SUBJECTS: NDIS Fraud revelations; Coronavirus.
BILL SHORTEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR THE NDIS: I'm afraid to say that when I talk to the nation about the great NDIS robbery that's occurring while the government is asleep at the wheel. At today's press conference, I'm accompanied by John Higgins. John is a veteran of 27 years of the Australian Federal Police and more recently worked in fraud detection at the National Disability Insurance Agency. He's a local constituent and he came forward to me after he finished with the NDIA, frustrated and exasperated at the government not paying attention to crooks scamming the National Disability Insurance Scheme. I and Labor love the National Disability Insurance Scheme. It's bringing packages of support to profoundly and severely impaired Australians, helping them and their families try and get a fair go. But too often we see tens of thousands of families with family members who deserve support being given the red tape runaround, not being able to access modest support to improve the quality of their lives. You can imagine my shock and horror when Mr Higgins came forward and explained to me that whilst it is very difficult to get into the scheme for bona fide cases, there are crooks right now scamming the accounts of disability participants. People with disability and their carers. There are crooks currently scamming accounts, taking hundreds of thousands and most likely millions of dollars from the scheme. This is a government who makes it hard for people with disability to get disability support, but they are soft on the criminals who are looting the scheme. What we've seen is a negligence, an inability to properly fund fraud detection in the scheme. When you've got a $22 billion scheme, chances are that that will attract crooks to try and scam money. This government is not doing enough to prevent, detect and catch people who are ripping the scheme off. More needs to be done. This government needs to properly invest in fraud detection to protect NDIS, taxpayer money, to protect people with disability from the crooks. More needs to be done with stronger penalties. This government needs to report to the parliament how the scheme is working and making sure that there is adequate protections for our most vulnerable Australians. I'm like every Australian taxpayer, like every Australian - we want to see Australians with disability and their families, their carers get reasonable support. But what we don't want to see is the crooks being treated with the welcome mat at the back door of the scheme so they can take the money out of the scheme. Now now John and I would be happy to take questions and talk about John's experience and the fact that there is a robbery of money happening under the government's nose and they're doing nothing to stop it. Hard on people with disability, soft on the crooks. I might get John just to talk a little bit about his experience. Explain who he is and what's motivating him for this issue. 
JOHN HIGGINS, NDIA WHISTLEBLOWER: Thanks, Bill. My name is John Higgins. I was in the Federal Police for about 27 years. Various different departments there. And I joined the NDIA in January of 2019. Initially, I worked for the task force and the task force at that time was probably only about eight or nine members. That's to cover a national scheme of 22 billion dollars. The task force was also part of the fraud department, where the fraud department had another area where there was fraud investigators, which I left the task force and went to. That department only had five or six members at its peak. And when I left in September, I was the last full time member of that department. I now believe it's been assumed into the task force. But again, you're still looking at only 10 to 15 members to cover the entire country. Most of them are based in Melbourne and most of the fraud is taking place in the western suburbs of Sydney. So you have a great expense for even the fraud investigators to actually investigate the matters, but it's simply too much fraud for too few people. Now if it was given to me when we complained about the numbers, saying that we should have had probably a team in each capital city of probably a team leader and maybe seven or eight investigators, we were told that they were willing to accept somewhere along 10 per cent as being fraud. Ten per cent is two billion dollars plus. If you give one hundred thousand dollars to each participant, that's 20,000 people that can actually be dealt with, an extra 20,000 people. So I just became too frustrated with it and told them I couldn't continue. The management of the fraud department was almost dysfunctional. 
SHORTEN: So the consequence for Mr Higgins is he's a 27 year veteran of the AFP, in good faith goes to help work on fraud detection in a $22 billion scheme. He, in the end, has to just move on because he's frustrated of banging his head against the wall and not being listened to. I think Australians would be alarmed to know that what happens is that when you get a crook, they can access a participant’s account - someone who's getting this package of support - and they scam it. But what's happening is the underfunded resources of fraud detection mean that the NDIS replaces the money that gets taken and that's about it. That is not what taxpayers expect. Australians expect that the government will look after people disability. They're happy to see that happen. But I think most Australians will be shocked to discover that a 27 year veteran of the AFP has had to come forward and be a de facto whistleblower on the system, because at the moment it's too hard to get into the scheme, but it's too easy for crooks to scam the scheme. 
Thanks very much, everybody. 
JOURNALIST: Would you say the system is broken?
SHORTEN: Well the NDIS is a great idea. It's an Australian first. It's a payment scheme where if you're assessed as having profound or severe disability, you get a choice. You should have more choice and control. You get what's reasonable necessary. These packages are great. But what's happening is that clearly when you create a $22 billion payment scheme, you've got to have you know, your thinking cap on, you’ve got to be alert to the fact that this will be a honeypot which will attract some crooked flies, that we will see some crooks trying to scam the system. But this is such a group of bunglers in the Morrison government that they don't even know what's going on beyond the tip of their nose. I wouldn't send Minister Stuart Robert to the milk bar to get a litre of milk. They just wouldn't have a clue what's going on with disability in this country. Tens of thousands of families are barely hanging on and they find it very difficult to get support. But Mr Higgins, a 27 year veteran of the AFP, formerly a fraud investigator in the NDIS, said ‘Bill, there's just not enough attention being paid. And the crooks are tickling the scheme, scamming the scheme and robbing the scheme.’ That is a misuse of taxpayer money. And the government doesn't even know what's happening. And if they do know, they just simply replace the money and they're not doing enough to detect crime. 
JOURNALIST: What would you say should be done? 
SHORTEN: What they should do is have tougher penalties. They should put more resources into fraud investigation and they should be more transparent in reporting what's happening. Mr Higgins might have some observations about what would be an improvement to protect taxpayer money and to protect vulnerable Australians who rely on the NDIS. 
HIGGINS: I wouldn't say it's broke. The analogy I would use is it's like a chip in a windscreen. If you don't do anything about it, it's going to become a big crack and you're gonna have to replace a windscreen. This is a $22 billion windscreen. What I would do was either boost the number of investigators within the NDIA to a number that is capable of looking at these things quickly and stopping them quickly. Or if you're not willing to do that, then put the money into the AFP and get them to create teams that will do it because one way or the other, someone has to step in and stop these things happening quickly. The longer it takes for them to do it, the more they pull out of the actual participants accounts. If they are pulling out $2000 a week from multiple people, then every week that the investigation is delayed multiplies that amount by a farcical amount. And we have to actually do something about it now.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten can I ask you a question on another topic. Do you think the Australian government should evacuate citizens from the cruise ship like the  United States did?
SHORTEN: Listen, on the Coronavirus, I think that the chief medical officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, has been doing a very reasonable job indeed. And I don't want to politicise the issue because Australians just want to see the right calls made. I think It was right to evacuate people from Wuhan. In terms of the people on this vessel, it must be a very traumatic experience. I'd be happy to see the government take the best advice of the medical experts to do what's in the best interest of Australian citizens and also protecting Australians from further exposure to the Coronavirus. So I don't think there's a simple answer, but I do think it must be a very distressing experience. And we've got to make sure that we do everything we can to keep Australians safe, not just here, but these people who, for no fault of their own, are on a probably a tour of a lifetime on a cruise, but have been caught up in this nightmare.
Just go back to the question is the system broken? Labor is not saying the system is broken. What we’re saying is you can't trust this government to manage the NDIS. We've got to make sure that the NDIS is not a welcome mat for crooks. And instead it does what it was set up to do, which is put the needs of Australians with profound and severe disability first. Anyway, thanks so much. I want to thank Mr Higgins. Not easy coming forward and belling the cat on the potential for fraud in this system. Mr Higgins doesn't want to be out in the public gaze. But what we have here is a veteran, someone with a record of standing up for law and order. He's just saying he as a citizen can't keep seeing this money being scammed in good faith. The ball's now in the government's court. They can either say that there's not a problem and we're making it up, which would be a disaster. And the crooks would love that answer. Or they can concede they've been getting it wrong. Work with the opposition, work with people like Mr Higgins. And let's go after the crooks and look after people. disabilities. Thanks, everybody.