THREE years ago I read an article that resonated with me. Not in the sense I would quote whole paragraphs at unsuspecting bystanders, or go to dinner parties and thump my fist on the table imploring fellow guests to share a mutual outrage on the issue (though in retrospect I should have), but enough that subsequent mentions of the subject matter in news or conversation would cause me to recall the article and the sense of injustice and outrage it engendered.
The article was called ‘Two Nations: The Case for a National Disability Insurance Scheme’ by Anne Manne, and it featured in The Monthly. It was a powerful introduction for me. The broken system of disability care in Australia is a topic I was, and continue to be, shamefully ignorant on. It painted a picture of an underfunded and fractured system which metered out meager disability dollars to recipients through overworked service providers. Participants would battle for years to get basic help from agencies that may or may not be funded for their particular injury or disability. Even then, they would have to join a long queue once the appropriate provider was identified in an attempt to receive some level of care.
Manne told the story of Lillian, who slipped through the cracks of the system. A spinal injury at 31, caused by an accident in a private backyard pool, left her almost completely paralysed but unable to receive compensation through insurance or Workcover. The only care covered was one fortnightly visit by a care worker to change her sheets, and three times a week to help her shower, despite Lillian suffering from daily incontinence.
So “inequitable, underfunded, fragmented, and inefficient” (as labeled by a Productivity Commission inquiry) was this system that the care and support received by a person with disability was as arbitrary as a lottery, with the prize being only a basic level of assistance.
However, the article also talked cautiously of hope amongst the disability and carers community. There was of a seed of change — discussion of the idea of a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) which would provide funding directly to individuals. Crucially, autonomy would be given to participants and their carers to make their own decisions and direct their own care.
I remember at the time sharing a similar sense of wary optimism. It was, of course, an optimism bound up with a naive assumption that politicians were genuinely interested in implementing good social policy irrespective of their party alignment. Surely such a scheme would be hailed as an historic achievement and celebrated by the media for the benefits it would bring to thousands of Australians.
It was an optimism not yet tainted by the political turmoil of tit-for-tat horse trading of petty insults and a revolving door leadership culture, the media gleefully scrounging through the ashes left from the dirty fires they help ignite.
Now it seems almost prophetic that the bill introducing the scheme I have followed with interest for three years passed its final hurdle on the same day the Labor leadership experienced its latest implosion. A historic scheme with the potential to change the lives of 2.2 million Aussies with a disability was all but ignored. Twitter, Facebook and online media was saturated with an orgy of opinions on the non-event that was the #spill while there was a virtual blackout of discussion about any genuine political achievement with bipartisan support, including an equally historic apology to victims of forced adoption. Grubby speculation on the machinations of a leadership ‘challenge’ was the nail in the coffin of the last vestiges of optimism I had about the current culture of Australian political life.
A Google search of ‘NDIS’ revealed a total of 12 stories. Twelve. A similar Google search on the words ‘labor leadership’ received an instant 567. This is a scheme which in the most bitter, divided and poisonous political environment we have seen for years still managed to have both sides of politics agreeing to its fundamental necessity. As the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes of the Australian Human Rights Commission said: “[T]his is the most important reform in the disability sector in our lifetimes.”
And what did it receive in response? Characteristically lackluster headlines ranging from the blasé, ‘NDIS bill passes parliament’ or ‘Parliament approves NDIS’, to the patronizing; ‘Macklin gets emotional over laws to make NDIS a reality’. Since when is a non-challenge, non-event with a nothing outcome more newsworthy than a once-in-a-lifetime reform which has the potential to make thousands of lives better and more productive?
We, and our politicians, actually did something to be very proud of this week. Thankfully, with this legislation we might care a little more for our fellow Aussies. But, it seems, we couldn’t care less about our own achievement.