This week’s struggle in Parliament over the omnibus bill and funding for the National Disability Insurance Scheme has had pollies at each other’s throats. The government has been trying to get the NDIS fully functioning and fully funded for six years now, after Gillard’s Labor government first committed to it in August 2011 in response to the findings of the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into disability care and support. The government has been focused on one question in particular the whole time: who’s going to pay for it? It seems like the Turnbull government’s current answer is “people on welfare”, as it scrambles to fill a $4 billion hole in funding for the scheme.
To properly illustrate how we got to this point, Crikey presents a brief timeline of key events.
2011: NDIS brings unity
When then-prime minister Julia Gillard first brought the NDIS to the table, most states seemed to be on board with a shift to a federal model of disability care, even though it was going to cost the government an extra $6.5 billion a year. Gillard warned that the scheme needed to be “fiscally sustainable”, and South Australia and Victoria were the first to back the deal that would require states to partially fund the scheme, while Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett attacked the plan, saying Gillard shouldn’t expect the states to conform to the policy.
2012: not everyone is chuffed with the bill
By July, Gillard finally reached a deal for NDIS trial sites to open in New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria. Then-Queensland premier Campbell Newman refused to commit his state to the scheme on the grounds that it didn’t have the money, and that it should be a Commonwealth responsibility to fund it. He suggested a rise in income tax or a levy, which both Gillard and Abbott opposed.
2013: it’s official
The NDIS passed Parliament in March, and plans were made for the scheme to begin rolling out in Tasmania, SA, Victoria and NSW in July. Gillard changed her mind on tax levy, and raised the Medicare levy by 0.5% to 2%, costing Australians approximately an additional $1 a day. Campbell Newman and disability advocates were pleased, while the Liberals were not so enthusiastic. Gillard challenged Abbott to come up with a different solution, if he had one.
2013 is also, of course, the year we had three different prime ministers. Rudd reclaimed the Labor leadership from Gillard in June, followed shortly thereafter by the federal election in September, which Abbott won. At Christmas, Labor and the government busied themselves with accusing each other of running scare campaigns over the scheme after bad mid-year budget forecasts led the government to consider making changes to it. Shorten demanded that Abbott rule out cuts: “The Abbott government should not be so cruel this Christmas as to leave any doubt, any weasel words, any uncertainty in the minds of thousands of people with disabilities and their families.” Meanwhile, Abbott told reporters his government would deliver the scheme, and Shorten was scaring people unnecessarily.
2014: slowly, slowly
The ACT, the NT and WA join the party with their own launch sites, but the commission of audit of the NDIS says the same thing Gillard did: the scheme needs to be fiscally sustainable, and the ambitious rollout schedule could be hurting that goal:
“The rollout schedule for the NDIS is ambitious. Client numbers are planned to increase more than 10-fold in less than three years. This will increase the risk of poor or insufficient delivery of disability services to participants and also pose significant financial risks to the scheme as a whole. There would be merit in extending the rollout schedule to help minimise the risks associated with the introduction of the scheme.”
This finding was supported by the discovery of a $6 billion hole in the scheme, which Labor still refuses to acknowledge.
2015: another one
The Libspill in September brought yet another new prime minister. As one of his first acts, Turnbull signed a full rollout agreement with NSW and Victoria, prompting both Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and then-NSW premier Mike Baird to praise the NDIS as a being a policy above politics — as it has passed from government to government.
2016: Porter makes waves
Federal Social Services Minister Christian Porter proposed a plan to make changes to the legislation, which would allow the Commonwealth to give directions, make board appointments and change state rules without state agreement. The states didn’t like that idea at all. In May, the federal government found $2.1 billion in savings by cracking down on the Disability Support Pension and cutting off the carbon tax compensation for new welfare recipients.
2017: turns out the NDIS is not “beyond politics” at all
It turns out this policy is very much not beyond politics, if the latest news on the subject and the shouting matches in question time tell us anything. Treasurer Scott Morrison announced a plan to fill the nearly $4 billion hole in funding with cuts to welfare, which was received with a significant amount of backlash. After being met by resistance from Labor, the Greens and Nick Xenophon, the Liberals then floated the idea that if the omnibus bill is blocked, the only way to hold the budget together would be to raise taxes. Labor and the Liberals are in a ferocious disagreement on the budget issue, with Labor saying they won’t back the omnibus bill they say is “holding the disabled to ransom”, while the Liberal government has accused the Labor party of leaving them with an “empty promise” as their legacy.
The NDIS has become less and less about co-operation and unity, and the political struggle has become more and more fierce over the past six years, but we’re still left with the same question: who is going to pay for it?