A business leader has warned the Gillard government to “be realistic” about whether it can afford its disability insurance and school funding reforms, suggesting the measures may be scaled back.
Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott called on the government to reveal 10-year plans outlining the costs of the National Disability Insurance Scheme and Gonski education reforms beyond the four-year budget cycle.
The call for a more modest version of the reforms comes as the government tries to clear the way for a school funding deal with state and territory leaders at the Council of Australian Governments meeting in Canberra next week.
Federal School Education Minister Peter Garrett is expected to convene another phone hook-up with his counterparts to thrash out details of the Gonski reforms which are expected to inject an extra $6.5 billion a year into school funding.
Ms Westacott said the government needed to be realistic about what it could afford.
“We’re calling for the government to sit down with the states and really nut out 10-year implementation plans for Gonski and the National Disability Insurance Scheme, to make sure that we’re really clear about what we’re getting, that it’s meeting the outcomes that people think it should, and we can pay for it,” she said in an interview with Fairfax Media’s Breaking Politics program on Thursday.
Ms Westacott said the budget, to be handed down on May 14, should be clear about the cost beyond the four-year forward estimates.
“Things like Gonski, things like NDIS, if we’re going to pay for those as a country, there’s no point having small amounts of spending in the forward estimates with big amounts of spending beyond the forward estimates that aren’t clear to the states [and] aren’t clear to the community. We have to be confident we can pay for these things in the long term.”
Ms Westacott said while the intent of the reforms was “extremely good”, the government needed to phase in the changes in an affordable way.
“The question I would ask is what do people think we’re getting in these schemes? We talk about them constantly but I think if you said to the average person in the street, what do you think a National Disability Insurance Scheme is actually going to deliver on the ground, what will change tomorrow, I’m not sure that there’d be uniform agreement,” she said.
“I think we’ve got to sort of stop and say, what is it we’re trying to achieve in these schemes and can we do that in a way that does not impose a cost we can’t afford?
“Let’s take education. There are lots of things we can do around the Gonski package and around educational reform that are going to lift standards but don’t necessarily cost the same amount of money.
“I think it’s time . . . for the Commonwealth and the states to say what are we trying to do, can we afford it, can we do some parts of this reform without imposing more burdens on the taxpayer and are we really clear what the cost is going to be over the long term, and have we made the right provision so we can afford it?”
Ms Westacott called on the government to produce a credible medium-term plan to return to surplus, while taking care not to harm economic growth.
She said Australia did not have a “debt crisis” but did have a budget management problem.
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