tasked with working out what that return was and putting a dollar figure on it. They did. The figure was roughly $2.25.

Their research found that the government had kept the modelling in secrecy so no one could substantiate anything. It was not transparent.

Other media hooks came out of their report titled False Economy but that one magic phrase kicked all over the country press for weeks and grazed hundreds of headlines.

The NDIS delivers $2.25 to the Australian economy for every dollar spent

The Per Capita report found that the NDIS was an excellent fiscal policy known as a ‘multiplier’. It was a great bang for the buck. Unlike trickle-down economics, which had been proven not to work, money that flowed into the NDIS is distributed throughout the economy and created many jobs. Specifically, 270 thousand jobs across 20 professions.

…spending on the NDIS is not simply a cost on one side of a ledger; it is also a critical component of the service economy, directly creating tens of thousands of jobs and billions in economic activity… False Economy report, Per Capita

Under the NDIS, people are assessed and given an allowance for one of three types of support. Core supports for basic daily living, eg personal care, and house cleaning. Capital supports (for example technology or home modification), and Capacity-building supports (for example health and wellbeing; social and community participation; life improvements). These are worthwhile and necessary things for a decent life.

The Teamwork Works Campaign

Essential Media proposed a campaign and devised the creative strategy. Using a vast grassroots network garnered from Essentials’s previous experience with disability sector strategic campaigns, Every Australian Counts, and National Disability Services.

They named the campaign Teamwork Works. The goal of Teamwork Works was to demand all politicians from every party commit to proper planning; fair and idependent pricing; and genuine partnership between government and people with disability. A series of real-life stories were aired on television and social media showcasing the human dimension of the NDIS. An Open Letter would be circulated garnering names and be presented to Parliament. Finally, the pinnacle would be two weeks before the election when a National day of Action in which peaceful demonstrations would demand all politicians Defend the NDIS.

red shield with text reading Defend our NDIS
Defend our NDIS shield. Source:


‘Defend our NDIS’ became the rallying cry for a large section of the Australian general public who had benefited from the National Diability Insurance Scheme or knew others whose lives had been transformed.

The peaceful demonstrations included such a broad cross-section of the society, it was impossible to draw geographic or socioeconomic definitions.

The sitting Coalition government lost the May 2022 federal election. The Labor government was reinstated by a small landslide. They had made a number of party pledges to defend the NDIS. The NDIS was the fourth biggest campaign item after climate change.

During this campaign, I worked as a senior adviser in the communications team of National Disability Services, but was not directly involved in Teamwork Works and therefore take no personal credit. With appreciation and thanks to Essential Media, countless advocates, NDS, its board, members, and management for changing the conversation and making it so crystal-clear it sparkled.

Five things you need for a social change campaign 

In many ways, this was a grassroots political campaign. Behind the simplicity and logic was a strategic understanding of political campaigning. Storytelling also played a key role. If you don’t have a clear enemy, you don’t have a good story. Cuts were the enemy. The NDIS was the hero.

1. A human story

Tell the human side of the story. The TV and social media campaign used real children, families, and people with disability. You need to tap into people’s emotions.

2. Simple messaging

Use StoryBrand to tell a simple story. A three-word slogan works for politicians. Do the same. Use short, clear messaging. The campaign name was Teamwork Works. The story logic was simple. NDIS is a team. Teamwork works. Cut the funding, and the team will stop working.

3. A media hook such as a magic phrase

Statistics are great as long as they are strong and verifiable. Per Capita’s report was able to establish a dollar return that the NDIS delivered. That’s because the NDIS is an investment, not a cost. And with an investment, you get a return. That return was $2.25 for every dollar spent. They quantified it. That’s a magic phrase. That statistic changed the conversation.

There were more statistics available but that one was the favourite. Not every outlet used the $2.25 headline, but it was by far the most popular.

4. Spokespeople and ready-to-air video

If you have a good story, you are doing the media a favour who need good stories to tell. They need to fill airtime, screens, pages, and spots. Press releases and social media can often do the trick if you have a limited budget. The Teamwork Works campaign included a series of video stories shot around Australia. They were used in social media channels.

A handy media distribution list or two and spokespeople at the ready iced the cake. The content was piped in by the spokespeople with lived experience from partner organisations. They had told their stories many times. Could they do it again for an interview? You betcha.

5. Resources for others to amplify the message

Give people the tools and resources to amplify the message on their own turf. A few social media assets with clear messaging retained the focus. Resources including videos, posters, share graphics were available with simple calls-to-action and strong colours.

Of course, there were many hundreds of thousands of people involved in making this such a successful campaign. In fact, 450,000 people are registered NDIS-recipients. The huge network of NDIS supporters including Julia Gillard, Benjamin Law, Julie McCrossin, Dylan Alcott, Dougie Herd, Clare Bowditch, and Elly Desmarchier all combined their crossbeams of mega-stardom. No doubt that had a major impact. Even if they hadn’t, the mechanics were there.


Ultimately, voters at the federal election decided the NDIS was not a wasteful romp. The point five percent increase to the Medicare levy was a small price to pay to release Amanda Smith from her 24/7 unpaid work. She took a three-day per week job as a legal receptionist and started paying tax again. She was able to leave Jordan in the care of his own disability support workers who he had hired. The workers were also helping Jordan set up a new small business.

Kudos to Australians for changing the slightly warped conversation back to its original form. And for doing what Australians do best — sticking up for each other.