We need to recapture our standing as a tough, resilient country

Posted by on June 13, 2017

Australia doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a vote-buying expenditure problem.


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In understanding why federal politics has entered an era of deficit budgeting, try spending an afternoon in the waiting room of your local MP’s electorate office. A range of people will pass through, some genuinely needy, some completely bogus, all with one thing in common: A desire to relax the sweeping, fixed rules of government to make their lives easier.

To service large numbers of people, the welfare state has developed one-size-fits-most guidelines, slotting its clients into certain categories and classifications. Yet in practice, every individual circumstance is different.

When constituents fall through the cracks of government support or feel done-over by unfair regulations, they visit their MP seeking special consideration.

Invariably, extra categories and benefits are created — at mounting public expense. Sometimes the new spending helps just a handful of people. More often, it caves into the demands of big interest groups, building their agenda into the fiscal bottom line. This is the story of budget management in Australia: old programs and entitlements are never abolished, new ones are created like clockwork, as governments try to buy their way back into office.

If, over the past decade, extra spending schemes had not been added to each budget, the Commonwealth would be massively in surplus.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme, while based on the worthy goal of providing quality whole-of-life care for disabled Australians, has been designed in a way that makes cost control impossible, says Mark Latham.

Australia doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a vote-buying expenditure problem.

The Liberal/National coalition parties have been no better than Labor. They came into office in 2013 promising a return to surplus but have specialised in pork barrelling, with extra road, rail, regional development, Northern Australia, schools, ethnic group and disability funding.

The people lining up at electorate offices have won the battle for government largesse. The latest example of this process is the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

While based on the worthy goal of providing quality whole-of-life care for disabled Australians, it has been designed in a way that makes cost control impossible.

Already the NDIS has experienced massive blowouts, with projected outlays rising from $19 billion in 2012 to $32 billion in 2028.

It also has large hidden costs.

The original concept was for the scheme’s 490,000 beneficiaries to self-manage their individual support plans (an average annual cost of $35,000 each).

But in practice, centralised bureaucracies have taken control of the money, effectively corporatising the disability sector.

Huge amounts of family and community effort are being lost.

Last month, for instance, it was revealed that scores of lawn mowing businesses have been enlisted as NDIS providers, taking over from family members and volunteers in helping disabled people with their gardening. Not surprisingly, the new profit-based system is being rorted, with a mowing company owner reporting to The Australian newspaper, “it’s getting milked pretty badly”.

Contrary to its name, the NDIS is not an insurance scheme. It has no central pool of self-financing contributions from the group supposedly being insured. Funding is straight off the budget, with the cost to taxpayers likely to blowout even further as more people seek coverage.

Already the mental health lobby wants to lift the cap on participant numbers.

The outgoing chairman of beyondblue, Jeff Kennett, has said that “each year about 690,000 Australians will experience a serious mental health issue”, yet only 64,000 are eligible for NDIS care packages.

It is not hard to imagine the electoral politics of this issue in years to come.

MPs will be lobbied by constituents who have missed out on NDIS funding.

Interest groups will run media campaigns drawing on the emotional side of disability.

Governments will be under intense pressure to expand the scheme. Realistically, they are unlikely to hold out.

Australia has 800,000 people on the Disability Support Pension, each with a credible argument to make: If they receive income support for a disability, why not a NDIS top up.

Over the past 30 years Australia has experienced a 20-fold increase in autism diagnosis.

Up to 10 per cent of the population is also said to be suffering from ADHD.

We have become a nation of crocks and counsellors, applying huge pressure to health and disability costs.

In his classic little book, Fragile Nation (2016), the Western Sydney psychiatrist Tanveer Ahmed writes of how, “The term mental health (has become) a synonym for emotional distress. I worry that excessive promotion of human fragility in the face of adversity risks enfeebling those we seek to help.”

Ahmed chronicles how, in the face of stress and struggle, society’s reflex action is to turn to welfare spending.

In one telling case, he writes of a patient claiming “a psychological injury serving in the navy”.

“I imagined breathtaking tales of battle, perhaps firing cannons or watching missiles batter neighbouring ships.”

It turned out the patient was a ship’s cook who felt his naval commander had unfairly criticised the quality of his food, bringing on “panic attacks as a result”.

This type of farce is becoming common, especially among young Australians.

Government schools now emphasise “wellbeing” and pastoral care ahead of academic rigour.

We run the risk of creating a snowflake generation, in which young people see themselves as fragile victims of society, instead of capable, goal-­oriented achievers.

If, in these troubled times, Australia was to find a new, purposeful national catchcry, it should be: Resilience, Not Fragility.

We need to reverse the flood of people dropping out of the workforce and society itself.

We need to recapture our standing as a tough, resilient country.

This is also our best chance for controlling the runaway costs of the NDIS.


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