BILL SHORTEN MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR THE NATIONAL DISABILITY INSURANCE SCHEME
SHADOW MINISTER FOR GOVERNMENT SERVICES
MEMBER FOR MARIBYRNONG
ADDRESS TO THE NATIONAL PRESS CLUB
THE FUTURE OF THE NDIS
WEDNESDAY, 28 APRIL 2021
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Today, in 2021, very few people would argue with the proposition that it is wrong to treat someone as lesser because of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
We have seen over the decades, particularly during the 20th Century, all of these groups fighting for and claiming their civil rights.
But how our society treats those with disability is also a civil rights issue.
And that, at heart, was the basis of Labor creating the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
As we worked with the disability grassroots to bring the NDIS into being, our position was this:
*The disability experience should no longer be relegated to the shadows
It should not be a matter of misplaced stigma or shame
The disability experience is just part of the broader mainstream Australian experience.
You might not be one of the many people born with a disability. But you might develop a disability in early or later life. You might acquire a disability suddenly through an accident or medical event like a stroke.
If that happens to you, or to a friend, or to a parent or child, suddenly the disability experience in Australia is very real and present.
It is, in short, a mainstream matter.
And the NDIS treated it as such.
But the promise of the NDIS has been betrayed.
Not yet fatally. But still substantially.
The great tragedy of this has been the timing.
I still remember my rude awakening, after being elected to Parliament at the end of 2007 as Junior Minister for Disabilities, at witnessing the second-class lives endured by people with disability and their carers.
I quickly recognised that there was a major gap in Australia’s health and disability safety net.
I began to champion what is now the NDIS to support people with disability and to protect all Australians.
As Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities, I along with Jenny Macklin, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, with grassroots campaigners, disability service providers, carers and advocates, all worked together to design the scheme and get the NDIS Act passed in 2013.
I’d like to acknowledge Doogie Herd who is in the room who was one of the early champions of the scheme from the disability community.
The creation of the NDIS was a last volley from the era of big public ideas.
It is difficult to name another reform of this scale proposed let alone achieved since.
Too often political endeavour is the field of failed dreams. Politics is strewn with the good intentions of good people - left and right - but little is accomplished. The NDIS is the exception to this in the last decade.
Today the NDIS stands as a great reform because it provides support to people with severe and permanent disabilities based on their individual needs. Today there are 433,000 NDIS participants and 212,000 are receiving supports for the first time.
Today, as a result of Labor’s vision and foresight, the NDIS now stands side by side with Medicare as a key foundation of a fair and decent society.
Like Medicare the NDIS is a universal insurance scheme.
The NDIS promises if you or your child or grandchild is born with or acquires a disability then the NDIS will provide tailored support based on individual needs.
In short, Medicare looks after you when you get sick. The NDIS is there when the condition is permanent.
The NDIS could only have been created by a Labor government. And as we are discovering it can only be run properly by a Labor Government.
In fact, we are learning in real time that expecting a Liberal Government to properly manage a scheme like the NDIS is a bit like expecting a duck to be able to play a Stradivarius violin.
If you study your political history you see it is parties of labour and social democrats who deliver the big nation building projects, the civilising institutions and safety nets that raise us all up and protect people from entropy and destitution.
In Australia only Labor could have given us a minimum wage, social security, Medicare, superannuation and the NDIS.
And despite the Australian public’s fondness for those achievements the Liberal Party’s ideological war against the generous safety net never sleeps.
So, the tragedy of the NDIS is in the timing. We passed the legislation in 2013. Labor lost Government the same year. And it has been the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Show ever since.
So what we got at the birth of this great, unique national disability scheme and in its infancy, at the time it needed to be cared for, nurtured and rolled out across Australia, was a bad babysitter - in the form of Liberal Governments - that was at best ambivalent about the Scheme and at worst hostile to its existence.
We had hoped to be in power to roll out the scheme, to react to unforeseen consequences in this bold national endeavour and to improve it where necessary.
Instead the NDIS has been chaperoned by the cavalier vandalism of successive Liberal Governments. After eight years of vandalism, and seven Ministers for Disability, I am sorry to say, the ongoing existence of the Scheme as we know it is at risk.
Under the Morrison Government it is presently at risk from neglect, and worse, direct attack.
Initially we secured for the invisible people - people with disability - a reasonable degree of bipartisanship. But the current government - because it wasn’t their decision - they simply do not believe in it.
Sadly, it is not overstating things to say that in 2021 the NDIS has the front door padlocked to the genuinely needy and the backdoor wide open for crooks and profiteers.
Sadly, it is not overstating things to say in 2021 NDIS participants are dying in their homes due to provider or Agency neglect and a sleepy watchdog that has not properly been put to work.
It is not overstating things to say those in charge at a Ministerial and Agency level have been more concerned with data-points than people …
That they are too secretive, too much of a closed shop, and that this approach is killing trust.
… and that they are in a mad rush to try to trade a whole vital public service for a human-free Robo system. And to do so regardless of damage, and seemingly at any cost.
Let us consider this ideological zeal, for instance, in how the controversial Independent Assessments plan has come about.
First: What are independent - or compulsory - assessments?
The Morrison Government want the 430,000-plus Australians who have already proven, supported by expert medical evidence, that they are sufficiently disabled to be on the NDIS to do it all again - to reapply and try to re-qualify for the scheme under their new guidelines. It is privatisation by stealth.
There are several glaring problems with this.
So-called independent assessments are not independent at all. They are Robo-Planning from the Government who brought us Robodebt, and as with Robodebt, Robo-Planning is based on flawed mathematical formulas.
There is no evidence independent compulsory assessments are a good idea. It has been constructed in a black box. And the disability community fear it and detest it legitimately.
So how do you steamroll in such a thing - a thing that does not make sense and that no one wants?
Well what the Liberals have done here is a masterclass in scruples-free governing.
Here is their guide to steamrolling in unwanted changes -
First, hold one rushed sham pilot and one incomplete pilot scheme. Then report back before the pilot is even finished that they were a raging success and everyone loves the new proposed system. This part of the Liberal plan was slightly curtailed when Labor revealed the radical changes for more than 400,000 Australians on the NDIS was based on a pilot involving fewer than 40 actual NDIS participants. So now we have new pilots. But it is clear what the Morrison Government intend the answer to be because they have already signed contracts with their mates in Big Consultancy to roll out the new system.
Now in fairness this was all under the reign of NDIS Minister Stuart Robert. Not the
current Minister. She was presiding over other things.
The next step in scruples-free governing is to get an independent review of what needs to be done to improve the NDIS and hope it proposes your plan for compulsory assessments.
When it comes back and does not include what you want in it, as the Government, simply write in that part of the report yourself. Independence be damned.
Then when the supposedly independent report comes out go through the whole kabuki theatre performance of welcoming its call for compulsory assessments as if it wasn’t your plan alone from the start.
It is a disgrace that all this actually happened.
In the push for compulsory assessments there are no grassroots here. It is all astro-turf. There isn’t a single organic particle or green shoot in it. Australians with disability have said no, no, no to compulsory assessments.
And yet when it comes to compulsory assessments Minister Reynolds still has the motor idling on Minister Robert’s steamroller.
Much of the vandalism perpetrated on the NDIS by the Liberals is done in the name of so-called scheme sustainability.
Now that whistleblowers and journalists have dragged into the light the full ugliness of the secret plot against the NDIS - from fabricating process to creating razor gangs - expect now to hear a lot more about the sudden revelation of scheme sustainability.
I beg you not to fall for it. I beg you to remember a few key salient facts.
Firstly, this Government has been responsible for the NDIS for almost eight years - this Government who always tell us what economic supermen they are.
And yet leaked internal documents from the Government to NDIS staff reveal their ramshackle management.
I quote: “At the moment the costs of the Scheme are increasing at a much higher rate than expected because we’ve been building budgets based on inconsistent information and decision-making.”
But let’s not forget Scott Morrison stole $4.6 billion from the Scheme. A so-called underspend while Australians with disability were begging for equipment. Let’s call it what it was - cuts to disability to fund the Back in Black budget that never came.
So according to the Liberals participant expenditure is going through the roof and sustainability is teetering and at the same there are multi-billion dollar underspends. It just doesn’t add up.
Well, if you cook the books, treat disability funding as an ATM and rip out money for political purposes I’m not sure you then get to play Chicken Little and say the fiscal sky is falling. You certainly don’t get to do it and be believed. That would be like running debt and deficit fear campaigns every year and then presiding over a trillion dollar debt ceiling, but being able to say ‘Oh that doesn’t matter any more because we did it’.
Nevertheless we in Labor are always up for finding sensible efficiencies.
So let’s start with first principles.
If you run a small business - say a milk bar - then theft can be the difference between profit and loss. There is a reason small shops often have large signs warning ‘Shoplifters Will Be Prosecuted.’
Now let’s say you run a $22 billion a year public service and networks of organised criminals routinely siphon hundreds of millions of dollars from the Scheme.
I think that’s a pretty good place to start to make savings.
You could even say hiring more fraud investigators would be a decision that more than pays for itself.
John Higgins was an ex-AFP officer who had worked as a senior fraud investigator at the NDIA before leaving due to frustration at understaffing and dysfunction.
Last year, he described to me just how easy it was for these gangs to defraud money from the Scheme. He said the Agency unofficially accepted a 10 per cent fraud rate. He revealed when money was stolen from disabled people’s accounts little effort was made to recover it from the criminals. The amount of the stolen funds was simply reimbursed into the participant’s account in a double-slug to the taxpayer. The Agency meanwhile refuses to tell journalists how many investigators it has on staff and how much is lost to fraud each year.
There are plenty of places efficiencies can be made in the NDIS without hurting people with disability:
Big Consultancy cronyism and a stultifying staffing cap saw the agency spending more than a quarter of a billion dollars ($288m) on consultants and contract staff in 2019.
In 2020 they spent $17million on legals in 2020 - including expensive private lawyers to face down civilians with disability representing themselves (who usually win) at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
Alas when money needs saving in the NDIS this mob look at the lawyer, the consultant, the thief, and the person in the wheelchair
… and you know who they squeeze every time.
The neglect, the lack of care, lack of thought, lack of priority for Australians with disability isn’t just some abstract bureaucratic Labor vs Liberal complaint.
It has real world consequences.
NDIS participants - are literally dying of neglect in their homes.
At the moment the oversight of failure of care in the system is simply not good enough.
Imagine an episode of Bondi Rescue on a day with a lot of tourists and a lot of rips but where the lifeguard is a mannequin.
And so we have Ann Marie Smith who was constrained to a wicker chair and left to rot in her Adelaide home in terrible circumstances.
Sydney man David Harris battling schizophrenia missed a meeting and so the NDIA unilaterally cut off his supports meaning cleaners did not attend his home. So he died alone, and it was two months before he was found.
Cairns man Liam Danher, 23, needed a high-tech mattress to alert his parents or carers if he was having a seizure. Three different experts approved it. The NDIA rejected it. In October last year his family appealed to the AAT but Liam died alone in the middle of the night with his devoted parents sleeping next door - still waiting in the face of the recalcitrance of the disability authorities. He died from a seizure that his family say would have been prevented by the mattress they were begging and fighting for.
There have been too many heart-rending stories like these. Too many stories of misery inflicted by a system that’s failing the people it was meant to help. Too often in the aftermath all we hear are Liberal MPs saying the right things - the proper words of solace and respect and belated regret. But in 13 years working alongside people with disability I learnt a long time ago that the right words, the proper emotions … that’s the easy bit.
It’s easy to recognise an individual tragedy, to acknowledge the sadness of a particular case. The real test of sincerity. The real measure of your commitment to the cause, the real value you can bring as a government or an alternative government - is action.
There is much that needs fixing in the NDIS: workforce shortages, provider hassles, pre-planning, thin markets particularly in regions, domestic violence strategy, services for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, reducing red tape for small business.
Specialist Disability Accommodation - or SDA - in particular needs reform. The authorities are making it so hard for participants to access SDA housing it threatens to become in effect a return to the bad old days of group homes.
For the dog’s breakfast that SDA and Supported Independent Living processes are turning into - the vast majority of SDA expenditure has gone into existing housing not new facilities with amenity and a link to meaningful community engagement.
The Agency running the Scheme has to be a market steward and leader not just delegating all problems to the market.
The NDIS is being poorly run, it is under attack and Australians with disability are suffering.
Now that’s the bad news.
Despite this all, I’m an optimist. I like to be in the solutions business.
So how do we protect the Scheme, revive it, and bring it back to its original promise?
What would an Albanese Labor Government do to save and revive the nation’s NDIS?
Well to the 4.4 million Australians with a disability, and the millions who love and care for them I say this is what you can expect from us.
You will once again be listened to.
The voice of participants, the voice of disability, was instrumental, irreplaceable in
creating the NDIS.
Under a Labor Government that voice will be instrumental in reviving and protecting the disability safety net.
Those currently in charge of the Scheme see you as numbers on a page, data in a
system. We see a thriving and resilient community who know their experience better
than anyone. We see the whole person.
That is why we will return people with lived disability experience to the board and to
senior levels of the National Disability Insurance Agency.
We will strengthen the Independent Advisory Council and Reference Groups advising the NDIA Board not just with added involvement of people with disability, but with carers, unions and people with a strong business background.
And rather than continue the Liberals’ war of attrition against advocates we would fund ndependent advocates who help people get onto the Scheme and navigate its sometimes torturous red tape.
We will strengthen the disability watchdog and put it to work and say no more NDIS participants need die through neglect in abandoned squalor or due to bureaucratic indifference. We will empower staff and investigators to get through the backlog and to proactively check on and investigate treatment of people with disability - not just wait for complaints to come in, or worse, waiting for the flashing blue lights of police and the arrival of the coroner's van.
We will listen to the states and territories. When nearly every State and Territory Disability Minister, including those in Liberal State Governments, are furious about being excluded from secret federal disability plans - there is a problem. If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that sometimes the states and territories can do things better than the Feds, and certainly our nation does better when all levels of government are pulling in the same direction. We would return the Scheme to what it was in the beginning - a genuine cooperative federal partnership. In return we would expect the states not to vacate areas of disability services they retain responsibility for.
Any significant changes to the Scheme we will do by legislation, and let democracy decide. The current Minister wants a so-called ‘God power’ to change the Scheme unilaterally. The attitude is” ‘Stuff the states, and stuff people with disability.” We won’t do that.
We will find efficiencies but not through secret cutting programs designed by expensive consultants. Instead we will encourage service providers, people with disability, and carers to share their best ideas on how efficiency in the Scheme can be increased. At the heart of this will be a transparent website hosted by the Agency as an open marketplace of ideas and proposals for improved efficiency.
We will introduce greater accountability of how money is spent in the NDIA and the NDIS. But we will also bring accountability about outcomes for participants in the Scheme. Accountability is a two-way street. The NDIS should be a professional service and there should be stricter deadlines for decisions made by the NDIA and the watchdog.
Instead of slashing support for vulnerable people with disability and treating them like potential rorters and cheats, we will save money by pursuing the real crooks - lone wolf fraudsters and organised criminal networks. Too often under the Morrison Government it is easier for a fraudster to defraud the Scheme than it is for a person with a profound disability to gain access to it. This stops.
We will reinvest any genuine underspends into the NDIS to secure the long-term financial future of the Scheme.
We will lift the cap on public servants in the NDIA and develop a coherent workforce strategy to engage the sector in partnership with people with disability, families, advocates, the higher education sector, workers and their unions, and providers.
Let’s invest in better trained directly employed permanent Commonwealth staff.
We will create an Agency review of the Supported Independent Living process so that participants are not left waiting for housing for months and years and develop one seamless timeline for all.
That is our plan.
It is a plan for a vibrant functional NDIS from the people who created it.
We don’t expect the Liberals to embrace or enact anything like it, but they’re welcome to.
But there are a few things this Government must do immediately if it wants it to restore some trust and some form of relationship with the disability community.
There are things Minister Reynolds must do if she wants Australia to believe she is not there to simply continue Stuart Robert’s work of demolishing and privatising the NDIS.
She’s got a very easy act to follow. But her test can’t be that she’s just not as bad as Stuart Robert. This is her chance for redemption.
There are five benchmarks she must meet.
One: She must cancel the contracts for compulsory assessments.
The Government has signed contracts with eight companies worth half a billion dollars.
But the plan for compulsory assessments is in a state of flux and constantly changing.
Indeed earlier this month the Government's disability legislation leaked. Since then they have been walking back the uglier parts.So how do we know if we have the right contractors for the job? We don’t. They’ve put the cart before the horse. And now Ms Reynolds must do the right thing and tear up the contracts, get the best deal for the taxpayer and not just quietly pay out half a billion dollars to corporates for ‘sit down’ money.
Two: She must scrap the mandatory assessments plan in its current form and go back to the drawing board.
This plan has been tainted and compromised by the chicanery of its origins - the sham pilot followed by the sham supposedly independent review that the Government was up to its neck in. I have some sympathy for Minister Reynolds here as these were likely the ham-fisted works of her disinterested predecessor, the Prime Minister’s besty, Stuart Robert. But if Minister Reynolds pushes on with this dodgy plan regardless, she is no better than Mr Robert. There are ways to make the scheme more consistent and fair that can be found by genuinely consulting with participants, families workers and advocates.
Three: She must come clean on her secret NDIS razor gang and call it off.
The Australian public only learnt of the Government instructions to Agency staff to “slow growth” in the number of people joining the scheme and to slow funding because of a whistleblower leak earlier this month. This is not transparent Governing its sneaky theft from the disability portfolio.
The Minister must clarify what the role of this razor gang is which she calls a “Sustainability Action Taskforce”.
Four: She must publish the number of in-house fraud investigators keeping criminals away from the NDIS. Ripping off disabled people is despicable.
Five: She must detail her plan to stop further preventable deaths of Australians on the NDIS.
Now there is a lot more she could do.
But only when the Minister has met these five basic benchmarks will people with disability know they are not being targeted and be assured there is not a plan to dismantle the NDIS.
I often think of that beautiful description of the goal of the Labor Party as “the light on the hill”.
The light on the hill - it is, something, out there - not immediately within grasp.
It is something to strive toward.
We often use symbols of light or flame when it comes to things that are abstract but precious.
These things are vulnerable. The light can go dark. The flame can be extinguished by cold winds. If fire is not tended, fed and maintained it will go out.
It requires a difficult bringing into being, and then it requires constant protection.
When we achieve progressive things they become concrete, and obvious, accepted and non-controversial.
Before they are achieved they are hard to grasp, ethereal, easily attacked.
The immense promise of the NDIS is still there.
It has literally lifted hundreds of thousands of Australians with disability out of conditions of misery and despair. Lifted them out of second-class exile in their own country.
The flame still burns. But at this moment, like no other in the past decade, it needs protecting.