Shorten the white knight for no-fault disability insurance

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ADELE HORIN

April 17, 2010

     

    Bill Shorten has been called many names in his trajectory from union leader to parliamentary secretary for disabilities and children’s services: Slick Willy, Showbag Bill, “more salesman than substance”. Energetic, ambitious, a charmer with a faultless memory for names, there is something about the Labor MP, once touted as a possible future prime minister, that seems too good to be true. Is this guy sincere or just on the make?

    Right now many people in the disabilities movement have another descriptor for Shorten, and that is “brilliant”. Whatever the motive, Shorten has turned a backwater cause into a politically prominent issue. This week the Productivity Commission began its inquiry into the feasibility of a no-fault disability insurance scheme. It would provide the funds and services for people born with disabilities or who acquire them before the age of 65. As its proponents envisage it, such a scheme would involve an extra 0.8 per cent to be added to the 1.5 per cent Medicare levy, “a big, fat tax”, by some reckonings, amounting to about $8 a week extra for someone on average weekly earnings.

    You might think such a proposal has zero chance given the mania for cutting taxes. No one expects any action until well after the election, with the commission’s report not due until July next year. But the fact the proposal has come this far is due largely to Shorten’s drive.

    For years, the fragmented disability sector has railed at governments about the appalling state of services for people with disabilities and their families and the lack of respite, supported accommodation, therapy and job opportunities. Each organisation representing its own constituency – autism, quadriplegia, cerebral palsy – has had its own priorities. I’ve written many stories in recent years about the plight of parents, on the point of collapse, who care for severely intellectually disabled children.

    Funding has increased. But from such a low base and with so much unmet need, the extra has provided little more than a temporary solution.

    People with disabilities and their carers are mendicants in what some claim is one of the worst disability systems in the rich world. As more babies with disabilities survive, and more people with disabilities live longer, the problems are going to get worse. The old solutions don’t work because mothers who once were full-time carers need to earn a living, and disabled offspring are outliving their parents.

    The irony is we have social insurance schemes that work quite well – but only for some and in some states. If you have an accident at work or in a car in NSW, no-fault insurance schemes provide the funds you should need. But if you are in South Australia, Western Australia or Queensland, and are at fault in a car accident, and are disabled, you are on your own.

    Around the nation a baby born with cerebral palsy or a teenager who suffers brain injury in a surfing accident is not protected by an insurance scheme and is at the mercy of a crisis-driven bureaucracy for help with equipment, transport, therapy, personal support and housing. The huge difference in treatment of people with similar levels of disability is profoundly unfair.

    Perhaps Shorten wondered if he had been stranded in a political no man’s land when he got the disabilities gig. But the consummate union campaigner quickly saw he and the cause would get nowhere without effective grassroots agitation. He has toured the country chiding and encouraging disability organisations to get their act together and help him in the task of persuading the government. His theories about the political importance of the issue, he told a Brisbane gathering in March, were perhaps “unconvincing to my colleagues”. He advised the audience the sector needed to be “to be loud and proud, to be organised and to be political, to be consistent and persistent”.

    Shorten gave the sector official imprimatur when he appointed the Disability Investment Group last year to develop the insurance scheme. Two figures were key in devising it: Bruce Bonyhady, the chairman of Philanthropy Australia, and John Walsh, a brilliant actuary whose quadriplegia led him to an interest in insurance schemes, and who devised the NSW Lifetime Care and Support Scheme for people injured in vehicle accidents. In their draft plan they recommended the government commission a comprehensive feasibility study. That is happening now at the Productivity Commission, with Walsh as associate commissioner.

    At the same time the new Australians Mad as Hell website, run by mothers of disabled children, Sue O’Neill and Fiona Porter, has rallied thousands to pledge to vote in elections only for parties that support a national insurance scheme.

    It is a once in a generation chance to institute change that cannot easily be wound back. But a scheme could come with a hefty price tag – an extra $4.5 billion a year, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers estimate, half of which would be set aside to meet future needs. What the commission decides, whether its report becomes “toilet paper”, and whether government (and opposition) fudge the chance to make history, has more than Shorten’s reputation at stake. Tens of thousands of hearts will be broken if hopes raised so high are dashed.

     

    Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

     

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