View from The Hill

Unseemly tactical skirmishing over the disabled

Julia Gillard will introduce the NDIS legislation immediately if the Coalition pledge to vote for it. AAP/Julian Smith

The proposed national disability insurance scheme, a rare policy on which Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott agree, has become the object of shameless and unfortunate politicking by both.

When she announced yesterday a 0.5 percentage point boost in the Medicare levy from July 2014 to part pay for the NDIS, Gillard said legislation for the impost would wait for next term. She would take the matter to the people in September.

Why would she delay? It wasn’t hard to see. Out to wedge Abbott, and get some political cover for her tax rise, she would like to make the NDIS a frontline election issue, despite its bipartisan support.

Abbott, smelling the danger, called for the legislation to be brought to Parliament at once. But he wouldn’t commit to supporting it without seeing how the government planned to find the rest of the money for the scheme.

It was Gillard’s turn to be on the spot. All right, she would introduce the legislation immediately if Abbott pledged the Coalition would vote for it.

With the play back with him, Abbott needed a breather (and a chance to consult senior colleagues). Complaining it had been another chaotic day, he promised “we’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.”

But he wanted “everyone to know that the Coalition wholeheartedly supports the National Disability Insurance Scheme. We want it to happen, we want it to happen in this term of parliament”.

The scheme itself is not in fact going to happen, in any comprehensive way, for a long time. Abbott is really saying that he’d like some political ownership of the popular plan for the election. This has always been his aim – hence his unsuccessful call for a parliamentary committee on it jointly chaired by government and Opposition.

Both leaders are now under pressure over the levy: Gillard, to introduce the legislation in this parliament regardless of the Opposition, because she could very likely get it through with crossbench support, and Abbott, to support the tax hike to avoid doubt about his commitment to the scheme.

Abbott seems to have little choice but to back the levy - perhaps with a call for a sunset clause - which would also help the Opposition’s bottom line. But in doing so, the Coalition would be condoning a tax rise, forfeiting the opportunity run hard against another “big new tax”. Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey was heading down that path early yesterday when he said the levy would “hit every household budget”.

In an exquisite coincidence of timing, the Opposition leader is on his Pollie Pedal, which raisers money for carers, many of whom look after the disabled. He is getting plenty of opportunity for first hand stories along the way. There is strong backing in the disability sector for funding security provided by a levy, and a deep desire for the politics to be taken out of the NDIS.

And then there’s the Campbell Newman factor. Newman first suggested the levy to Gillard – who spurned the idea - and he continues to back it. “I did support a levy last year and I am going to support the prime minister on this today,” he said.

A Newman-Gillard unity ticket. It was a crazy day, as well as a chaotic one.

Footnote: As the pre-budget debate rages about the revenue black hole, MUP announces today that Jim Chalmers, Treasurer Wayne Swan’s former chief of staff, has coming out on July 1, “Glory Daze: how a world-beating nation got so down on itself”, about politics, economics and national identity during the GFC and beyond. The book asks “how a nation with the developed world’s best economy has a dimmer view of its performance than some of the basket case economies of southern Europe have of their own”. Chalmers now heads the ALP’s think tank, the Chifley Research Centre. MUP also has books on the way from former ministers Chris Bowen and Kim Carr.