The very existence of the National Disability Insurance Scheme – to begin national operation this Friday – is a powerful rebuttal to that contemporary whine about big policy reforms being too hard for our short political attention spans, writes Annabel Crabb.
Being sick of this election campaign is now the leading sentiment on which Australians of voting age most fervently agree.
For everyone but Bill Shorten (one of those maniacs naturally born to enjoy campaigning) July 2 will mark the end of a chilly and largely underwhelming contest.
But if you need some cheering up, or some reassurance that it’s not all a waste of time, or indeed even the tiniest scrap of evidence that the entire democratic world isn’t sliding helplessly into a morass of property-developer-electing, compulsively-Brexiting kneejerk nationalism, try thinking about July 1 instead.
July 1 – this Friday – is the day on which the National Disability Insurance Scheme slips quietly into national operation. It’s embedded now; a genuine new feature of the nation’s public policy landscape. It has bipartisan support. Its existence is a powerful rebuttal to that contemporary whine about big policy reforms being too hard for our short political attention spans.
And it’s a landmark worthy of reflection, partly because the scheme itself so very nearly never happened at all, and partly because its back story is a good lesson on what happens when politicians are led by their better angels.
It’s 40 years since the first attempt at a disability insurance scheme in this country failed. Legislation to create one was lost in 1975 when its author – Gough Whitlam – was swept from power due to what we shall diplomatically call unrelated complications.
The Fraser government abandoned the scheme, and it was not revived until the early days of the Rudd government, when the incoming prime minister invited Australia’s best and brightest along to feed him ideas for one glorious weekend of blue-sky thinking at the 2020 Summit in Parliament House in April 2008.
Now, disability didn’t even warrant its own cluster group at the 2020 Summit. Despite the fact that 45 per cent of Australians with disability lived near or beneath the poverty line, disability was one of those policy areas that politics found too vast and intractable to do anything about.
Bruce Bonyhady, an economist, businessman, disability insurance scheme enthusiast and father of two sons with cerebral palsy, was not invited to the summit. But he sent a submission, and relentlessly lobbied anyone he could find who was going. By the end of the weekend, a disability insurance scheme was included as one of the summit’s “Big Ideas”.
But big ideas need sponsors.
It so happened that Rudd’s arrival as prime minister had coincided with the arrival in Parliament of Bill Shorten, enthusiastically touted for some time as a future Labor leader. Mr Rudd, a man of renowned caution around potential rivals, bestowed upon Mr Shorten the lowliest of frontbench positions: Parliamentary secretary for disability services.
Shorten – while clearly registering the intended sting of this slap – vowed publicly and privately to make a difference in the portfolio. He was stunned by the extent of disadvantage he found among people with disabilities, and the lack of organisation between their many advocacy groups and peak bodies. He brought his old union organising skills to bear on the problem.