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Issue #1444      24 February 2010


Disability crisis response – commerce dressed up as concern

The suffering of Australians with disabilities and the inadequacy of current services for them is in the news. So is the almost unbearable sacrifice of many carers. Some very unflattering comparisons are being made between services here and overseas, the UK under its National Health Service, for example. There is a lot of talk about how to treat the present crisis. Former Australian Workers Union national secretary Bill Shorten is now Rudd’s Parliamentary Secretary for Disability and Children’s Services and he is part of a chorus claiming that the electorate is the political problem at the core of the issue and that the families of those with disabilities need to get organised.

“This to me is a case of classic old-fashioned organising,” he told The Australian Financial Review last week. “You’ve got people who are numerically strong but in an asymmetrical bargaining position. You teach people the power of their mailing lists. They’ve all got lists and they’ve got to learn to use them.”

Bill Moss is former chief executive of Macquarie Bank. He has been looking at the proposal for a national insurance scheme to provide services to those with disabilities. He wonders about “... how we can bring people who suffer from disabilities up to standards that are met internationally. When we start talking about all of this to people who don’t have a disability, their eyes glaze over.”

The suggestion is that there is not much sympathy for the plight of those with disabilities or their families out there in the community; that greedy baby-boomers and members of generations X and Y are too self-absorbed to allow the sort of spending required to meet this urgent social need. This is the dubious setup for an equally dubious “plan B”, assuming (as the Rudd government and big business circles do) that Australia is not going to rearrange its priorities significantly and take a leaf from the UK’s NHS book.

The Harmer pension review last year claimed that new approaches to funding disability services need to be pursued. The Henry tax review is also rumoured to have looked into the question and recommended a 0.4 percent “disability levy” along the lines of the Medicare levy. Former Treasury economist and current head of ANZ Bank’s funds management Bruce Bonyhody and Helen Sykes made a submission to the 2020 summit which is now getting a lot of attention – a national disability insurance scheme for those under 65 years.

It is estimated the scheme would have needed $12.5 billion in gross funding if it had begun in 2009. This would have been offset by the $5.6 billion reportedly spent on various schemes at present. Proponents argue that other “indirect offsets” would reduce the true net cost to $2 billion a year. Other savings are touted such as reduced income support payments and a reduction in the aged care bill. The Productivity Commission is examining the proposal and will report on it next year.

The assumption in all of these “fixes” is that the public will foot the additional bill. It will not come from a reordering of government priorities away from spiralling military spending or by raising corporate taxes, for instance. The “national disability insurance scheme” has sparked the government’s interest because it fits in with its whole neo-liberal “self-provisioning” agenda. The scheme would involve private insurance interests and become another stomping ground for finance capital. It is noteworthy that the authors of the scheme were keen to erect a barrier between the provision of services and the incomes of carers in the system. It is recognised that this long-suffering group often has less disposable income than aged pensioners but the idea of an additional “disability allowance” on top of the pension was ruled out by the Disability Investment Group that Mr Bonyhady belongs to.

The current situation of young people languishing in inappropriate aged care facilities and older parents at the end of their tether with the demands of care for adult children with profound disabilities certainly warrants urgent debate and, above all, action. Another big issue should be the disappearance of the massive productivity gains of recent decades; how the proceeds of this increased productivity of labour should have been available to meet the needs of an ageing population and the 3 to 4 percent of the population affected by disabilities. It is certainly not a good idea to let those responsible for that theft into the business of insuring against disabilities.  

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