Defining Moments in Australian History: The NDIS begins

By AG STAFF 17 January 2023
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2013: Disabled Australians get a national insurance support scheme.

An isurance scheme for Australians affected by disability was first mooted by the Whitlam government in the early 1970s. The idea was shelved by the subsequent Fraser government and not formally realised until the Gillard government, four decades later. 

Along the way, many people were involved in reviving and achieving the concept, including Melbourne economist and disability advocate Bruce Bonyhady, a father of two boys who are affected by cerebral palsy. Bruce is chairman of disability services organisation Yooralla. In 2005, realising Australia’s massive shortcomings in disability services, he consulted Brian Howe, a deputy prime minister during the Hawke and Keating governments of the 1990s. Howe’s advice was to stop thinking about disability policy as “welfare” but instead as “risk and insurance and investment”. 

For Bonyhady, it was a lightbulb moment. He consulted John Walsh, an actuary who’d become a quadriplegic due to a rugby injury. An expert in workers’ compensation and motor accident insurance schemes, Walsh did more than anyone to estimate the real costs of supporting disabled people in Australia and design a national insurance response. 

With the support of Helen Sykes, from the James Macready-Bryan Foundation, set up in 2007 to provide financial support and a public voice for people with acquired brain injury and their families, Bonyhady made a submission outlining a strategy for disability support to the Australia 2020 Summit, held in Canberra in April 2008 by the Rudd government. The submission was backed by organisations such as the Disability Investment Group and the National People with Disabilities and Carer Council, which released the landmark report SHUT OUT: The Experience of People with Disabilities and their Families in Australia in August 2009. The government enlisted its Productivity Commission for a response. 

The Commission’s 2011 report, co-authored by John Walsh, found the current system was “underfunded, unfair, fragmented, and inefficient” and the call for a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) was supported. The aim of the scheme was to insure the entire Australian population against the risk of suffering from disability. To achieve this, funding in the area needed to double.

The government took up the Commission report’s recommendations, with key figures including Jenny Macklin, minister for disability reform, and Bill Shorten, a former parliamentary secretary for disabilities and children’s services. Then prime minister Julia Gillard, who’d replaced Kevin Rudd in June 2010, was another strong supporter. At the same time, a huge alliance of disability and carers groups came together as the grassroots Every Australian Counts campaign, to lobby for the plan.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme Act 2013 was passed in May of that year with bipartisan support and came into effect two months later on 1 July, although it would take seven more years for the scheme to be fully implemented. 

Trials began almost immediately in four states and the Australian Capital Territory, and a year later more than 7000 care plans had been set up for individuals with disabilities. The NDIS began rolling out nationally in mid-2016, the last state to join being Western Australia in 2018.

Today, the NDIS covers all Australian residents who are born with or acquire a significant and permanent disability before age 65. These are people who need another person’s support, special equipment or intervention to reduce disability in the future. Disabilities may be physical, intellectual, sensory, cognitive or psychosocial. The scheme does not pay basic living expenses, apart from those directly connected with the disability, but it does provide disability-related equipment and assistance for daily activities and access to the community. It also helps recipients improve their wellbeing, find a place to live, get a job, improve their education, and develop good relationships. There is no set budget for support: each recipient has an individual plan, based on his or her own needs. Within the limits set by the plan, the recipient is in control of expenditure.

By 2020 the NDIS was providing support to more than 400,000 Australian residents; there were 500,000 recipients by February 2022. Total payments to recipients in 2020–21 totalled $23.3 billion. 

The NDIS has been criticised for being hard to access and difficult to navigate. In 2020 an independent review issued 29 recommendations for improving the experience for those who use the scheme. But the review also found that better outcomes were experienced the longer people were in the NDIS. 

The NDIS begins’ forms part of the National Museum of Australia’s Defining Moments in Australian History project.