21 Dec 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”.