The Politics    Thursday, April 21, 2022

A blessing and a cause

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during the first leaders’ debate of the 2022 federal election at the Gabba in Brisbane last night. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during the first leaders’ debate of the 2022 federal election at the Gabba in Brisbane last night. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Morrison’s gaffe about being “blessed” not to have disabled children should spark a more important debate about the NDIS

Traditional and social media have been heavily focused today on Scott Morrison’s leaders’ debate “gaffe”, in which he thoughtlessly told a mother asking about NDIS cuts that he and wife Jenny were “blessed” not to have disabled children. Twitter has been, in the parlance of the PM, “a pile-on”, with everyone from disability advocates to Labor MPs to Australians of the Year (including Grace Tame and Dylan Alcott) attacking the prime minister over the insulting implication that disabled children are a burden. To be fair to Morrison, his comment, as Sky News hosts and defensive Liberal MPs tried to explain, was more likely an unfortunate, if insensitive, word choice. He did not mean to imply that having an autistic child was some kind of punishment from God, though his Pentecostal faith certainly added to the mess. After initially hitting back, telling 2GB that his comments were in “good faith” while his critics were showing “bad faith”, Morrison this afternoon offered a rare apology, saying he had been in touch with Alcott to apologise. “I meant no offence by what I said last night, but I accept that it has caused offence to people,” he said. “I would hope that people would accept that at face value, and [I] deeply apologise for any offence.” Of course, the substantive issue with Morrison’s answer wasn’t whether he truly thought himself blessed not to have disabled children. It’s that he didn’t have an answer, or a clear plan, for those who do.

Unfortunately, in the pile-on, that issue has been largely missed. What Catherine – the mother of a four-year-old autistic son whose NDIS funding had been cut – was highlighting in her question is a pressing issue, with many families in crisis following cuts to plans for participants with intellectual disabilities. It’s an issue that Labor’s NDIS architect and spokesperson Bill Shorten has been trying to highlight, as he pledges to fix and review the scheme. “This government is almost creating a two-class disability system,” Shorten told the ABC back in February, accusing the government of a “secret plan” to roll back costs by focusing on children with autism. In that same report, NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds denied there had been cuts, saying that the scheme was fully funded. But try telling that to Catherine, or the thousands currently fighting changes to their plans through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Catherine wanted to know what the future of the NDIS looked like under each of the major parties. (Her question is worth watching in full.) But Morrison, in his bid to make his answers more personal (the very thing that led him into this “blessed” mess), failed to address that, instead praising the NDIS and talking about his disabled brother-in-law Gary getting lots of great support. “It’s expensive,” he said, attempting valiance. “But I believe it’s worth investing in.” When Catherine asked again about the cuts, noting that Morrison had talked up early intervention yet her family had just had their funding cut by 30 per cent for no reason, the PM again failed to offer any real answers, but offered to take her details so that his team could “look at” her particular case, much as he had done with Ray the Newcastle pensioner before her. As I wrote at the time, this is not the way the government is supposed to work, and it’s certainly not what we need from a leaders’ forum. While these kinds of questions are often framed in terms of the personal, people are usually asking what the government intends to do about systemic issues, not whether they can get an individual fix to their own problems. There was an echo of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins’ recent comment (“I didn’t want his sympathy as a father, I wanted him to use his power as prime minister”) in Alcott’s response today: “Feeling sorry for us and our families doesn’t help. Treating us equally, and giving us the choice and control over our own lives does.”

Catherine is obviously far from alone in her experiences, which Anthony Albanese noted when it was his turn to respond. As Guardian Australia’s social affairs editor Luke Henriques-Gomes writes today, there has been a shocking 400 per cent rise in legal appeals against NDIS decisions since July 2021. The media is full of devastating stories of people’s support being dramatically reduced or cut entirely. (“Talkback hosts say when they mention the NDIS, they are flooded with callers complaining about cuts,” Henriques-Gomes adds.) It was noted by many others that the only real “blessing” here would be not having to deal with the outright bureaucratic nightmare that is the NDIS, something Liberal MPs seemed to acknowledge in their defences of Morrison today. But why, then, continually make it harder to access?

As with last week’s focus on Albanese’s employment rate gaffe, today’s focus on Morrison’s self-centred, insensitive, careless but ultimately not malicious remark is distracting us from the real issues. When Liberal senator Hollie Hughes, whose son is autistic, leapt to the PM’s defence today, arguing that focusing on his use of the word “blessed” was missing the point (while hitting out at the “permanent rage machine” in the community), she did, uncharacteristically, have a point. There are far bigger issues going on in this sector, many of which are fuelling that rage machine. And one of those is the Coalition’s insistence that everything is going just fine.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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