By Chris Ford
Disabled people got a mixed bag from Labour's 2022 Budget. The government's emphasis on health and climate change as part of this Budget meant that the disabled community was curious about what would be contained in it. However, there were hints prior to the Budget that there would be funding to support the transformation of the disability support system.
On this first point, around disability system transformation, the government did somewhat deliver in terms of their $943 million package to support its implementation. This constituted $735m for disability support services, $100m to roll out the Enabling Good Lives (EGL) approach to delivering services which will allow disabled people like myself and thousands of others to have greater choice and control over their disability supports, and $108m to establish the Ministry for Disabled People.
While I welcome this component of the Budget, there has to be some caution applied here as in the inflationary environment we now live in, disability support budgets could be exceeded very easily. That's why I question as to whether the government has provided adequate funding to cover this much needed transformation. It will be interesting to see whether by this time next year, the new system transformation is working as intended or as to whether it's facing undue pressures due to greater demand and rising costs.
I also support other elements of the Budget which will benefit disabled people either directly or indirectly. Some of the extra spending on health care will assist disabled people and people with health conditions, including the additional $191 million spending on Pharmac that it will enable the agency to subsidise many new drugs.
Another announcement that I welcome is the extension by three months of greater fare concessions for public transport users, many of whom are disabled people. As a Community Services Card holder, I will also personally benefit from the permanent extension of these concessions and I know of others who will. However, I would still like to see the fare concessions made permanent for everyone and even better, a pledge to provide universal fare free public transport for all New Zealanders made in the next Budget. If the government did this in 2023, it would be a huge win for both people and the environment.
On the smaller but not insignificant side of things as well, I even see that there is funding for First Signs, an initiative that will provide families and whānau of Deaf or hard of hearing children the ability to learn New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL).
Conversely, though, this Budget is still marked by what was not in it for disabled people.
Mostly, this centres around the fact that benefits were not increased to liveable levels, something that would benefit many disabled people. Neither did government take up the opportunity to change the absurdly puritanical relationship rules around benefit receipt which particularly penalise disabled people who enter relationships with non-beneficiary partners.
None of the other initiatives called for by campaigning groups such as Fairer Future, a collective of non-government organisations, were announced or even foreshadowed either including the wiping of all debt owed to MSD, the removal of benefit sanctions or improvements to supplementary assistance and urgent grants (apart from the increase in emergency dental grants which, while welcome, only apply to emergency procedures).
Indeed, all of the above would have benefited many disabled people immensely given that 54 percent of disabled people are in receipt of a main benefit. What is more gutting is that there was no increase made to the maximum Disability Allowance and Child Disability Allowance payments and nor any minimum payment level created below which they could not fall, given that the current average rate of allowances granted by Work and Income NZ are very miserly.
Given this context, the government's decision to pay working individuals and families and not superannuitants or beneficiaries a $350 cost of living payment is really disappointing. I will be one of the 2.1 million New Zealanders who will be benefiting from this payment and I have no doubt that this policy will be a positive one for the minority of disabled people, like me, who are fortunate enough to be in work. Yet, I feel for many of my fellow disabled New Zealanders who will be shut out from receiving this payment, a much needed one in times like this.
That's why I firmly believe that this $350 payment should be increased, extended into a permanent one and paid out to all people on low and middle incomes, including superannuitants and beneficiaries. Moreover, why not turn this payment into the basis of a universal basic income system which would eventually benefit all New Zealanders, including workers, beneficiaries and middle class professionals alike and one funded through genuinely progressive taxes such as wealth or capital gains taxes.
Lastly, the disappointing elements of this Budget were made tangential for me by the fact that there is no funding available for preventing violence and abuse against disabled people. In a society which discriminates against us and violates our rights in every way, the rate of violence against disabled people is extremely high.
While I acknowledge and applaud the work of Green Party Minister for the Prevention of Family and Sexual Violence Marama Davidson and Green MP Jan Logie on the recently announced Te Aorerekura - the National Strategy to Eliminate Family Violence and Sexual Violence - it's very disappointing and even puzzling to me as to why no specific funding has been earmarked for initiatives to tackle this tsunami of violence against disabled people. After all, the Strategy does make specific references to the high incidence of violence against disabled people both within families/whānau and the wider community. My hope is that this funding gap will be addressed in time for Budget 2023, if not before, as I personally know that both Davidson and Logie are great allies of disabled people.
Therefore, from a disability perspective, I give this Budget and my former fellow intermediate school mate and University of Otago Politics alumni Grant Robertson a C- pass on this Budget from a disabled person's perspective. That means there's great some great intiatives there but there's still urgent work to do to address the gaps that remain for disabled New Zealanders.
*Chris Ford is a Dunedin-based freelance writer and disability advocate. He currently works for Disabled Persons Assembly (DPA) New Zealand and as a research assistant for two universities. However, the view expressed in this article are purely his own.