July 27, 2012
The states refusing to fund trials have their priorities all wrong.
IN A world where Australian federalism worked, our governments would now have agreed on trials in all states of a scheme to transform the lives of 400,000 people with disabilities. Instead, the Council of Australian Governments split along party lines: Labor states will help fund trials; Coalition states refuse to offer an extra cent. As an exhibition of the buck-passing and point-scoring that come with divided federal-state responsibilities, this may be a new low.
We acknowledge that Prime Minister Julia Gillard advanced the timetable by a year, to before the next election, and sees the scheme as a signature reform, which would surely feature in Labor's campaign. There can still be no quibbling about the urgent need to fix disability services. The Productivity Commission recommended the Medicare-like national disability insurance model, to be in place by 2018. The reform has won broad public support since the advocacy of Bill Shorten, as parliamentary secretary for Disabilities and Children's Services, elevated it as a political priority. Even Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, a formidable partisan warrior, has backed the scheme to deliver lifelong, tailored support to people with disabilities.
The government has put up $984 million over four years for the trial phase, but the source of the extra $6.5-billion-a-year cost of running a full-scale scheme for all Australians with disabilities (current spending is about $7 billion) is contentious. In Wednesday's COAG talks, Coalition premiers refused to help with extra funding. Queensland may spend the least on disability services per person, but Premier Campbell Newman pleaded poverty. NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell, who refused to contribute $70 million to trials involving 10,000 people with disabilities in the Hunter Valley, said his state was already spending generously on disability services.
Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu's objection was a little more credible. He worried about precedents if the state put up $40 million - the federal share is $100 million - for a trial involving 5000 people in the Barwon area. Even so, once the Commonwealth agreed not to use the trials as a funding precedent, Mr Baillieu's excuse that arrangements ''are not consistent with what was expected'' is weak, as is the argument that the Commonwealth should bear 100 per cent of any cost blowouts. The Gillard government rightly argues that states must have an incentive to control costs.
Given the dire state of disability services and Labor states' ability to find the modest funding asked of the states, Ms Gillard's charge that Coalition premiers are playing ''cheap politics'' has resonance. The inescapable starting point is that current funding does not provide an acceptable level of services to people with disabilities. Yet Victoria won't increase its spending of just under $16,000 a year per person to $20,700 - as Labor states are doing - with federal funding lifting the total to $35,000.
Describing the need as ''absolutely critical'', Mr Baillieu insists: ''We support a national disability scheme and we have done from the start.'' He must put his money where his mouth is, as should all premiers. The sum sought from Victoria's $50 billion-or-so budget is equivalent to $14 of an average full-time worker's yearly pay. Sure, the Gillard government is also seeking a political win, but the winners that matter will be for 400,000 Australians with disabilities, their families and carers.
Yesterday, the recalcitrant premiers were objects of public shame. Their willingness to negotiate suggests they know the political risks of being held responsible for perpetuating the neglect of a great many disadvantaged Australians. As Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes said: ''It is unacceptable for people to be only having two showers a week, or leaving their house several times a year, because leaders cannot agree on funding arrangements for this scheme.'' That is what it comes down to. On this issue, nothing less than co-operative federalism will do.
AFTER half a century of evasion and deceit, the pharmaceutical giant Grunenthal has nowhere left to hide. The company responsible for thalidomide, a drug that instantly conjures images of severely deformed babies in the late 1950s and 1960s, is condemned by its own paper trail. Secret files, obtained exclusively by The Age, provide incontrovertible evidence that the German company ignored and covered up repeated warnings that the drug, marketed to pregnant women as a morning sickness remedy, could damage unborn babies. Grunenthal can no longer claim that the scandal was an unforeseeable tragedy or that its actions were ''consistent with the state of scientific knowledge and prevailing standards of the 1950s''.
The documents, which came to light in support of a compensation claim by Melbourne victim Lynette Rowe, reveal that for at least two years before the drug was banned in late 1961, German medical professionals had told Grunenthal staff of concerns that children's deformities were caused by women taking the drug during pregnancy. One company file note casually reports that ''eight families, which as dependants of the Chemie Grunenthal Company, during the years between 1959 until 1961 had had deformed children''.
Accustomed as we have become to corporate spin and weasel words, the thalidomide dossier is as jolting as it is damning. ''We must take every precaution to see that no news of this information leaks out,'' wrote a senior Australian-based executive of Distillers Company (Biochemicals) Ltd, the British-owned marketer and distributor of thalidomide, when it was decided in December 1961 to withdraw the drug from sale amid growing internal concerns about its safety. Never-before-published internal files of the distributor, Distillers, also show that pregnant women in Australia were used as guinea pigs for thalidomide, and that authorities were actively misled about the drug's safety.
It was a different world in 1961, but Grunenthal seems frozen in a time capsule. While Diageo, the UK company which bought Distillers in 1997, has awarded Ms Rowe a hefty payout and is considering settling with up to 130 other victims, Grunenthal continues to deny culpability and defend legal actions. That caper is effectively over.
The company has no other option but to unequivocally apologise for its past conduct, abandon its defensive legal strategy and devise a compensation scheme for the long-suffering victims of its callousness and greed.