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A group of campaigners and the media are gathered on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra. The campaigners, some in wheel chairs, are holding up placards. Signs with cities, towns and districts across Australia in the formation of NDIS lie on the grass in front of them..

NDIS campaigners gather at Parliament House

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is a national scheme to provide needs-based support to all disabled people in Australia.

This is not insurance that individuals buy. Rather, because anyone may be born with disability, or may later suffer it due to illness or accident, the NDIS spreads the cost of supporting disabled people across the whole community.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, speaking for the National Disability Insurance Scheme Bill, House of Representatives, 29 November 2012:

Disability can affect any of us and therefore it affects all of us … The existence of disability in our community cannot always be avoided. But the consequences of disability – isolation, poverty, loss of dignity, stress, hopelessness and fear of the future – can be avoided … The National Disability Insurance Scheme is the greatest change to Australian social policy in a generation and a mark of how deeply the conscience of our nation has been touched.

The NDIS idea

Universal insurance schemes have been around for a long time, in the form of workers’ compensation and third-party insurance for those injured in vehicle accidents.

The Whitlam government (1972–75) introduced universal health insurance (Medibank, now Medicare) and considered a similar scheme to cover people with disabilities. The government fell before this could be achieved and Malcom Fraser’s new Liberal government let it lapse.

Many people helped revive the idea. Melbourne economist Bruce Bonyhady was drawn into disability advocacy by his experiences as father to two boys with cerebral palsy. In 2005, as chairman of disability aid group Yooralla, he realised that the current patchwork system simply did not provide enough resources to meet people’s needs.

An older man and two younger men who are standing amongst a garden backdrop smile for the camera.

Professor Bruce Bonyhady, inaugural chair of the National Disability Insurance Agency, with his sons

Bonyhady spoke to Brian Howe, a minister in the Hawke–Keating government in the 1980s and 1990s. Howe’s advice was that he had to stop thinking about disability policy as ‘welfare’, and instead think of it as ‘risk and insurance and investment’. For Bonyhady it was the lightbulb moment.

Bonyhady then consulted John Walsh, an actuary who became a quadriplegic after being injured playing rugby. An expert on workers’ compensation and motor accident insurance schemes, Walsh did more than anyone to estimate the actual costs of supporting disabled people in Australia and to design the NDIS.

Winning support

With Helen Sykes, Chair of the James Macready-Bryan Foundation, Bonyhady made a submission to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Australia 2020 Summit, held in Canberra in April 2008.

Their submission was one of the ‘Big Ideas’ at the summit. As several bodies and the Disability Investment Group and the ‘Shut Out’ Reports supported the call for such a scheme, the government asked the Productivity Commission to report on possible approaches.

In 2011 the Productivity Commission reported that the current system was ‘underfunded, unfair, fragmented, and inefficient’. The report – one of whose authors was John Walsh – supported the call for a National Disability Insurance Scheme. The aim was to insure the whole Australian population against the risk that they, or people they cared for, would suffer from disability. To achieve this, disability funding would need to double.

The Labor government took up the report’s recommendations. Key figures were Jenny Macklin, Minister for Disability Reform, and Bill Shorten, a former Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services. Prime Minister Julia Gillard (who had replaced Rudd in June 2010) was a strong supporter. At the same time, a huge alliance of disability and carers groups came together, through Every Australian Counts, to lobby for the plan.

Bill Shorten and two women, one holding a young girl, are seated at a table laden with refreshments.

Bill Shorten and Jenny Macklin meet Maggy and her mum at the funding announcement for the NDIS

A young girl with a big smile sits on a pink beanbag displaying a photograph of Julia Gillard. - click to view larger image
Sophie Deane proudly displays a photograph she took of Prime Minister Julia Gillard on the day she met her

Establishment of the NDIS

The National Disability Insurance Scheme Act (NDIS Act) was passed in May 2013. It had bipartisan support.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott had earlier told disability advocate Rhonda Galbally, ‘Normally I’m Mr No, but on this occasion I’m Mr Yes!’ Galbally had contracted polio as a baby.

The NDIS Act came into effect on 1 July 2013, but it took seven years for the scheme to be fully implemented. Trials began almost immediately in parts of four states and the Australian Capital Territory.

A year on, more than 7,000 care plans had been set up for individuals with disabilities. The NDIS began to roll out nationally in mid-2016. The last state to join was Western Australia in 2018.

Today the NDIS covers all Australian residents who are born with or acquire a significant and permanent disability before age 65. These are people who need another person’s support, special equipment or intervention to reduce disability in the future. Disabilities may be physical, intellectual, sensory, cognitive or psychosocial.

Julia Gillard who appears quite emotional addresses the chamber at Parliament House. - click to view larger image
An emotional Prime Minister Julia Gillard introduced legislation to partially fund DisabilityCare Australia

How does the NDIS work?

The scheme does not pay basic living expenses, apart from those directly connected with the disability. But it does provide disability-related equipment and assistance with daily living activities and access to the community.

It also helps recipients improve their wellbeing, find a place to live, get a job, improve their education and develop good relationships.

There is no set budget for support. Each recipient has an individual plan, based on his or her own needs. Within the limits set by the plan, the recipient is in control of expenditure.

By 2020 the NDIS was providing support to over 400,000 Australian residents, of whom nearly half had missed out on support through earlier, state-based schemes. Total payments to recipients in the 2019–20 financial year were $17.2 billion.

The cost of the scheme is likely to rise, as the number of people helped increases (probably to over 500,000 by 2023) and there is a general rise in the benefits paid to each person.

The NDIS has been criticised for being hard to access and difficult to navigate. In 2020 an independent review issued 29 recommendations for improving the experience of people who use the scheme. The review also found better outcomes were experienced the longer people were in the NDIS.

The NDIS remains a world leader in supporting people with disability. As Prime Minister Gillard said in introducing it:

The risk of disability is universal, so our response must be universal.

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Parliamentary Library, ‘The National Disability Insurance Scheme: A quick guide’

The Conversation, ‘Change agents: Rhonda Galbally and Bruce Bonyhady on the birth of the NDIS’

NDIS Annual Report 2019–20, NDIS, Canberra, September 2020. This and other reports can be downloaded:

Productivity Commission Inquiry Report, Disability Care and Support: Overview and Recommendations (PC report 54, 2011), Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, July 2011. This and the full two-volume report can be downloaded:

Updated: 25 May 2023
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