The NDIS, Disability Royal Commission and Morrison's crocodile tears

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(Image via phsphere.com)

The Disability Royal Commission announcement was an afterthought designed to offset the negative reception for the Morrison Government's cuts to the NDIS ahead of the election, writes James Fitzgerald.

Funny things tend to happen when an election is near and the polls aren’t quite going a certain way. Mistakes are made, back-flips occur and rambling denials thunder from the dispatch box as the party firmly trailing behind attempts to patch their leaky boat.

This week, we have seen the Coalition’s Budget proposed, promoted and parodied as punters and media alike pick apart what is there, what should be and what has been sneakily snatched away so the Government can rob Peter to pay Paul —to paper over the cracks of a Budget even the most staunch optimist might just grimace at.

The Coalition went into overdrive promoting their "forecast" surplus of $7.1 billion by next financial year, bringing the country apparently "back to black" for the first time in many years. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and PM Scott Morrison were rather opaque on the finer details, of where this extra cash hit was expected to come from, but that doesn’t matter, because Australia was now out of the doldrums and back in the green.

However, when unpacked, the $7.1 billion Budget surplus was mostly to come from a continued underspend on the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) next financial year. This Budget shows that the NDIS will lose $3.5 billion in 2019/20 with total forecast spending reduced from $16.7 billion to $13.35 billion. If we add this onto last year's reduction of $3 billion, then you start to get an idea of where our new apparent wealth is coming from and it appears it is not from economic prowess but from a cut to the NDIS, masquerading as a fiscal win.

After this underspend was examined, realised and reported it has now led to Morrison announcing, quite out of the blue, the long-delayed and denounced Disability Royal Commission. This is a Royal Commission that has been recommended for years, only for the Coalition to knock it back time and time again. The timing could not be more poignant or, indeed, panicked.

This Royal Commission first came to public prominence from years of lobbying after multiple cases of carer abuse in a Senate Inquiry in 2015, where 30 recommendations were made. Over a year after the Inquiry, the Coalition decided not to act on the key recommendation of establishing a royal commission, instead stating that the NDIS Quality and Safeguarding Framework would ease the pressure on those affected and that was that. The past tends to sneak up on governments, especially on policy and especially close to an election.

The announcement of the Disability Royal Commission is well overdue and we can thank Senator Jordon Steele-John, Labor and the cross-benchers for keeping up the pressure. What we cannot allow ourselves to do is imagine that Morrison and his Coalition had any intention of making this decision if people failed to read the NDIS fine print in the Budget.

As well as the Coalition’s continued reluctance to call a royal commission into disability abuse while in government, there was also the infuriating and almost comical delay in passing the legislation making the commission possible during the Medevac saga in February.

Morrison notably delayed proceedings in Parliament in an attempt to ward off Labor and the crossbench passing a bill to ensure asylum seekers on Manus Island and Narau were given adequate medical treatment on the mainland if needed. This delay meant that the legislation on the Disability Abuse Royal Commission was not passed before the Parliamentary break — all due to the Coalition not wanting to lose a vote on the floor of Parliament due to their wafer-thin majority.

As we digest the goings on over the past two years of shaky Coalition governance, the following is clear — almost $7 billion in cuts to the NDIS, a reluctance to call a royal commission and the farcical delay in Parliamentary procedure, shows the Government's priorities. This late action is purely a "look at me" gesture at a time when the rats are jumping off a sinking ship.

So, as Scott Morrison announced this much needed and warranted Disability Royal Commission this week with tears in his eyes and with his voice wavering, we must remember how it took so long to get here. The blame lies entirely at the feet of the Coalition Government and their reluctance to act in the first place.

James Fitzgerald is an Australian freelance journalist based in London. He has a keen interest in world politics as well as social and environmental issues across the globe. You can follow James @Jamesfitzsport.

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