Photo: Glen McCurtayne
In the hurly-burly of new government policy there was a change to the national disability insurance scheme (NDIS) late last week. The Abbott government quietly announced it would cease using the word ''launch'' and start using the word ''trial''.
This makes a huge difference. It suddenly puts the entire NDIS in doubt in the long term and raises questions about whether the Abbott government really is committed to ensuring that people with disabilities finally get their opportunity to live with dignity and independence.
The Gillard government slipped up fundamentally when it renamed the NDIS DisabilityCare Australia. It did so without realising how patronising the language of dependence is to people with disabilities. Then shadow minister Mitch Fifield understood this and promised to change the name back. In fact, this was the only disability policy that the Coalition took to the September election.
The new government has repeatedly assured the disability community that the NDIS will be rolled out as planned. But there has been real uncertainty about whether the scheme will continue, and, if it will, whether it will continue in the original form. For the disability community, many of whom live in very difficult circumstances, this has long been a major concern.
Now, just when Mr Fifield's assurances were starting to bite, Treasurer Joe Hockey has taken aim at the NDIS as part of his budgetary savings. No specifics were given, just reference made to a ''slimmer'' version.
Many thousands of people with disabilities, and their families, who had hoped there might be light at the end of the tunnel are suddenly back at the beginning. Mr Fifield is also back to where he was before the election: few believe that the Coalition government will deliver the NDIS as promised. The Treasurer, in trying to score a political point on the budget has dashed the hopes of many people, and overspent political capital that barely existed.
What Mr Hockey has missed is that the Productivity Commission gave the NDIS a very favourable cost-benefit analysis. For every dollar spent supporting people with disabilities through the NDIS, Australia's economy will grow many times.
All new schemes take years to bed down. It is almost impossible to predict the minutiae of large projects like the NDIS. Remember the NDIS is a totally different way of approaching disability support. Instead of one size fits all, packages will be tailored to support each individual to their greatest possible independence. Each package must be individually designed.
For most recipients of the scheme this will be the first time someone has asked them what they want their support to look like. Naturally, this has taken longer for people to visualise and describe than the bureaucrats expected. But no one in the disability community is surprised. In fact we all expected and predicted it.
Nor should anyone be surprised that people who have had very little, if any, vital support will need more than the anticipated average to get established. This will settle down over time, but initially there are a lot of people starting from zero.
Trialling the scheme won't resolve the critical shortfall in disability services and supports that was identified by the Productivity Commission. Launching the scheme, and just getting on with it, is the only way to do this. Of course, there will be some tweaking needed as things get going.
Already launch sites are reporting back to other states about what they are learning and improvements are being made. This will continue for many years until the full scheme is in place in 2019.
Saving money now will actually cost a lot more in the long run. The best option is to get on with it as soon as possible and start reaping the economic benefits as more people with disabilities become far less dependent, become part of the workforce and part of the consumer economy.
The NDIS is not a trial. It can't be discontinued if the first year or two are not perfect. The NDIS is launching and there must be no going back. The NDIS can and should be a driver of economic recovery.
Christina Ryan is general manager of Advocacy for Inclusion and chairwoman of the Disability Advocacy Network of Australia.