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The National Disability Insurance Scheme: friend or foe?

By Peter Gibilisco - posted Monday, 18 April 2011


I have previously written on this subject in 2008,  but for that article my primary concern was to address the unmet needs in disability services. Now it is my objective, in part, to look further at the political impact of market ideologies (namely neoliberalism) upon schemes that have been set and should be meeting these pressing concerns.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)  is defined as follows: making it easier for people with disabilities to access essential care, support, therapy, equipment, early intervention and training.

Indeed, such a system has a potential to benefit a wide range of Commonwealth and State/Territory-based programs.

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Unfortunately, there are the nay-sayers who present their reservations, believing that because the current disability insurance system provides payments to people with disabilities, those who already qualify for funding under the old welfare system may be encouraged to double dip, and thus exploit the wider provisions for disability within the welfare budget. For example, disability insurance may be seen as the needless use of taxpayers' contributions, if not a fraudulent use of their hard-earned monies, as stated by Pricewaterhouse Coopers in their Final Report concerning the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

In the case of the disability welfare system, Australian governments commit a very large quantum of revenue – approximately $20 billion per annum in total, of which about $8 billion is on community care and support. In addition, nearly $3 billion is paid to family and other informal carers. The bulk of the remainder (about $9 billion) is paid in income support for about 700,000 Australians with a work incapacity.

To put all this in context, there are possibly 2.5 million people who in some form or other take care of over 650,000 people with disabilities. These figures are alarming and are prima facie evidence of a large amount of unmet need in disability services.

Despite this Vern Hughes, an important political figure in the disability sector, believes the NDIS to have features consistent with neoliberal ideology. That he says can be seen in the underlying assumptions of the scheme that gives its central attention to the impact upon the paid workforce and the overall health of the economy, rather than justify the scheme in terms of its social role and the impacts it can be expected to make upon relationships of the people involved.

The New Zealand Approach

Hilary wrote an Online Opinion contribution which points to facts and evaluations of the New Zealand experience of universal disability insurance (Accident Compensation Corporation). The ACC has been in place for 38 years and is funded by small levies on motor vehicle registration and on all workers. But it covers all New Zealanders injured by accident whether they are earners or not. She applauds this system, acknowledging that it covers all medical expenses, rehabilitation, technology, disability support, wage compensation and even the treatment needed for trauma from witnessing something horrific. But from there it goes one step further. In 2008, she acknowledged the push from neoliberal governments to privatise the scheme, furthering the market agenda. Even with this very well managed State-initiated scheme the push came in line with the privatisation of government owned assets that seems to be still an end uring objective of public policy around the world.

On the 21st of December, 2010, The Scoop disclosed that there is no reason for the privatisation of the ACC, emphasizing that such a move would simply transfer wealth from the government to private insurance companies. These plans are unnecessary and unfair as the ACC has not made a loss since the 1980s, and is presently making surpluses and has huge reserves.

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According to the Red Alert website (18th of February, 2011), New Zealand MP Chris Hipkins believes that despite the neoliberal rush to privatise government owned assets, such a move could only shift and create more costs onto other parts of the health system, while also reducing entitlements and benefits. Adding to this he stated:

[The] National['s]ha[ve] already been forced to provide an additional $10 million per year to the health sector to cover the cost of ACC refusing increased numbers of people treatment.

Why can't we learn from New Zealand experience and see the intense benefits of such a public insurance scheme? But if we here continue to ignore this possibility and push aside the calls for a NDIS, then we still be left with the substantial unmet need for disability services in the Australian disability sector. I personally have lived on my own for the past 21 years, with a severely progressive disability called Friedreich's ataxia without ever being privileged to receive the required amount of disability support as a matter of right.

My point is that we need a NDIS. But my question is this: what kind of NDIS will result? Will it meet the needs, or will it just prove to be another neoliberal political tool?

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About the Author

Peter Gibilisco was diagnosed with the progressive neurological condition called Friedreich's Ataxia, at age 14. The disability has made his life painful and challenging. He rocks the boat substantially in the formation of needed attributes to succeed in life. For example, he successfully completed a PhD at the University of Melbourne, this was achieved late into the disability's progression. However, he still performs research with the university, as an honorary fellow. Please read about his new book The Politics of Disability.

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