2013 was a watershed year for disability reform in Australia. After a five-year campaign, the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is now law.

The NDIS truly is a bold new idea, providing no-fault, needs-based, individualized funding packages and support for people with a disability, paid for with an increase of 0.5% in personal income tax rates.

The success of Australia’s NDIS campaign has global implications and gives cause for optimism for a better and fairer future for all. So, what were the ingredients of success? And can they be replicated?

In 2008, the prevailing political orthodoxy was that disability was a fringe issue with limited voter appeal. The need for reform had been understood and ignored by successive governments of all political stripes since the mid-1970s. A good idea perhaps, but far too expensive.

Five short years on, the NDIS enabling legislation was supported unanimously by an otherwise fractious Australian parliament. Voter support for the new tax stood at 79%.

What changed? Coordinated campaigning right across the political divide, towards a common goal, was driven by a united disability sector that had finally set aside its long internecine squabbles.

Three key elements made the unlikely alliance of angels so effective:

1. Awareness

That most people simply didn’t know how bad things were for people with a disability was the premise behind the NDIS campaign, kick-started by then disability minister, Bill Shorten (now leader of the opposition), fully supported by then opposition spokesman, Mitch Fifield (now disability minister), as well as the Greens.

Disability affected 20% of Australians but they were dispersed across the country and lacked a coordinated political voice. Much of the rest of the country simply didn’t know.

The government commissioned a report to raise community awareness of an issue hidden in plain sight from millions.

The landmark 2009 Shut Out report found that while people with a disability were no longer shut in – in institutions now closed – they remained shut out of society, living on the fringes, excluded from education, employment and opportunities for social participation.

The most common refrain from voters as to whether we should have an NDIS was disbelief that we didn’t have one already.

Most assumed that looking after our most vulnerable should be the core business of government.

It wasn’t, and people needed to be told.


2. Self-interest

“The trouble with disabilities is that most Australians think they happen to someone else.”

Building on the stories in Shut Out, the Every Australian Counts campaign, led by John Della Bosca, brought more to life.

Every parent and potential parent or grandparent could see themselves as one fateful event from calamity.

“Them” became “us”.  What if we, or someone we loved, fell off a ladder at home? Shouldn’t we all be insured against life’s tragic possibilities? And thus – one story at a time – an issue of “charity for them” transformed to “insurance for us”.


3. It’s the economy, stupid

The final piece of the puzzle was to refute the idea that the NDIS was a social luxury we could not afford.

The hardheads of the Productivity Commission were called in.

In August 2011, after holding 23 public hearings and receiving 1,062 public submissions, the comprehensive independent report was published, which found that the economic costs of inaction vastly outweighed the costs of action.

Unlocking the economic potential of people excluded from gainful employment would require an upfront investment, for sure. But the alternative was far worse, with growing numbers on disability support and many more carers out of the labour market.

The NDIS would pay for itself through lower welfare payments, higher employment participation and higher tax receipts.

A similar analysis in the UK found that its government funding programme for disabled people in the workplace – which effectively removed financial disincentives for companies to employ disabled workers – registered a return on investment to the government of 48%.

None of this is to say that the NDIS victory is complete; its implementation will be a key challenge for the new Abbott Government. Every taxpayer now has a stake through their insurance premium, and an expectation of no waste and good implementation.

For millions of Australians affected by disability, a more accessible and inclusive future depends on it.

More broadly, the NDIS campaign suggests that with strong leadership and effective communication, a combination of awareness, self-interest and economics can rapidly elevate an issue too long ignored.

Author: Tony Abrahams is co-founder and chief executive officer of Ai-Media. He is also a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader

Image: Australia’s Heath Francis celebrates after winning the men’s 100m during the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games (REUTERS/Jason Lee)