What is the NDIS? A quick overview and history

Written by:
Angela Cox

Angela Cox

Principal Lawyer

In this article:

When it was introduced in 2013, the NDIS was heralded as being the greatest social reform in Australia since Medicare [1]. This article describes what the NDIS is and how it came about.

What is the NDIS?  

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is a national, government-run and funded system which provides funding, support and services for people with a significant disability so that they can achieve their individual goals and aspirations in life, and participate in economic, social and community life as they wish. 

The NDIS is, like Medicare, based on an insurance principles. It aims to strike a balance between giving the individual with significant disability ‘choice and control’ over the selection of their funded ‘reasonable and necessary’ support package, while ensuring that the NDIS, as a national insurance scheme for the benefit of all Australians, remains ‘financial sustainable’ in the long term.

The NDIS also has the secondary function of providing all people with disability (including those not eligible for an individualised support package) and their families and carers information and referral services to help connect them with appropriate service and supports in the community [2].

How did the NDIS come about? 

In 2010, the Rudd Labor Government recognised the long-standing problems and inequities of Australia’s then state and territory based disability systems and asked the Productivity Commission to carry out a public inquiry into an alternative national disability care and support scheme [3].

The Productivity Commission received more than 1,000 submissions from people with disability and others in the disability sector. On 10 August 2011, (then) Prime Minister Julia Gillard, released the Productivity Commission’s voluminous report [4]. 

In a nutshell, the Productivity Commission found the existing disability systems were miserably failing people with disability and their families, and should therefore be replaced by the NDIS. Below is a summary of its ‘key findings’:

Most families and individuals cannot adequately prepare for the risk and financial impact of significant disability. The costs of lifetime care can be so substantial that the risks and costs need to be pooled. 

The current disability support system is underfunded, unfair, fragmented, and inefficient, and gives people with a disability little choice and no certainty of access to appropriate supports. The stresses on the system are growing, with rising costs for all governments. 

There should be a new national scheme — the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) — that provides insurance cover for all Australians in the event of significant disability. Funding of the scheme should be a core function of government (just like Medicare). 

The main function (and source of cost) of the NDIS would be to fund long-term high quality care and support (but not income replacement) for people with significant disabilities. Everyone would be insured and around 410,000 people would receive scheme funding support. 

The NDIS would have other roles. It would aim to better link the community and people with disabilities, including by using not-for-profit organisations. It would also provide information to people, help break down stereotypes, and ensure quality assurance and diffusion of best practice among providers. 

The benefits of the scheme would significantly outweigh the costs. People would know that, if they or a member of their family acquired a significant disability, there would be a properly financed, comprehensive, cohesive system to support them. [5]

Why the Productivity Commission findings remain important today

In the ten years since the release of the report, the above passage has been quoted to death!  But I have requoted it for two important reasons. 

First, it sums up the sorry state the Productivity Commission found the pre-NDIS stated and territory based disability support systems to be in. It describes the problems that the new system needed to fix.

Second, it clearly articulates the intended design of the new system (the NDIS) to fix these pressing problems. It is this articulation of the original policy intent of the NDIS, that should guide and influence the current and future interpretation of NDIS legislation by decision-makers (both administrative and judicial) [6]. 

The original policy intent should also be a dominant consideration in policy debates and discussion about future reform of the NDIS, especially given that the immediate and almost universal acceptance of the scheme, as envisaged by the Productivity Commission, by ALL state and territory governments, the Federal Government and the Federal Opposition, then the Liberal National Party led by Tony Abbott [7].

Trial and implementation of the NDIS

The Federal, state and territory governments through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) not only agreed to the Productivity Commission’s recommendation for a NDIS, but the COAG Select Council on Disability Reform decided, on 20 October 2011, to begin trials of the NDIS by mid-2013, one year ahead of the timetable suggested by the Productivity Commission [8]. 

The intention, in bringing forward the start of the NDIS trials to 1 July 2013, was to allow people with disability and their families to access the support they needed as soon as possible. 

Now with the benefit of hindsight, many in the sector agree that the decision to bring forward the start of the NDIS trials by one year, led to work on the establishment of the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), the government entity responsible for delivering the NDIS, and operational arrangements, like the NDIA’s IT and communications systems and its workforce, and existing client and provider transitions to the NDIS, all being rushed. Indeed, an independent review into the capability of the NDIA to deliver the NDIS reported that the agency as being ‘like a plane that took off before it had been fully built and is being completed while it is in the air’ [9]. 

Nonetheless, the NDIS began on 1 July 2013 with trial sites in:

  • Tasmania for young people aged 15-24;
  • South Australia for children aged under 14;
  • the Barwon area of Victoria and
  • the Hunter area in New South Wales for people up to age 65 [9].

The trial period finished in July 2016 and what was called the ‘full scheme rollout’ of the NDIS across Australia commenced. The rollout was conducted in a staged and staggered manner (as recommended by the Productivity Commission) to allow for ‘fine tuning’ of the system during the course of the rollout. It was finally completed on 1 July 2020, when Christmas Island and Cocos Island joined the scheme [11].


It has been ten years since the historical production and release of the Productivity Commission report recommending the introduction of the NDIS. Yet it has been only one year since the completion of the rollout across Australia. During the trial and rollout period, the NDIS has been the subject of multiple reviews and reports and amendments to the NDIS legislation.

The system, while it has certainly matured since 2013, is yet to be perfected. However, the NDIS is here to stay and there remains a commitment by the Government, the Opposition and disability sector to continue to build on what we have, so the NDIS as a system can soar as smoothly and reliably as a Boeing 747 (well, in pre-COVID times!). 

Special Voices and the NDIS

Special Voices specialises in NDIS legal advice, representation and advocacy services to family members of children and adults with an intellectual disability. Contact Special Voices to book a free 60-minute, no obligation, initial consultation to discuss how I can assist your family to solve its NDIS problems and get the fairest and best outcomes from the system.


  1. H. Dickinson, NDIS hiccups are expected, as with any large-scale social reformThe Conversation, 18 April 2017.
  2. (a) What is the NDIS, NDIS website. (b) L. Buckmaster, National Disability Insurance Scheme, Budget Review 2012–13 Index, Research Publication, Australian Parliament House Library. 
  3. Media Release, Australian Government to consider new approaches to disability, jointly by the Hon Kevin Rudd MP, Prime Minister, the Hon Jenny Macklin MP, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs) and the Hon Bill Shorten MP, Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services on 23 November 2009. 
  4. Transcript of joint press conference given in Melbourne on 10 August 2011 by the Hon Julia Gillard MP, Prime Minister, The Hon Bill Shorten MP, Assistant Treasurer, The Hon Jenny Macklin MP, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Senator the Hon Jan McLucas, Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Carers. Available at https://pmtranscripts.pmc.gov.au/release/transcript-18063.
  5. Productivity Commission Inquiry Report, Disability Care and Support, No.54, 31 July 2011. The quote in the article is in Volume 1 at page 2, under ‘Key Points’. 
  6. Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (Cth). Section 15AB allows the use of ‘extrinsic material’ relevant to the making of an Act. This would certainly include the Production Commission report in respect of the National Disability Insurance Scheme Act 2013 (Cth).
  7. C. Bennett, Abbott backs national disability scheme, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 April 2012.
  8. (a) Media Release, Early delivery of foundation reforms for National Disability Insurance Scheme, jointly by Senator the Hon Jan McLucas, Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Carers, The Hon Wayne Swan MP, Deputy Prime Minister-Treasurer and The Hon Jenny Macklin MP, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs on 20 October 2011. (b) L. Buckmaster and S. Clark, National Disability Insurance Scheme: a chronologyResearch Papers 2018-2019, Australian Parliament House Library.
  9. J. Whalan, P. Acton and J. Harmer. A review of the capabilities of the National Disability Insurance Agency, January 2014 at page 7.
  10. History of the NDIS, NDIS website.
  11. Media Release, Delivering the NDIS: roll-out complete across Australia as Christmas and Cocos Islands join world-leading scheme by the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Stuart Robert on 1 July 2020.

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DISCLAIMER: The information provided in this article is general only. While it may provide guidance on a issue or matter that you may have, it should not be relied on as legal advice. We recommend that you obtain legal advice specific to your issue or matter.

© A. Cox 2024
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