Abbott tries to put brakes on national disability plan

Phillip Coorey -Apr 14, 2012

Question time ... the Queensland and NSW premiers, Campbell Newman and Barry O'Farrell, and the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, at a post-COAG news conference.

Question time ... the Queensland and NSW premiers, Campbell Newman and Barry O'Farrell, and the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, at a post-COAG news conference. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

TONY ABBOTT'S newfound pledge of bipartisan support for a national disability insurance scheme has hit a snag with the Coalition leader opposed to plans by the government to accelerate its implementation.

As state and territory leaders gave in-principle support for the scheme at yesterday's Council of Australian Governments meeting in Canberra, Mr Abbott sought to neutralise any political advantage for Labor by offering to help the government design it.

He will back whatever spending is allocated in next month's budget and has proposed a bipartisan parliamentary committee to oversee the implementation of the scheme which, the Productivity Commission recommends, will take several years to establish and should be fully operational by 2018-19.

It would operate like Medicare in providing uniform nationwide support for the disabled.

This week, the Disability Reform Minister, Jenny Macklin, said the government would start establishing the scheme a year earlier than the schedule recommended by the commission, meaning trials would start in the middle of next year, just before the next federal election is due. Mr Abbott said the government was rushing for political reasons.

''It is more important to follow the Productivity Commission's timetable than it is to follow an election timetable,'' he said.

Any chance of further bipartisanship crumbled after the COAG meeting, when Ms Gillard declined Mr Abbott's offer to establish the committee.

After securing agreement from the states, Ms Gillard said details of the notoriously complex scheme needed to be thrashed out between the Commonwealth, state and territory governments. ''We're here, getting it done,'' she said.

By 2018-19, the scheme will cost between $6.5 billion and $8 billion a year on top of the $7 billion the states and Commonwealth now spend each year on supporting the disabled.

All the states, including NSW, said at the outset yesterday they backed the scheme but that all extra money had to come from the Commonwealth. A communique they agreed to ''recognised that the share of Commonwealth funding will need to increase'', although it is understood as negotiations proceed, the states could be prevailed on to contribute more.

Despite the rhetoric before the meeting, it ended with little rancour. Ms Gillard secured support for her $9 billion overhaul of the vocational education and training sector designed to boost the skills of the workforce to keep the economy growing.

Ms Gillard said the skills agreement, which will support an extra 375,000 students over five years and restructure the way training is funded, was the meeting's most significant achievement in terms of what it meant for the future. This, she said, should not be masked ''by the lack of squabbling''.

The states also succeeded in securing a pledge that the draft review of how GST revenue is distributed would be made public before the budget on May 8, not later in the year as the government originally said.

The premiers of NSW and Queensland, Barry O'Farrell and Campbell Newman, continued to insist a streamlined environmental approval process should delegate to the states the power to assess projects and that the Commonwealth butt out. The states, the Commonwealth, the federal opposition and business all agree that the environmental assessment process must be simplified.

Ms Gillard wants to keep federal oversight, including on world heritage and ''high-risk'' proposals. Discussions will continue on the matter. Mr Newman said progress had been made and he was happy for the Commonwealth to audit the approval process.

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