Great leadership and skill shine through in Gillard’s DisabilityCare

- May 18, 2013

WHATEVER happens at the general election in September, historians of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership will write of her introduction of the DisabilityCare bill in the federal parliament on Wednesday as her finest hour. There is no gainsaying this truth. The magnitude and cost of Gillard’s achievement is matched only by its profundity and correctness.

Great leadership is never just the achievement of leaders. Even Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of African-American slaves was not entirely the consequence of his leadership alone. Moments of great leadership happen when leaders are as much driven by social and political forces and events, as their own moral and political skill and resolve.

Thus this week’s introduction of the levy that will fund the national disability insurance scheme is the culmination of sophisticated campaigning and manoeuvring by disability advocates, policy wonks and key politicians and community leaders. How this all came together in a bipartisan way and how all of the jurisdictions other than Western Australia have come on board is now a texbook case study of how to prosecute a public policy cause to maximum success.

I, for one, am in awe of those responsible for prosecuting this reform, and Gillard and Jenny Macklin played extraordinary hands. If criticisms can legitimately be levelled at various policy initiatives of Gillard’s prime ministership, this is not one of them.

This week in Sydney I had the opportunity to meet people engaged in the front line of the campaign. The gathering was convened by disability activist and former IBM executive Mark Bagshaw.

Bagshaw and a team working with him have written a paper, Raising the Bar, setting out an agenda aimed at ensuring that these disability reforms do not degenerate into low denominator outcomes for disabled Australians. Their awareness of the danger that these reforms will be swamped by a bureaucratic leviathan is acute and well-founded.

Bagshaw’s paper declares: “We believe that the NDIS represents the best chance people with disability in Australia have ever had to get prepared to contribute to our society – and for society to welcome their active participation.

“We believe passionately that people with disability are far more capable of participating at all levels of our society than most people believe – including many people with disability themselves.

“We don’t accept that a 40 per cent difference in workforce and education participation is OK.

“We don’t accept that a person with disability can’t choose where she or he lives. And we don’t accept that it’s OK for the community to expect so little of people with disability.

“In our view, genuine change will only occur if we embark on this journey with a truly aspirational vision.

“We must raise the bar around expectations and accept nothing less than people with disability achieving all that they can and want to achieve. When they do that, our entire nation will benefit.”

Like most Australians, I am largely ignorant of the disability policy scene, so it was a real eye-opener for me to hear Bagshaw outline his vision for disabled Australians to have the opportunity to fulfil their every potential. To not be treated as mendicants deserving of our charity, but as citizens like the rest of us who should have access to opportunities.

In the policy scene in which I work we have alighted on the articulation of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen that all people should have the capability to choose lives they have reason to value. That is certainly our aspiration for our indigenous people.

This week I came to understand that disabled Australians should have the maximum opportunity to choose lives they have reason to value.

Disabled Australians are not just entitled to care, they are entitled to have the opportunity to fulfil their potential, and to contribute to the maximum extent of their talents and abilities to their families, their communities and to the nation.

So Bagshaw’s argument is very much one premised on productivity.

That Australians with disabilities can participate in the economic, social and cultural life of the nation to a far greater extent than they are presently allowed to.

This potential is routinely wasted because we have not provided the large-scale opportunity, access and support to enable this participation.

Bagshaw’s argument is confronting: “How many people with all types and all severities of disability simply cannot participate in society? We believe the real number is far lower than society thinks. The most disempowering aspect of disability for most people is not the disability itself, but the lack of control they have over their lives. That lack of control creates an environment of dependence and erodes the confidence that everyone needs to face life’s challenges.”

Bagshaw says that we “need to take an aspirational view of what the individual with disability is capable of in order to encourage them on their journey towards full participation, rather than acting as gatekeepers to a range of supports and services.”

What became clear was that there are two scenarios for the future of these disability reforms.

The first is that we just Centrelink this thing. We set a low bar for disabled Australians and entrench an approach based on a welfarist paradigm.

It was pointed out by some people attending Bagshaw’s roundtable that the naming of this week’s bill, DisabilityCare, is most unfortunate and an ominous sign of the dangers that lie ahead.

As much as people with disabilities are deserving of our care, they are even more deserving of the dignity that comes with personal self-determination and opportunity. Rates of educational attainment and workforce participation are far lower than they need be. And the rates of poverty endured by people with disabilities are unacceptable.

The second scenario is the one advocated by Bagshaw, where the bar is raised and we have high expectations of the contributions disabled Australians can make to improve their own lives and to take productive places in society and workplaces. This is the opportunity and citizenship paradigm.

We now have a consensus that our commitment to supporting disabled Australians is going to be a perpetual part of our national future. We know this will cost all of us, but it is a cost we are willing to bear. The choices for debate concern whether we define this landmark reform as an expression of an old welfare state or a new opportunity society. Bagshaw and his fellow policy champions make a compelling case for the latter.