Julia Gillard is transitioning her prime ministership from trying to win a second term of office to marking out her place in Labor history.
With Labor’s time running out, Ms Gillard is looking to the long game. It is about writing the grand narrative, rather than worrying about the nitty-gritty of day-to-day politics.
In part, this is to be achieved through legislation ushering in a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NIDS).
Expensive, uncosted, likely to result in the mushrooming of a new federal bureaucracy, but probably ultimately necessary in some form, the NDIS is designed to be on Ms Gillard’s political epitaph along with the carbon tax, the historic milestone of being Australia’s first female prime minister, and the thousands of Julia Gillard memorial school halls.
Ms Gillard will be campaigning on the NDIS from now until she is no longer in politics as she seeks to establish her Labor reform credentials alongside those of former Labor greats who established iconic programs such as universal superannuation, Medicare, and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
But the cost of the grand schemes is a major concern, and runs completely contrary to the government’s stated goal of returning the Budget to surplus.
For its part, the Opposition is not opposed to the NDIS, which is a national scheme designed to provide support and funding to people with disabilities and their full-time carers.
However, the Coalition is so far reluctant to sign a blank check for the Labor Government because the cost of a much more generous federal scheme, replacing the ad hoc state-based support systems of support, is likely to be extremely prohibitive.
The Productivity Commission estimates that the cost of an NDIS will be $7 billion a year on top of the money already being spent by the states and territories. The Productivity Commission’s report into the NDIS did not specify where the money would come from.
At the last Budget, the Gillard Government committed $1 billion to support the first stage of an NDIS to set up a new agency and to conduct some trials. But this will not lead very far at all.
As Henry Ergas from The Australian wrote recently: “Once the trials are over, thousands of disabled Australians will therefore be back where they are today — struggling, and all too often failing, to make ends meet. According to recent estimates, 45 per cent of people with a disability are in or near poverty, a rate almost three times that in the general population.”
Federal politicians of all party persuasions are extremely well versed in the awful tribulations of people living with someone with a disability.
Public meetings, town-hall meetings and talk-back radio are often filled with anguished parents of a son or daughter with a mental or physical disability as they seek to tell their story of seeming never-ending care without respite, with minimal help and with no prospect of relief as they get older.
The stories are often raw, and filled with genuine pain and emotion, and the penny has finally dropped that there is a section of the Australian community that has slipped through the cracks of the system.
However, the recent meeting in Canberra with the states, territories and federal governments failed to achieve a breakthrough on the NDIS.
The deal offered by Ms Gillard predictably resulted in the remaining Labor governments (South Australia and Tasmania) declaring their support for the Federal Government’s scheme, with the Coalition states rejecting it.
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman put forward the idea of a levy, similar to the Medicare levy, to help pay for the scheme — a proposal that was rejected by the Prime Minister.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott, ever cautious not to get wedged on a tax, also ruled out a levy.
This was probably a hasty decision and pushes Mr Abbott further into a corner on bringing the Budget back into balance.
The Federal Government will have to take the lead on taking care of individuals with disabilities and their family carers. A country as wealthy as Australia should be able to afford to support these people rather than waste so much money on myriad other superfluous programs.
But the scheme will require a serious debate and mature choices about where current Budget moneys are allocated.
This is not likely to occur this side of the federal election.
In the meantime, Ms Gillard will be able to claim credit for theoretically introducing an NDIS in Australia, putting her alongside other the Labor greats such as Whitlam, Hawke and Keating.
Unfortunately, the damage she is doing to the Labor Party in the interim is such that the party risks falling into disarray after the next election, with some predicting it will take a decade or more to recover from her leadership.