In NDIS there is a lack of genuine consultation with disability advocates.

Apr 12, 2021

The Morrison government is prioritising its branding as a low taxing, small government party over its obligations to the aged population and people with disabilities. It seems to have already forgotten the lesson of the COVID pandemic – that Australians are quite happy to welcome a larger role for government in a good cause.

The breathless tone of the SMH article Officials ‘changed’ review of the NDIS (Rob Harris SMH April 6) suggested some unusually dirty deeds done in the dark of night. I would be amazed if the independent reviewer, David Tune AO PSM, a retired department head with a strong mind and firm will, would have been bullied or over-awed into changing his report simply to fit a government cost cutting agenda. If he accepted advice it would have been because he agreed with it. After all he was head of Finance for many years, after long experience in Social Security policy.

Anyone with any familiarity with independent reviews will know that it is routine for departments or statutory authorities to make submissions, suggest text and to comment on exposure drafts. Whether, as reviewer, you accept their suggestions is a different matter. At the end of the day you own the review.

So why all the hype?

Partly because the Tune report, and the legislation implementing it, is seen in the context of two Royal Commissions – the Aged Care and the Disability Royal Commissions – which inevitably traverse some of the same ground. While the Government will want to demonstrate action it could have held its hand on controversial changes until it had received and considered their advice.

Even more importantly the changes Tune foreshadowed are happening in an atmosphere of extreme apprehension that the Government is preparing us for rejection of the Aged Care Royal Commission recommendations for a rights based approach to aged care and an end to the legislated discrimination against the old disabled. These recommendations would see care costs met by the government and grant the older disabled the same rights as those who are able to access NDIS. In one of their joint recommendations the Aged Care Commissioners recommended a 1% medicare-like income levy to fund these changes.

That has been rejected outright by the PM and similarly Ministers have rejected any changes to superannuation tax concessions to fund these improvements.

There has also been a steady drip of likely government inspired news stories. Mike Callaghan’s review of retirement incomes and his submission to the Aged Care Commission arguing that older Australians should draw down their superannuation and housing capital to fund aged and disabled care have made regular reappearances in the press.

The Government is also softening us up for a tightening of NDIS eligibility and the supports that are available to the disabled by highlighting a Federal Court decision supporting the right of a woman with multiple sclerosis to use some of her NDIS budget to purchase the services of a sex worker. The Minister, Stuart Robert, was outraged. He doesn’t seem to be equally outraged by the availability of Viagra to injured male veterans on the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme or to the broader population under the PBS.

The anxiety of the disability advocates is particularly focused on the introduction of Independent Assessments by approved service providers. These assessment panels will consider information from the disabled person and their normal therapists but will not include them on the panel. The concern is that it will be impossible for a panel to understand the more complex needs of people with disabilities in a brief meeting lasting some hours. The argument is that this is simply a way of cutting costs.

It follows a similar anxiety about the privatisation of the aged care assessment process. The Morrison government had planned to push this through last year but was forced to back down by the states/territories.

The states are feeling their oats – after all it was they who decided that Australia should pursue a COVID eradication rather than flattening the curve strategy. They delivered, unlike the Commonwealth which has fluffed its responsibilities for the vaccine roll out. The states/territories are riding high in public esteem while Morrison is now trailing in the polls.

The new disability minister, Senator Reynolds, is facing a similar push back from the majority of states arguing that there has been insufficient genuine consultation with the disability advocacy sector. They also, legitimately, claim that as part funders of the scheme and contributors to its foundation they should be entitled to a key decision making role in major changes to the NDIS.

That said, everyone agrees that the current NDIS system, where the eligibility assessment is made and a support plan is determined by an officer of the NDIA on information provided, often without talking to the person or their carers or discussing a draft plan, is not good.

Disability advocates would, understandably, prefer a thorough co-design approach to eligibility assessment and plan development.

But at the end of the process someone has to make a decision to commit public funds and determine the scope of supports available under a plan. It is inevitable that some hopes and aspirations of people with disabilities will not be met. What is important is that the people with disabilities and their carers are thoroughly involved, that draft plans are discussed and that assessors are not set unrealistic timetables or given any target relating to approval/rejection rates or individual plan costs.

By launching the Royal Commissions the Government raised hopes that it would provide a comprehensive rights based approach to support for the aged and disabled. It now appears to be trying to deflate those hopes in advance of its formal responses to the recommendations of the Commissions. It has steadfastly turned its back on raising more revenue to support them and hasn’t committed to junking the stage 3 tax cuts – in spite of moves to increase taxes by similarly conservative Boris Johnson, recommendations of the IMF and steps by the Biden administration to up corporate taxes and harmonize them globally.

The Morrison government seems to have forgotten the lesson of the COVID pandemic – that Australians are quite happy to welcome a larger role for government in a good cause. The rapidity with which Josh Frydenberg had to back pedal on invoking the spirit of Thatcher and Reagan last year was surely a reminder that Australians are in no mood to embrace dogma.

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