Opinion: Budget a 'mixed bag' for disabled people

Dunedin-based disability policy advisor at DPA New Zealand, Chris Ford. Photo: ODT files
Dunedin-based disability policy advisor at DPA New Zealand, Chris Ford. Photo: ODT files
By Chris Ford

Opinion - Disabled people around the country are feeling a mixture of disappointment and relief in the new coalition government's first Budget.

There is relief that there is a funding boost for Whaikaha to ensure continuity of disability support funding. There is also deep disappointment that much-needed flexibility for individualised funding and respite care was not restored.

The $1.1 billion of new funding was across a five-year timeframe, amounting to an average increase of $220 million per year. This extra money will enable the disability support system to continue operating, but without a lot of the flexibility available before.

The fact there was a funding boost, but not a restoration in flexibility, tells us that government has not been listening to disabled people, families, whānau and carers throughout the motu who have been speaking out at rallies, in the media and in letters to ministers.

Our primary call was for the return of flexibility, because having it gives disabled people and whānau the control to determine what supports work for us as individuals. We know from many years of trials that flexibility leads to improved safety and wellbeing outcomes for disabled people.

We are also awaiting, with trepidation, the outcome of the disability support review implemented by Disability Issues Minister Louise Upston. The review panel needs to listen to Aotearoa's disability community and convey to government our views, including our need for flexible support.

Equally importantly, disability support changes are not the only government policy that have impacted on this country's disabled community.

As made clear in a report released this week by the Disabled Persons Assembly (DPA) and Fairer Futures, entitled A Thousand Cuts, and in an open letter to Finance Minister Nicola Willis and Upston (now signed by over 60 organisations), the cumulative impacts of the coalition government's policies - announced both before the Budget and within it - will make life harder for many disabled people.

Cumulative impacts range across government policies in employment, health, housing, welfare and

Te Tiriti, among others.

From DPA's analysis of the Budget and earlier announced measures, we identified the following impacts:

• Minimum wage exemption remains: We are very disappointed to see that the new coalition government will not carry through the previous government's commitment to getting rid of this unfair, discriminatory policy by 2025. Its continuation will mean that disabled people can be paid as little as $2 per hour (before tax) while working mostly in segregated, sheltered workshop environments. We as a country don't tolerate people being paid differently on account of their gender or migration status; nor should we accept the exploitation-level pay given to disabled people. The United Nations has advised the government to end this policy. This government deciding not to do so will mean that this country will be in breach of its human rights obligations towards disabled people in this regard.

• Tangata whaikaha Māori: We are very concerned around the breaches of Te Tiriti rights and tino rangatiratanga for Māori disabled throughout Aotearoa. It is not possible to uphold self-determination and leadership for all disabled people without honouring Te Tiriti. The increase in mental distress for Māori with the current political environment also causes us major apprehension. There is no clear path to deal with the disparities experienced by Māori disabled in comparison to their non-Māori disabled peers when it comes to this Budget.

• Health: The well-signalled removal of universal free prescriptions and the return of a $5 per item co-payment will impact on many disabled people, particularly those who don't qualify for the Community Services Card (CSC) or have children over the age of 14. While DPA welcomes the retention of free scripts for CSC holders, people over 65 and children, the comparatively low-income threshold for CSC eligibility means that many disabled people in work (who are disproportionately minimum-wage earners) will still have to pay more for prescription items (before the prescription cap applies), as many disabled people need medications to ensure that their impairment/condition remains stable.

• Housing: This year's Budget saw a significant reduction in spending on emergency and transitional housing, something that is accessed by many disabled people (as it was by this writer in 2020-21). While the emergency/transitional housing system is imperfect, the government's cuts will see even more people become homeless throughout the motu. If the government wants to make a dent in the housing waitlist, which includes many disabled people, then it should invest significantly in Kāinga Ora to build more homes (as the previous government did) and not just leave the non-government social housing sector to carry the burden.

• Welfare: The government has announced moves to introduce a traffic-light based sanctions system, which will impact on many disabled people who access the JobSeeker Support (medically deferred) Payment - formerly the Sickness Benefit. Many disabled people on this benefit are there due to having a health condition or impairment which prevents full-time work and, in an increasing number of cases, not being able to get onto the Supported Living Payment (formerly the Invalids Benefit) due to its much stricter qualifying criteria. Penalising disabled people who find it difficult to acquire jobs due to facing discrimination from employers or not being able to work in a conventional 9-to-5 job is unjust, unfair and immoral. The Government's earlier moves that saw benefits being de-linked from being raised either by the increase in consumer prices or average wages (whichever was the highest) will leave disabled people and other beneficiaries thousands of dollars worse off over the coming years too.

Whilst our worst fears weren't realised in Budget 2024, we are aware that the impact of many of the policy changes being brought in for disabled people will only become apparent as the year progresses.

Disabled Person's Assembly will continue to watch this space and to speak out for disabled people's rights.

*Chris Ford is a Dunedin-based policy advisor (southern and central) at DPA New Zealand. This article represents DPA's views on Budget 2024.