Feds Dodge Scrutiny on NDIS

Why is it that we see defence funding or infrastructure funding as job creators but care funding as a cost burden?  Every dollar invested in NDIS is estimated to unlock returns of $2.25 for the broader economy, mainly in employment, and yet we persist in seeing social services funding as some kind of purely moral allocation.  A discretionary line item in the budget, much like the fruit bowl in the office kitchen. 

I’ve written previously about this issue in the context of aged care but it also happens in disability.  As Emma Dawson, head of independent think tank Per Capita has pointed out, it seems that blokes in hard hats and high-vis building things is still a more compelling vision for government than women in scrubs and sensible shoes caring for people.

The NDIS would have to be one of the most phenomenal pieces of bi-partisan social and economic reform in our history:  converting a complex social “problem” into a huge social and economic opportunity by using the market to address individual disability and in the process directly creating 270,000 jobs and billions in economic activity.  In fact, the economic contribution of the NDIS in 2020-2021 is conservatively estimated to be around $52.4 billion.

And yet, less than a decade after its establishment, we find the federal government manoeuvring to reduce the NDIS to simply another dysfunctional “welfare” program.  Some of this is explicit, there are repeated statements from the federal government about the scheme being in ‘crisis’.  However, the majority of manoeuvring has been cloaked in bureaucracy, government speak and secrecy:

  • The NDIA’s 19/20 Annual Report founds that NDIS costs were largely in line with the modelling and yet, a year later, the same body inexplicably predicted a 54% blow-out by 29/30.  Whilst trotted out regularly in the media, this projection can’t actually be tested because the federal government refuses to provide the underlying data or modelling assumptions;
  • Brutal cuts in plans for participants are happening across NDIS with particularly cruel impacts on people with the highest level of disability and their exhausted informal carers.  These cuts are almost impossible for participants to challenge on their own;
  • A recent bill introduced to parliament, under the guise of legislating a “participant service guarantee”, gives unprecedented and discretionary powers to the NDIA and the Minister to vary participant plans without consultation and also reduce eligibility for the scheme without parliamentary approval or sign-off from the states and territories which are joint funders of the scheme. 

Last time I looked, Australia was a democracy but that, by definition, requires the ‘consent of the governed’.  Consent, in turn, requires that we be able to inform ourselves about action being undertaken in our names and to understand what the true agenda of the government of the day is, including whether it is a political agenda.  One can understand why a government would prefer to work out of public view, transparency is hard.  But no one ever promised that governing was easy and right now, the government case for NDIS cost reduction seems to be in direct conflict with what we know.

The federal government needs to be more explicit about its intention for the NDIS scheme and to release the data and assumptions it is relying on in setting this intention.  The State and Territory governments need to be holding the federal government to account on this.  After all, it is their public health systems which will suffer if the NDIS fails.  Most importantly, the public needs to get in front of this issue.  Per Capita estimates that for every $1 billion that the NDIS is under-funded we can expect significant negative outcomes to occur across the economy including:

  • a drop in employment of around 10,200 jobs;
  • a decline in total economic activity of $2.25 billion; and
  • 0.14% reduction in total GDP.

And guess what, people with disability, their families and those ladies in scrubs and sensible shoes will bear the brunt proportionately.  Discussions about ‘affordability’ are important but decisions on the NDIS need to be based on robust and transparent analysis.  We did not elect a ‘just trust me’ government and we shouldn’t start falling for that line now.