Giving and taking away: NDIS and disability pension reform

The government supports a better disability support policy while making it harder for people to get the disability support pension. Honza Soukup

A report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) finds the number of Australians using disability support services is increasing. But it’s uncertain how the government will provide ongoing services for these people.

People with disabilities, their families and carers have long waited for a social support system that effectively responds to their real needs.

But while the Government-endorsed National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) promises to provide effective help, other changes in disability policy seem to be removing supports for people with disabilities.

Nearly all of the submissions the Productivity Commission’s recent Public Inquiry point out that people with a disability, their families and carers want a support system that gives them greater autonomy and control over their lives – a scheme that supports a life with dignity.

And it must be said that the promise of the NDIS is great. No one can dispute that, especially if it really does deliver what it promises.

The promise

The disability community wants a well-funded entitlement-based system that promotes respect, participation and inclusion. And this is exactly what the NDIS claims to be.

Getting the scheme on the government agenda has taken a long campaign of struggle and lobbying politicians, parliamentarians and bureaucrats for change.

After the release of the draft Productivity Commission report earlier this year, disability advocates lobbied extensively to ensure key areas of disability policy, such as systemic and individual advocacy, were included in the final recommendations.

It took numerous presentations to the Productivity Commission’s Public Inquiry into the NDIS for this battle to be won.

But the key question of whether the disability community manages to “maintain the rage” and keep up the broad-based advocacy campaigns to ensure that it is fully, rather than partially, implemented remains.

Maintaining concerted, on-going pressure on the government is vital for the next stages of the campaign: we need to ensure that the most critical components of the NDIS are not just implemented but also fully funded.

The question of funding is, of course, central to this debate. It’s still unclear how far either side of politics is going to commit to the scheme, especially given the media reporting of comments by leading politicians such as assistant treasurer Bill Shorten, who referred to the initial Draft Report for the NDIS as a Rolls Royce support scheme.

Shorten’s use of car metaphors to describe the Productivity Commission’s recommendations begs the question: will we be only getting a Ford or Holden?

And what kind of Ford or Holden will it be – one with lots of leg room or will I have to ride cramped in the back seat?

Unspoken departures

At the same time as all this is happening, there’s ample public policy evidence that suggests we are at a critical and contradictory moment in the history of Australian disability policy.

We only need to consider government cutbacks within other areas of disability policy, such as the continual winding back of the Disability Support Pension, over recent years.

The May 2011/12 budget announcements implement significant changes to the Disability Support Pension, many of which will deny access to future generations of people with disabilities.

Young people (under 35 years old) with disability, will now first be placed on the unemployment benefit NewStart rather than the Disability Support Pension for the first 18 months of support.

NewStart is a significantly lower payment by about $128 a week. What’s more, if you receive payments under NewStart, you are required to attend a range of compulsory interviews to maintain access to your benefits.

Unlike the Disability Support Pension (DSP), NewStart recipients can lose access to benefits if they don’t attend these interviews as the scheme includes harsh sanctioning measures.

NewStart is essentially a mutual obligation policy – a key social policy legacy of the Howard Government.

The new guidelines also include sanctioning regimes: forgetting an appointment with Centrelink or any other misdemeanour will result in automatic sanction – unless your reason is considered acceptable under the new stricter criteria.

Media reports also suggest that four in ten people who currently qualify for the DSP wouldn’t make it over the line from January 2012.

The development of a more stringent impairment test will be implemented in coming months for new people who are seeking entry onto the DSP. This change is more stringent than the Howard government cutbacks of 2005.

Sleight of hand

The government expects to make substantial savings with the reforms to the disability support pension, even though the policy will condemn some to increased levels of poverty as they no longer qualify for the DSP.

Not only is the DSP a higher fortnightly payment, it entails a range of concessions and subsidies to cover the extra cost of living with a disability.

While the Australian disability community has applauded the government for supporting the Productivity Commission’s recommendations for a long-term care and support scheme, we need to ensure we keep our focus on other areas of national disability policy that are clearly being stripped back.

There are multiple disability policy changes around at the moment – some of which will result in diminishing citizenship and human rights to a group of people with disabilities who no longer seem “disabled enough” to qualify for government support.

We need to ensure national disability policy is not being stripped back while being talked of as being improved under the NDIS.