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Australian PM launches bill to up disability care

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ROD McGUIRK | May 14, 2013 11:59 PM EST | AP

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CANBERRA, Australia — In a rare departure from her characteristically tough style, a teary-eyed Prime Minister Julia Gillard introduced a new tax bill to Parliament on Wednesday that would fund better care for Australians with severe physical and mental disabilities.

During an emotional speech to Parliament, Gillard's voice became unsteady after she spoke of a thank you card she had recently received that featured her photograph taken by a 12-year-old girl who has Down syndrome.

Gillard said the tax would provide a funding base for a national disability insurance scheme that had remained little more than a concept for the past six years.

"There'll be no more `in principle' and no more `when circumstances permit,'" Gillard said, referring to past qualifications on the scheme becoming a reality.

"There'll be launches, not trials; permanent care, not temporary help," she said.

The speech came amid a frenetic morning of media interviews in which Gillard defended her government's latest budget, its last before elections on Sept. 14. Critics argue that the budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, which was released Tuesday night, doesn't do enough to rein in spending and to balance the nation's books.

Earlier this month, Gillard attempted to make the new disability tax an election issue. She promised to introduce the legislation only after she won the next election – an outcome that opinion polls show is unlikely.

But opposition leader Tony Abbott quickly agreed to support the tax despite his misgivings about its financial burden on a slowing economy.

Polling suggests Australians support the national scheme as a better funded and fairer alternative to the current regime in which disability support varies between states and according to whether a person was injured in circumstances covered by insurance.

The tax would take effect from July 14, 2014, and raise 20.4 billion Australian dollars ($20.2 billion) in its first four years. It is expected to pay for 55 percent of the scheme. The remainder would be funded from general revenue and the states.

The government in December abandoned a long-standing promise to deliver a budget surplus in the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30, blaming a fading mining boom and a slowing economy.

Treasurer Wayne Swan announced on Tuesday that a AU$1.5 billion surplus forecast a year ago was expected to be a AU$19.4 billion deficit. The government did not expect to balance the books until 2015-16.

Newspaper headlines variously described the budget as Gillard's or her government's "swan song," offering few sweeteners to voters that are typical in election years.