Australia’s disability discrimination commissioner, Graeme Innes, has warned the government against feared cutbacks to the national disability insurance scheme, saying he did not want “people having only two showers a week” and being “effectively stuck in their homes”.
But another leading campaigner, John Della Bosca, took a more cautious approach after confirmation that the government was looking for ways to deliver the NDIS more affordably.
Della Bosca, the national campaign director for the advocacy group Every Australian Counts, said most people were taking the prime minister and the government at their word.
The treasurer, Joe Hockey, who released a gloomy budget update on Tuesday, said the government was determined to deliver the NDIS but it had to be affordable. He said the government had to “find ways to deliver services within an existing budget framework rather than promise on the never-never things with a blank cheque.”
The signals came as the assistant minister for social services, Mitch Fifield, and the assistant treasurer, Arthur Sinodinos, met with state and territory counterparts in Melbourne to discuss disability reform.
At the meeting all governments “reaffirmed their strong commitment” to implementing the NDIS across Australia, noting the trials were delivering positive results for people with disabilities and their families and carers, enabling greater choice and control over disability support.
But according to the official statement of proceedings, the disability reform council also agreed “that more work needs to be done to build the scheme’s service-delivery capability, to improve the pace of client transitions to the scheme and ensure the fiscal sustainability of the scheme, and to prepare for the transition from trials to the full implementation of the NDIS”.
The council will meet again in March to consider how “to address NDIS implementation issues and financial issues that have been identified in the early stages of the trials”, while the National Institute of Labour Studies at Flinders University is overseeing an evaluation.
The NDIS is predicted to cost more than $22bn a year when fully implemented. The staged rollout began in July when pilot sites began in Tasmania for youth, in South Australia for young children and in Victoria’s Barwon area and the Hunter area in New South Wales for people aged up to 65.
The prime minister, Tony Abbott, said on Wednesday he was disappointed that some parliamentarians were “running around the place trying to scare people” over the future of the NDIS.
Abbott said the government would deliver the scheme in a way that was fair, generous, appropriately targeted and sustainable. He said he supported the NDIS because the test of a society’s decency was if it addressed the needs of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.
“It is appropriate to carefully study those trials and to learn the right lessons from those trials so the final shape of the national disability insurance scheme gives people with disabilities the generous additional support they need – but do it in a sustainable way,” he said.
Innes said he was concerned about some of the “unfortunate” messages coming out about the future of the NDIS, as were thousands of people with disabilities. He said his phone and social networks had been running hot over the past 24 hours.
Fifield said last month the cost of plans in the first quarter of NDIS operations were higher than the modelled average costs by about 30%, and demand was also higher than expected.
Innes said the costs of the launch sites were “very early figures” and he had no concerns that there was waste or bad design in the NDIS. He said efforts to help Australians with disabilities move off welfare into jobs would improve the economy and issued a stark warning about the consequences of cutbacks.
“We would go back to the experience of Australians with a disability now, people having only two showers a week, people being effectively stuck in their homes, only leaving once or twice a year, kids having to wait so long for wheelchairs that by the time the wheelchair arrives the child has grown out of it. That’s what’s happening now in Australia,” he told the ABC.
“Forty-five per cent of Australians with a disability live in poverty. We need the NDIS to change those things and the last thing we want to have just before Christmas is the suggestion that it might be wound back.”
Innes urged Abbott to honour his promises. “I rely on the compassion and commitment of the prime minister, who said that this was an idea whose time had come and it was something that was above politics,” he said.
The group Every Australian Counts, which helped muster the community support to implement the NDIS, warned the government that any move away from its commitment would trigger anger and action. But Della Bosca, who is also a former NSW Labor minister, appeared relaxed about the government’s talk of finding more efficient and effective ways to deliver the scheme.
“I think most campaigners for Every Australian Counts would strongly support that because a more efficient scheme means the resources in the scheme are going to be delivered to where they’re needed more effectively,” Della Bosca told Guardian Australia.
He said the big expenses in delivering the NDIS were several years away and he warned against reading too much into the costs in the launch sites so far.
“Everybody should be cautious on this, including the political participants in this debate,” he said. “We don’t know whether what’s happening is the disability clients going into the scheme are, if you like, at the more expensive end.
“It’s a crude way to express it. There’s not a big enough sample of people in the scheme yet to know how the costs pan out.”
Labor’s shadow families minister, Jenny Macklin, said the Coalition had an obligation to ensure that people with disabilities obtained the care and support they needed. The government must deliver, not look for excuses, she said.
“We made sure there was adequate funding in the budget. Labor made sure [the scheme] was sustainable, that’s why we put the Medicare levy up,” Macklin said. “Now, after the election, Mr Hockey is saying all cuts are on the table, including the NDIS.”
The opposition leader, Bill Shorten, said the government needed to “make it unequivocal that cutting services to people with disabilities is a no-go zone”.
“Does anyone think if it’s harder for a person with a disability to get a wheelchair or to get a package of support that that doesn’t actually cost the community? There are no cheap options when you’ve got an impairment,” Shorten said.
Sinodinos said the government would do nothing that “cut across” its election commitments. He said the government would not “artificially play around with eligibility criteria or anything else” but work with the sector to ensure the scheme was delivered as efficiently and effectively as possible.
“We’re fully committed to the rollout,” Sinodinos said on Wednesday.
“What we are doing is carefully sifting through the evidence that’s coming through from the launch sites about the potential average cost of delivering the scheme, the potential coverage in terms of eligibility, and we’re seeking to make that we deliver a scheme which is as cost effective as possible while meeting the needs of the constituency that we’ve identified – a very important constituency that we want to look after going forward, but we won’t be able to look after them if we design a scheme that is not fiscally sustainable.”
This article first appeared on ‘The Guardian’ on 18 December 2013.