Disillusioned with politics? Then take heart in July 1

By Annabel Crabb

The very existence of the National Disability Insurance Scheme - to begin national operation this Friday - is a powerful rebuttal to that contemporary whine about big policy reforms being too hard for our short political attention spans, writes Annabel Crabb.

Being sick of this election campaign is now the leading sentiment on which Australians of voting age most fervently agree.

For everyone but Bill Shorten (one of those maniacs naturally born to enjoy campaigning) July 2 will mark the end of a chilly and largely underwhelming contest.

But if you need some cheering up, or some reassurance that it's not all a waste of time, or indeed even the tiniest scrap of evidence that the entire democratic world isn't sliding helplessly into a morass of property-developer-electing, compulsively-Brexiting kneejerk nationalism, try thinking about July 1 instead.

July 1 - this Friday - is the day on which the National Disability Insurance Scheme slips quietly into national operation. It's embedded now; a genuine new feature of the nation's public policy landscape. It has bipartisan support. Its existence is a powerful rebuttal to that contemporary whine about big policy reforms being too hard for our short political attention spans.

And it's a landmark worthy of reflection, partly because the scheme itself so very nearly never happened at all, and partly because its back story is a good lesson on what happens when politicians are led by their better angels.

It's 40 years since the first attempt at a disability insurance scheme in this country failed. Legislation to create one was lost in 1975 when its author - Gough Whitlam - was swept from power due to what we shall diplomatically call unrelated complications.

The Fraser government abandoned the scheme, and it was not revived until the early days of the Rudd government, when the incoming prime minister invited Australia's best and brightest along to feed him ideas for one glorious weekend of blue-sky thinking at the 2020 Summit in Parliament House in April 2008.

Now, disability didn't even warrant its own cluster group at the 2020 Summit. Despite the fact that 45 per cent of Australians with disability lived near or beneath the poverty line, disability was one of those policy areas that politics found too vast and intractable to do anything about.

Bruce Bonyhady, an economist, businessman, disability insurance scheme enthusiast and father of two sons with cerebral palsy, was not invited to the summit. But he sent a submission, and relentlessly lobbied anyone he could find who was going. By the end of the weekend, a disability insurance scheme was included as one of the summit's "Big Ideas".

But big ideas need sponsors.

It so happened that Rudd's arrival as prime minister had coincided with the arrival in Parliament of Bill Shorten, enthusiastically touted for some time as a future Labor leader. Mr Rudd, a man of renowned caution around potential rivals, bestowed upon Mr Shorten the lowliest of frontbench positions: Parliamentary secretary for disability services.

Shorten - while clearly registering the intended sting of this slap - vowed publicly and privately to make a difference in the portfolio. He was stunned by the extent of disadvantage he found among people with disabilities, and the lack of organisation between their many advocacy groups and peak bodies. He brought his old union organising skills to bear on the problem.

Within the Rudd government, Shorten found an ally in the powerful Families and Community Services Minister Jenny Macklin. She was not a supporter of Shorten's, but became convinced that he was genuine about the idea of a disability insurance scheme.

Her old boss and mentor Brian Howe - a member of the Hawke cabinet - was also in close touch with Bonyhady and had encouraged him to pursue the idea.

The combination of Shorten (an extrovert and advocate outside the cabinet) and Macklin (an influential and respected policy brain within) opened doors for the idea of a disability insurance scheme. Macklin worked on Wayne Swan, to whom she is close, and Swan sent the question of disability funding to the Productivity Commission in 2009 - a crucial step.

And when Rudd was removed as prime minister by his colleagues the following year, and Shorten was rewarded by the incoming PM Julia Gillard with the job of assistant treasurer, he kept up the pressure on disabilities, as did Macklin.

An initially sceptical Gillard was won over gradually and - when the Productivity Commission returned with an endorsement of the scheme - she decided to invest it with the weight of government support. The scheme received its first funding in the 2012 budget.

It's astounding to think - in retrospect - how quickly Australians living with disability went from the political too-hard-basket to the centre of a huge scheme with bipartisan support.

In the hung parliament years between 2010 and 2013, Tony Abbott's opposition relentlessly patrolled the Gillard government for any policy initiative it could attack as a "great big new tax". But it gave bipartisan support for the NDIS, even when Gillard announced that it would be funded by an increase to the Medicare levy.

And despite Labor warnings that the NDIS would be weakened, undermined or abandoned by the incoming Coalition Government after 2013 ... here it is.

The life story of the NDIS is a parable about how vulnerable policy reform can be to the ebb and flow of politics. Imagine where we might be now if the scheme had been legislated in 1972, when Whitlam was still capable of getting things done, rather than 1975, by which time he wasn't?

What if Bruce Bonyhady hadn't nagged all those people to talk about his idea at the 2020 Summit? What if Bill Shorten, given the short straw, had gone off and sulked for three years? What if Wayne Swan - a treasurer under pressure to post a surplus - had simply dismissed the NDIS as too expensive? What if Tony Abbott had used the expenditure as a weapon against Labor? Or dismantled the scheme after the 2013 election?

The scheme isn't finished yet; it's had teething problems and there will no doubt be more. But as an example of our political system seeing a terrible inequity, and somehow finding a way to address it even though it was difficult and expensive and not a populist cause ... it's something to smile about on the way to the polling booth.