Paul Bongiorno: NDIS vaccine failure unmasks the government’s disability agenda

The government's disability agenda has been revealed, Paul Bongiorno says.

The government's disability agenda has been revealed, Paul Bongiorno says.

Something is horribly amiss when thousands of Australians with serious disability have not received their first COVID shots eight weeks into the vaccine rollout.

The $25 billion scheme has been undergoing a radical rethink ever since it emerged that the so-called independent Tune review two years ago was shown to have been heavily doctored by the then-minister Stuart Robert’s department to pave the way for a cut in services and the imposition of unsympathetic compulsory assessments.

There is mounting evidence, much of it from leaks coming from within the federal public service and some from freedom-of-information releases, that the Morrison government views the National Disability Insurance Scheme in the same way as it views anyone on welfare.

Welfare is a dirty word and most receiving it should be starved off it as soon as possible – surely this is the only credible explanation for returning unemployment benefits to below the poverty line.

Though in the past the Prime Minister has been quick to make the distinction between welfare recipients and support due to those who through no fault of their own suffer a disability, his government’s approach is eroding the credibility of his words.

One of the early architects of the NDIS under the previous Labor government, Bill Shorten, says planned changes under Mr Robert that include Robodebt-style harassment of people in the scheme fundamentally alters its original purpose and design.

Rather than seeing those with disability as hapless victims of fate, they are now to be viewed through the “welfare cheat” prism.

The secretly planned changes, revealed at the weekend in The Saturday Paper, manifest a fundamental distrust of those with disability, who the Parliament of Australia has accorded the right to receive the support they need to live their lives with as much dignity as possible.

Many in the sector are now hoping that the new minister Linda Reynolds will abandon Mr Robert’s narrow and punitive preferences.

Senator Reynolds, however, is accepting none of the blame for the fact that people with disability have been forgotten in the first phase of the vaccine rollout despite the acceptance they are among the most vulnerable in the pandemic.

Senator Reynolds’ office says the rollout is the responsibility of Health Minister Greg Hunt and she will be discussing the delivery failure with him.

The chief executive of Aruma, one of the nation’s largest disability service providers, Andrew Richardson, told the ABC it is “shameful” not one of the 1500 residents in their 350 specialist accommodation homes, nor any of their “thousands of staff has been vaccinated”.

Mr Richardson says his organisation’s experience is common across the sector.

Shadow minister for government services Bill Shorten has been vocal about the proposed changes. Photo: AAP

Mr Shorten says the “rollout has been one big car crash and somehow people with disability miss out again”.

Chief medical officer Paul Kelly on Monday morning said he would be contacting Aruma, but just what he can do about it is far from clear.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has given up on telling Australians he has everything under control.

Mr Morrison took the highly unusual step of using Facebook to announce he was abandoning targets for when Australia would be fully vaccinated, after making the highly dubious claim that we are world leading. Australia is No.100 on the list of 170 countries for the coverage of its rollout so far.

Shadow health minister Mark Butler says Australians deserve to know there is a plan to reach the target of nationwide vaccination, but you can’t “have a plan without targets”.

Targets may change and that’s when the PM needs to be upfront about it, Mr Butler says, to restore business confidence.

And those with disability deserve an explanation for why they have been ignored in the first phase of the rollout and assurances they have not lost the respect Scott Morrison used to claim he was giving them.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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