Transcript by The Hon Bill Shorten MP

Productivity Commission Inquiry into Disability Insurance Scheme

Program: ABC Radio Darwin with Leo Compton

LEON COMPTON: Bill Shorten’s the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services in the Federal Government. The discussion has come to looking at a national disability insurance scheme. Bill Shorten, good morning to you, thank you for talking with us.

BILL SHORTEN: My pleasure Leon.

LEON COMPTON: Describe the gap that you see in opportunity for people with disabilities in Australia at the moment.

BILL SHORTEN: Well imagine if you put a big wall, a wall which is 12 feet high around the city to Darwin and Palmerston, Perth and Adelaide and you said to all those people living within those cities if you have a child born with a disability, they can’t get adequate hours of early intervention support or if you want to send that child to a primary or secondary school they’re not going to get the full support they need.

That they’ll most likely be discriminated against to get a job, that if they required day services they won’t be able to get the work or indeed if you’re an ageing carer with an adult child who needs some assistance in living out of home but there’ll be no where – no guarantee that when you predecease your adult child, that that person will live in security and dignity. That’s what happens every day in disability in Australia.

LEON COMPTON: So let’s talk about what the Productivity Commission’s looking at the moment, a national disability insurance scheme. You’ll be looking at a range of models and ways it could work. How could it make things better for people who are currently on the other side of this wall?

BILL SHORTEN: What’s important to people is can we provide equal treatment to people who live with a severe or profound impairment, that’s the problem which we’re trying to solve. Before the 2007 election disability wasn’t really a massive political issue. It was a giant problem but it wasn’t on the political radar. Since then I think it is fair to say the Rudd Government has doubled the funding we give the states and territories. We’ve ratified UN conventions. We’ve made ourselves accountable on inter …to international standards. We’ve increased the disability pension but not withstanding all those real and significant accomplishments…

LEON COMPTON: Well not withstanding all of that, Paul from the Gardens who you heard…


LEON COMPTON: …from just a moment ago still doesn’t have a job.

BILL SHORTEN: That’s right Leon.

LEON COMPTON: How will the national disability insurance scheme – how might that help him get a job?

BILL SHORTEN: Well what I’m doing is setting a context Leon, I’ll speed it up if you like, but I think the Government has endeavoured to do some things. It’s always hard for a politician; do you say the cup is half full or half empty? I don’t want to say that we’ve done nothing because we have in fact done something but the truth of the matter is that if you have a disability you’re still treated fundamentally as second class, so something’s got to give.

And one idea which is now on the agenda is not just another look at the problem but it’s a look at a possible solution and that’s called a national disability insurance scheme.

The idea behind that is: is it possible to provide lifetime care and support for people with severe and profound impairment, regardless of how they’ve got the impairment, and regardless of what jurisdiction they required the impairment? Because in Australia if you’re in a motorcar accident in Victoria you’re going to get better care than if you injure yourself in other jurisdictions or if you acquire an injury at work you’re going to get relatively better care and support, a serious injury at work, than if you were born with a condition.

My view is an impairment has the same affect regardless of how it’s acquired. So the starting point should be can we provide a life time care and support scheme? The Productivity Commission has been given that work by the Cabinet of the Rudd Government. The work has now started. There will be discussion papers in May of the issues. There’ll be public hearings in June and July. It’s due to report by July 2011 and it’s whether or not it’s feasible for Australia to provide lifetime care and support. We do it for some people, we just don’t do it for all people.

LEON COMPTON: So how would that – I mean at the moment we do provide support in the form of things like the disability support pension or carers payments and you will have listened to as much talkback and anyone and heard the stories of what it’s like to try and survive on carers support payments or indeed a disability support pension, how would this improve those sorts of payments for people who might struggle to pay the bills?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, I think that, without pre-empting the work of the commission, because the commission’s got an independent advisory panel of people who know a lot about disability as well as the Productivity Commission themselves looking at the challenge and feasibility of a new idea.

I think, and this is a personal opinion, what happens is there’s a lack of early intervention, there’s a lack of joined up support. What I mean by early intervention is that if you’re on the pension it’s quite hard to find any educational opportunities, it’s quite hard to get to those job interviews. Sometimes the barriers can be transport, they can be the design of your own home. What we want to see is a scheme which will provide support so that people can do things about the whole aspect of each day they live, not just having a health program in one department or a jobs program in another department or a bus service or a taxi service which is good but often doesn’t mesh with people’s other needs.

What we’ve done in the bush fires for example, and again this is a personal opinion Leon, is we’ve provided case managers for a lot of the victims of the bush fires and what that is is that if family needs to find out what’s available because quite often a lot of people feel like going just off their rocker trying to find out what’s available in the way of services. We have a case manager available for families to help them navigate the system of paperwork, to navigate the system of departments just to be there to help them.

I see a potential option within the national disability insurance scheme as when parents have a child who gets a diagnosis that they’ve got a developmental delay they can go not only to the internet, and not only to some phone number but to a human being at the other end who says all right well this is what’d available, this is where you go for your services and can help be an advocate for them when they hit road blocks which quite often people do.

LEON COMPTON: So these people would be experts in navigating the highways and byways of disability support?

BILL SHORTEN: Yeah whatever you call them I think that too many families with children with disabilities for example, and there’s many adults but I’ll pick the children example, too many families with children with disabilities get their PhDs by Google. You know, and they rely on informal networks, what schools are available, what schools are helping provide good integration support for their kids. I think part of the challenge and a national disability insurance scheme like a Medicare-style scheme can’t fully solve is the attitude to discrimination to the community and that is I think, a little bit of what the caller who you just interviewed was talking about.

A lot of people with disabilities don’t get the job interview because they look different, because people think that just because you’re disabled that becomes the overwhelming attribute in people’s mind and they can’t look behind – past the person’s impairment to all their other abilities.

LEON COMPTON: How could we change that?

BILL SHORTEN: Mmm, I mean that’s a lot harder, but I think that’s what we’ve also got to try and change.

LEON COMPTON: Can I ask you this, a personal question…


LEON COMPTON: you’ve obviously thrown yourself into this portfolio since the Government came to power, how has it changed for you? How has your – you were swimming in new waters. How have things changed for you in the past two and a bit years since you’ve been looking at it intensively?

BILL SHORTEN: Well I think I’ve been privileged to get this responsibility. Being a Parliamentary Secretary it’s not the sort of term you hear used in the pub or on the footy ground but it means you’re a junior minister.

You know, we’ve got cabinet ministers who work in this area, Jenny Macklin who’d be well known to people in the territory and others. But for me being a junior minister I’ve discovered that I’ve been given the chance to work with a lot of people who basically get a very raw deal.

I think the problems with disability are that people are poor and powerless. I think that part of the problem people with disabilities face is that other people in the community who don’t have an immediate awareness of it, not that they’re malicious, although you get the odd, one who is, but most people just – well quite a lot of people don’t know what it’s like to live with a disability and that’s where my eyes have been opened.

There’s one and a half million Australians who have a severe or profound impairment. There’s nearly half a million carers who work full time as carers but only get the carers pension. That’s a big number.

But what surprises me is when you’ve got two million Australians, yet they are still getting a second class deal fundamentally, why is that so? And it’s because they’re time poor. Someone famous once said that the problem with being poor is that it takes up most of your time. That’s with the same with having a disability or being carer.

The other thing is that people tend to think the only way to fix disability, or that it can’t be fixed, that it’s an expense black hole, it’s just too expensive. People think that it’s just charity. You know once you’re in a chair or you have trouble communicating that’s it.

I think we need to redefine people as consumers, not as costs. We need to redefine two million Australians not as charity but as people who have got to return from exile. So that’s how my views have changed and I’ve got no doubt that along with all the other big issues this nation’s dealing with, disability can be dealt with. We are – this country is generous enough, smart enough and rich enough but we’ve just got to get people changing their attitude. The disability could happen to any of us, it’s not someone else’s problem it’s our problem.

LEON COMPTON: You’re on ABC Local Radio, top end of the Northern Territory, 24 past nine. My guest this morning Bill Shorten Parliamentary Secretary for disabilities. Love you to talk about your experiences with us this morning and what a national disability insurance scheme might mean for you. The number’s 1300 057 222 or you can send us a text 19991057.

An urgency is given – notwithstanding that the conditions currently in Australia that you described, there is some urgency because of projected growth rates in people experiencing disability. Can you talk about the magnitude of those growth rates?

BILL SHORTEN: Leon, I should be asking the questions, that’s an issue I should have mentioned myself already. I said there’s one and a half million Australians now. That’s those who’ve got a severe or profound disability just so people are clear about my definition, severe or profound to me is someone who needs episodic or daily assistance for the core function of living. By 2030 the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare say there’ll be 2.3 million Australians in that position.

We’re living longer which is a good thing obviously, and science is getting better at helping people, you know little people survive, and adults survive but if you like, we’re not – the community’s not following through on the technology and the science and the medicine to provide quality of life.

So the numbers are growing. I also think that even though we have – the Federal – the Rudd Government has – we’ve doubled the amount of money going to states and territories from 2008 to 2013. That’s real. We have increased the pension. That’s real.

But until we recognise that having a impairment is a fact of life for some people. We have to recognise that quite often what effectively or practically disables these people are the barriers. I don’t think it’s too hard to design buildings which people in wheelchairs or mobility impairments can use. I don’t think it’s too hard to have all our buses compliant. I don’t think it’s too hard to employ more people with an impairment in the public service or indeed in the private sector. I don’t think it’s too hard to provide extra hours of early intervention to children with cerebral palsy or downs syndrome.

LEON COMPTON: Mmm. Look, what I’d like to then spend some time talking about is how a national disability insurance scheme might look. Currently we pay a Medicare levy in Australia when you get a pay check. A part of is – a part of it is going towards a national contribution towards health costs. Do you see this most reasonably as being an addition to that sort of a percentage of people’s take home pay that then goes into a federal pool?

BILL SHORTEN: Well I know people groan sometimes when politicians or people in public life don’t answer questions, I don’t want to answer the final question about how we were pay, what mechanism we would pay a system by but I would like to put some facts as they are.

First of all we’re already spending $20 billion a year, Australian, through Government, on disability, $20 billion. And you could do the mathematics on the back of a napkin, it’s $9 billion on the disabilities support pension, $4 billion plus on carer payments or up to 13, $1 billion plus in disability employment services, 14. Federal Government provides $1 billion plus a year to states for disability services, that’s 15, states and territories are spending $2 billion to $3 billion, that’s $18 billion, $19 billion. Our present system has a disproportionate number of people with intellectual disabilities in it. So we’re already – the first point to establish is we’re already spending a lot of money. The second thing is there are gaps. Aids and equipment, you know, we have 21 or 23 different aids and equipment schemes in Australia to get equipment necessary. So there’s a lot of duplication. There are gaps. There’s no question.

LEON COMPTON: Can I ask you something? Is the reason that you don’t want to talk about this because – and already we see this starting to happen in the political to-ing and fro-ing that the allegation will immediately be heard that you – that we’re talking about raising taxes in an election year et cetera, when what you’re doing also is giving no opportunity for people who might want to say, gee a half a per cent more of my tax if it helps do something – or half a per cent more of my pay check if it helps do something towards what Bill Shorten’s talking about. I’d be prepared to pay that. People who want to have that discussion are not going to easily have the chance?

BILL SHORTEN: No, well they will. First of all the Productivity Commission enquiry is due to report in – at the end of June next year and in the interim there’s going to be two issues papers and discussion papers.

There’s an opportunity to make submissions. Already the Productivity Commission has received twice as many submissions about disability reform as it’s every received on any other topic in the history of the Productivity Commission. That’s including gambling reviews, paid parental reviews, the importation of books. So there’s an appetite, there is a hunger to have solutions for disabilities, so people will be able to have that discussion through that commission.

The second point and I think this is a pretty basic point that I want to make is there’s not question in my mind that we’ll have to have a debate about how we find this scheme but I don’t want to make the mistake of discussing how we fund the scheme before we know what a scheme it looked like.

If I was going to sell you a motorcar, I don’t want to talk to you about the price before you know what you’re buying. Australians are not silly and they will weigh up value for money. And if there’s a scheme that emerges, people will say I can see that, I can – do you know what I mean?

People – I think Australians don’t want, and I’m not into extra taxes per se and if you’re going to ask people to look at a new idea we should spend the time thinking through the whole system, what it looks like, how it works on the ground, someone once said that the – a good idea is most vulnerable in its implementation stage. So I would like to learn from past mistakes and have a scheme which people can see how it works. How does the compensation schemes work for – in area which are functioning. What happens overseas? Then you can have a discussion about the cost of it. So I’m not ducking the big issue of costs. But it’s premature to look at costs when (1) we’re spending a lot of money already and maybe we could spend that better, (2) people will have a chance to have that discussion and (3) we should have a look at what it is that we’d be buying before we discuss what we pay.

LEON COMPTON: Bill Shorten, it’s been – it does make sense, it’s been interesting to talk to you this morning. Thank you for sharing your time.