The Satchel Review - Saturday 28 July, 2012

Queensland Premier Campbell Newman turned his multiple pre-election "can-dos" into a giant post-election "can't do" as the nation's state and territory leaders gathered for the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting on Wednesday. 

Chaired by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, the big issue at hand was the implementation of the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme), more particularly the establishment of trial sites in the states (ACT, New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria), and its long-term funding.

The catchphrase became "they are playing political football with people's lives" as the already tense, tired and tested emotions of the disabled, their carers and families were exposed to a dramatic political play-by-play, the first conclusion after seven hours of negotiation a stalemate.

Labor governments in the smaller states of ACT, South Australia and Tasmania signed the dotted line, receiving rapturous applause, but the bigger Liberal state governments bought more time and put their reputations on the line – for who but the most maladjusted Scrooge would deny disadvantaged people extra help?

Not even Tony Abbott would say no to that.

"What happens at the Lodge stays at the Lodge," said a tight-lipped NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell, whose shortfall of $70 million for hosting a trial in the Hunter Valley would become a sticking point. Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu needed an extra $40 million, while Queensland's Newman – who swept to a vast-majority victory in the March election – said, "we simply don't have the money".

That excuse was not well received in light of the fact that Queensland spends the least amount of money on people with disabilities of any Australian state. Newman stuck to his guns, highlighting the recommendation put forth in the Productivity Commission Inquiry Report into Disability Care and Support that the NDIS be federally funded, possibly with a levy not unlike the Flood Levy or Medicare.

Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan called Newman "cold-hearted and callous" as both NSW and Victoria – who proposed a joint bid covering the Hunter and Geelong regions – went into 'saving face' mode on Friday, ceding the goodwill gap (a benchmark of $20,779 per adult) and finally committing to the NDIS as the state presses ran stories featuring the voices of the disabled and their carers.

The Victorian Government offered an extra $42 million to fund a trial, including an extra $17 million over three years and $25m for an administrative agency; NSW offered an extra $35 million over three years, on top of a redirection of an existing $500 million funding in the disability system, although this was still short $70 million.

The state trials will be supported by $1 billion over four years from the Federal Government to provide individual care packages for an initial 10,000 people, expanded to 20,000 people by mid-2014. It's anticipated that the scheme will need an additional $6.5 billion on top of existing disability spending, while a full NDIS, covering around 410,000 people, should be rolled out by 2018 and is estimated will cost $15 billion a year.

As stipulated by the Productivity Commission – which made 86 recommendations after drawing on 23 days of testimony from people with disabilities, their carers, service providers and workers – the current disability support system is "underfunded, unfair, fragmented and inefficient", giving people with a disability "little choice, no certainty of access to appropriate support and little scope to participate in the community".

Perhaps the best article on the NDIS of all came via Naomi Anderson at On Line Opinion, who wrote:

"For many people with a disability the “alternate self” is not a self without a disability, but a self with appropriate support. A self where wheelchairs are provided as needed, where therapy occurs in time to facilitate ongoing education, where personal support workers are provided so that a hospitalisation does not become the trigger for unemployment and social isolation." 

With no doubt as to the need for the Scheme, perhaps telling was a comment made by the conservative commentator John Laws after speaking to Federal Minister for Families and Disability Reform Jenny Macklin: "This place is not Bangladesh, it's Australia; one of the greatest countries – the greatest in my mind – in the world, yet we can't look after people properly with disabilities."

The big win from the week was undoubtedly the prominence given to disabled children and adults alike, and their families – their daily trials, realities and hopes for the future brought into view as the Olympics got started, though one might ask, "Shouldn't they have always been included?".

As the personal trumped the political, we were all called to ask ourselves, "How might I feel about this if my life were to take an unexpected turn down the road of disability?", or, "What would Leisel Jones do?"

Girl With a Satchel