Federal Politics

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Disability scheming trips up premiers who should know better

The stoush over the trials was unnecessary and unedifying.

WHO would think - who would believe - that politicians could make a handful of disabled people the object of such shameless power play? Last week's behaviour by Liberal premiers over the plan to get trials started for the National Disability Insurance Scheme badly misjudged the public mood.

NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell and Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu should have signed up to the trials when the Council of Australian Governments met on Wednesday. Instead they dug in their heels, resisting putting in $70 million and $40 million respectively. Despite the federal government providing most of the money for the proposed trials (in the Hunter and Barwon regions), the premiers insisted Canberra should pay the lot.

The conservative premiers, knowing they were dealing with a Prime Minister in desperate straits, presumably felt they could wear down Julia Gillard. But they quickly found they were the ones with a political problem when their states missed out.

Reality started to dawn at the post-COAG news conference. Back in their home cities, they were confronted with community outrage; it flooded the airwaves and no doubt their offices. Disability reform is a genuine issue that people care about. Baillieu, in particular, came under huge pressure to save the Victorian trial.

With the Victorian government on the narrowest of majorities, and the expectations of disability groups and people in the Barwon region having been raised, the prospect of dipping out on the trial had the makings of a disaster for Baillieu.

As the inching towards compromise began behind the scenes, the story broke that Queensland Premier Campbell Newman had proposed, over the leaders' dinner at The Lodge the night before COAG, that Gillard should embrace a Medicare-type levy for the scheme's long-term funding.


In theory, a levy might be a sensible way to go. But only a political bomb thrower would toss it at this Prime Minister, already staggering towards oblivion under the weight of a couple of big new taxes. Anyway, the issue was not the scheme's long-term funding, but money for the trials. Indeed the NSW government had earlier made it clear it did not want the broader funding issue on the agenda. Despite this, O'Farrell on Friday indicated that he had supported the levy idea.

Tony Abbott , who has to be on the ''no'' side of any debate about a new tax, found himself at odds with his friend Newman. Abbott believes the multibillion-dollar disability scheme should be paid for out of general revenue. His thoughts are relevant, given he is likely to be the one grappling with the long-term cost.

Abbott supports the scheme but predictably could not resist scoring a few political points, enjoying Gillard's discomfort - before the premiers capitulated.

Friday's compromise by O'Farrell and Baillieu was a case of everyone grabbing for safety ropes. Victoria produced, in a complicated way, the required money. NSW recognised the per person funding level the Commonwealth demanded but only promised half the $70 million.

No matter: Gillard, now confident of trials in the big states, declared all more or less well. There would be more work later with NSW, she said at a news conference where a power failure meant victory had to be claimed in the semi-dark. The gloom was a metaphor: even when she has a win, it's hard to make it seen.

The program of trials will start next year. Apart from the big states, others will be in South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT. Newman put in only a token bid and Queensland was never in the running for a trial.

Gillard lambasted Queensland for being the country's laggard in the disability field (which was in fact a criticism of its defeated Labor government).

The stoush over the trials was unnecessary and unedifying. The conservative premiers are determined to stir up fights at COAG, just because they can. But to do it on an issue such as disability brings them no political kudos. This was not an area in which to mud-wrestle Gillard. In the end they just had to struggle out of a mire of their own making.

The full disability scheme will be itself years in the making. Let's hope future political arguments are less crass than last week's. Gillard knows she won't get to bring the scheme to fruition, but she will be able to look back and say that this huge reform was started in earnest on her watch.

â– Michelle Grattan is The Age's national political editor.