Now that we have abandoned the precious surplus, Tim Cornwall asks if we could reverse the NDIS underspend that was enabling it.
THE COALITION Government's obsession with getting "back in black" was revealed at the Budget announcement last year, with a surplus projected on the back of underspending on the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). With that surplus now being abandoned, let's take a look at how the Liberals have treated a cornerstone achievement of the last Labor government.
It was a reflection of a common theme in Australia - Liberals talking while Labor listens and acts. When the NDIS was legislated by Julia Gillard in 2013, it came with the support of disability advocacy groups happy to be heard after years of struggling with a fractured system. It promised to centralise and streamline the funding, allowing every person with a disability to access the services they need without any cap. As Gillard was brought to tears while introducing the legislation, just one Coalition member was present to hear her speak - the first piece of symbolism in this story.
The NDIS is an insurance scheme in name only - the recipients do not purchase any insurance policy. Instead, it is an entirely publicly-funded program administered by the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA). This was to be rolled out nationally by 2020, ensuring that each person with a disability would get access to the programs that they needed.
At the time of the NDIS proposal, a PwC report showed that Australia was ranked 21st out of 29 OECD countries in terms of employment participation of those with a disability. Another alarming statistic showed about 45% of those with a disability living near or below the poverty line. The report also showed that the NDIS was projected to be cheaper than the status quo beyond 2025, owing to the increase in workforce offsetting the expenses.
Then came 2013 and an Abbott government without even the room for any kind of disability ministry. That was another sign of things to come.
In 2014, he announced a cap on employees at the NDIA. The Productivity Commission had recommended 10,000 employees, but Abbott capped it at 3,000. Even today, the number of employees at the NDIA is only 3,230 with much of the work outsourced and subcontracted, causing mass confusion for customers.
The 2014 Budget promised the NDIS rolled out on time and in full but had another caveat that the Disability Support Pension (DSP) would be reassessed for thousands of young people who rely on it. People with Disabilities Australia (PWDA) President Craig Wallace said at the time that the transfer from DSP to Newstart or Youth Allowance would leave a person "destitute - $200 a week short of cash". Wallace recommended that those found eligible be offered employment rather than a cut to their pensions, but the Coalition persisted with 33,000 people moved from the DSP to Newstart.
The 2016 Budget came with more caveats. The NDIS, still promised full funding, would again be used to cut welfare. A decision was made to review a further 30,000 DSP recipients per year for three years. The policy was then scrapped after they found that less than 2% of reviews were finding recipients ineligible.
The 2019 Budget revealed further mismanagement. PWDA (and many others) were disgraced with the fact that the Government had underspent on the NDIS in the previous year almost $4 billion. The estimate for the 2018-19 Budget was $16.69 billion, but only $12.9 billion was actually spent.
At the same time, Scott Morrison was celebrating a projected $7.1 billion surplus. I would have thought a marketing man would know not to stand on vulnerable Australians - not a good look. He took a bet that the mainstream media wouldn't focus on it and that bet seems to have paid off.
Let's now take a look at Labor's policies on this and see the difference between the major parties here. Labor has always stood against any cap on employees working at the NDIA. This is something obviously welcomed by the PWDA. The ALP has also proposed changes to planning processes, giving more power to the people on the plans and a focus on minority groups. The PWDA also recommended a focus on women and a higher target on public sector-employed people with disabilities but endorsed many of these Labor policies to fix the now-botched NDIS.
Ever since the NDIA and NDIS were started by Labor back in 2013, it seems that the LNP has done all that it possibly can to undermine it, leaving some of the most vulnerable Australians in the dark or without funding completely. PWDA is now calling on the Government to establish a senate inquiry into the adequacy of the social security system for people with disability after their projected decrease of the DSP by 2.3% between 2019 and 2023, putting more and more people in poverty.
Now with new stimulus packages rolled out by the day, will the Liberal National Party stop their abandonment of Australians with disabilities? The COVID-19 pandemic is putting those with disabilities in an even more vulnerable position, but there has yet to be any directed announcement addressing the needs of this community. PWDA, along with eight peak disability bodies, have called for a disability-specific package to be implemented, but the incompetency of the current government makes it unlikely.