House debates

Wednesday, 27 November 2019


National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019; Second Reading

5:17 pm

Photo of Bill ShortenBill Shorten (Maribyrnong, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme) Share this | | Hansard source

As I was saying, Labor will oppose the National Disability Insurance Scheme (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019. We will oppose it for a number of reasons, which I will continue to go through.

To recap briefly: the University of Western Australia was commissioned to do a white paper into the disability system—in particular, the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The disability white paper by UWA found grave and serious problems with the rollout of the NDIS. It's the 64th review that the government has had into the NDIS since 2013. But perhaps we don't need the UWA review to tell us what's going on with the NDIS and its problems. It's a matter of just listening to the people in the scheme, the people working in the scheme and the people caring for people in the scheme.

In fact, in the last 4½ or five months I've attended 21 town hall meetings and further roundtables. I've had the privilege, with Labor members, of meeting with thousands of ordinary people—people with disabilities, people caring for people with disabilities and people working in the system. We've been listening to people's experiences of the NDIS and the agency which runs it.

I think all members of parliament here know in their heart of hearts about meeting their 20th mother at the end of her tether, their 20th parent clutching their severely disabled child or their 20th mum with that thousand-yard stare where she just can't get sense out of her planner. Then, when the planner rings, perhaps they haven't read the reports of the occupational therapist or the speech pathologist. Or maybe that planner no longer works in the system; there is a new person and she has to start again. When these mums are getting the bureaucratic run-around from the agency just because they're trying to do the very best for their child, you know the system is not working.

When you hear the same stories over and over again, you know this is not the invention of a few cranks or of some petty, vengeful people—someone who wasn't happy with a particular decision. These are not people who are trying to rort the system. As a member of parliament you learn to recognise legitimate cries for help happening all over the nation, because there are genuine issues in the rollout of this important scheme that cannot and should not be ignored any longer. Mild, vanilla statements from the minister don't cut it for families trying to make ends meet and to care for someone with a profound or severe disability.

This government says that its legislation is about streamlining the governance. But it's starting at the top, and it should actually start at the bottom. It should do more, in fact, to streamline the governance by making sure there are deadlines in the system so that the participants, when they request decisions, aren't kept waiting indefinitely because of a lack of accountability. The problems impacting on the NDIS are problems which have been caused largely by the neglect of this important and vital scheme by the current federal government for these last six years.

And there's not just neglect; there's financial vandalism as well. You can't take $4.6 billion out of a national public scheme and not expect there to be consequences, for the metaphorical wheels to fall off the system. Of course, you can be tricky, you can engage in spin. Our current Prime Minister worked in marketing, so he would know all of the dark arts. The current Liberal marketing approach is to say it's just a $4.6 billion underspend. No, it's not; it means far more than that. It's $4.6 billion which people who are entitled to packages of support are not able to spend because the system is dysfunctional. It's been stripped from people with disability who really need the help. Instead, it's been stuck somewhere else to buttress a Clayton's surplus. As we all know, $4.6 billion is $4.6 billion. Call it whatever you want, but what it really constitutes is wheelchairs not purchased, speech pathology lessons not provided, service providers not being properly paid and subsidising the system. It means hoists not installed, home modifications not made, personal care not provided and taxi fares not paid for.

I won't linger on this point of the underspend, or even the government's gross mismanagement of what should be the world's best disability scheme. I make these points because the government, with this bill, is now saying that it wants to have more power to do more of the same. They are saying: 'See that smouldering bin fire that used to be the NDIS? Let us loose to do a bit more of that good gear!' When you are not doing a shining job, your power should not be increased.

As mentioned in the previous speech, the bill seeks to lower the standard for the requirement for the appointment of board members of the NDIA. It has the effect of disempowering states and territories in relation to that process. There is a problem with this in principle and there is a problem with this in practice. Firstly, there is the issue of principle. The NDIS is a national scheme—it was the absorption and merger of state schemes and the national scheme—but it was never intended just to be a top-down scheme for a small group of people on a hill in Canberra. At its best, the NDIS is a scheme for Australians from Gundagai to Humpty Doo and from Oodnadatta to Penguin. But the more it is centralised and delocalised, and the more the states are taken away from some of the core decision-making, the more every Australian loses out.

As I've travelled around the country, I've heard from participants in the scheme that there are common issues—delays, underfunding, use of labour hire workers, an inability to have consistent decision-making. There are thin markets, which means there are just no services available and you can't spend your package. There's the issue of red tape and the ongoing issue of 'planner lotto'. As I've travelled around Australia in this portfolio I've discovered that, as distinctive as the common problems are, there are localised problems in particular jurisdictions. In Tasmania, transport is a massive issue. The state government's pulling out of funding taxi services for people with a disability. There is a complete dearth of allied health professionals in the state. In my home state of Victoria, there are emergency disability housing shortages. The NDIS was created to stop the crisis, not to contribute to the crisis.

In Western Australia, there is no senior NDIA presence. There's no factoring in of coast-to-coast time differences for Western Australians seeking help from the agency. In fact, as the Western Australian NDIS committee put it to me, the NDIS is 'a 2 pm scheme': if you don't ring by 2 pm in the west, you have to wait until the next day. This isn't good enough. In fact, one of the main thrusts of the University of Western Australia white paper I referenced earlier is that the states and territories need to be consulted more, not less; cooperated with by the Commonwealth more, not less; engaged with by the scheme more, not less; and be given a greater and more meaningful role in this Australian project. Does this independent expert analysis sound like a call for more centralisation? No, it most certainly does not. Is it a good time in the rollout of the scheme to lessen the influence of states and territories in choosing the leaders of the National Disability Insurance Agency? I suggest it is the worst of times for this.

I said there were problems in principle with taking away the power from all of the states to have to agree to choose the directors of the board of the agency. I said that, secondly, there is a problem in practice. We've seen what successive Liberal governments have done with their powers of appointment. You only need to look at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the way the Liberals have stacked that organisation with their mates and cronies. The current Attorney-General alone has appointed six former coalition parliamentarians and eight former coalition staffers to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Clearly, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal qualification to serve is that you were once a Liberal. What sort of appointees to the NDIA should we expect from this government once it's empowered itself and diluted the roles of states and territories? If in future it only requires a majority of states and territories, then, if there are five Liberal states and territories and a Liberal Commonwealth government, what sort of people can we expect given the track record of the complete dilution and vandalism of the AAT? Would we see independent effective people of goodwill? Hopefully. Would we see people with lived experience of disability? Maybe. Or would we in fact see more mates and cronies who are happy to slash and burn this vital public service? That would be the odds-on favourite. My money is on that outcome—more jobs for more Liberal friends.

Let's look at a couple of the government's recent appointments to the NDIA. First, there was that remarkable period where the government did not bother to appoint a CEO for the NDIA. It was an epic 170-day wait where the rudderless agency of billions of dollars did not have a permanent leader. Only under sustained pressure from Labor did the minister eventually stop sitting on his hands and choose Mr Martin Hoffman to be CEO. Mr Martin Hoffman has been described in the press on multiple occasions as a friend of the minister, but he also claims to be an independent public servant. This could be true. But just a few days into his reign as CEO Mr Hoffman was forced to delete his Twitter account after it emerged he had made several unwise posts that did not seem to be very independent. And just eight days into his new job Mr Hoffman was gifted by Mr Robert an annual bonus of $166,260 on top of his pay packet of $554,220. What was the $160,000 KPI that he met by day 8 of his appointment, other than his being there for eight days?

We should also consider the chair of the NDIA, Helen Nugent. Dr Nugent, who has suffered accusations of corporate conflicts of interest, is paid a six-figure salary. She is embroiled in a controversy involving a deceased participant of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Mr Tim Rubenach died in pain still waiting for the NDIA to send him a specialised bed and wheelchair that he had been promised a year earlier. He waited one year. The conflicted NDIA chair, Helen Nugent, has so far refused to tell Mr Rubenach's loved ones or the Australian public why she had private information about his case sent to her Macquarie Bank email and what the nature of that information was. Dr Nugent and NDIS minister Stuart Robert are pretending there is no issue with her corporate conflict. But these are the facts: Dr Nugent is a former Macquarie director; Macquarie, appropriately, wants to get profitable work from NDIS work; and Dr Nugent holds NDIA meetings at an office she retains with Macquarie and maintains a Macquarie email.

Under sustained questioning by Labor in Senate estimates, the Secretary of the Department of Social Services, Kathryn Campbell, revealed that a review commissioned by the department found that using the private email 'was not best practice and that it introduced privacy risk'. Further, because of Dr Nugent's actions, NDIS staff will now have to chase down emails containing NDIA information on private servers, like Macquarie's, will have to take them from those servers, will have to return the information to the NDIA and will have to delete them from those servers. What a lot of costly cleaning up the organisation will have to do because of the actions of the chair. To be fair, and I think it can't be put any other way, the chairwoman of the NDIA is meant to be leading the NDIA, not using it as her mop-up squad.

The department has admitted that resources that should be used to help people with disability are now being expended in spoonfeeding the chair, buying her special computer equipment, organising a portal and teaching her how to access her NDIA email. At best, this is amateur hour at the highest levels of the NDIA. Doesn't it seem like these are scenarios where more involvement from the states and territories might have yielded a better result?

People with disability deserve focused, independent leadership from this vital agency. They need proper state and territory influence on its operations. The danger of diluting the truly national character of this scheme is not just some parliamentary debating point. The quality of agency leadership flows through to the quality of services to Australians with disability. People with disability and their carers are the people who should matter in this decision-making. Too often that is lost sight of. Rather than call for streamlined governance of the appointment of the board, perhaps the Commonwealth could instead consider introducing legislation that would provide that, after a mandated period of time, decisions under the scheme would be deemed to have been approved, including, but not limited to, decisions concerned with planning, plan reviews and amendments and appeals of planning decisions. There should be time-limited decision-making on the provision of services under the scheme, including, but not limited to, assistive technology, home modifications, car modifications and care. There should be a set period of time after which invoices that are owed to service providers are settled by the Commonwealth.

I'm gravely concerned that everything is topsy-turvy in this legislation. The priority is to make the system accountable to individuals. The system was created to look after people. Why should a family have to get together the costs of a report or several reports, go through the history of the participant, provide it to a planner and then there be no deadline on the planner to make a decision? Why should it be that the draft plan, before it is finally approved, can't be provided to the participants and their families and those interested in sufficient time for the family to be consulted before the plan decision is made? Why should it be the case that when you seek a modest amendment to a plan—to vary a modification, to vary therapy, to vary hours of care to feed someone who is profoundly disabled—there can't be a deadline after which it is deemed to have been accepted, rather than all of the pressure of the system going back onto the individual and there being no accountability on the organisation? This is why we oppose the bill, because streamlined governance should start with the people in the system. There are better ways to revitalise the NDIS than to centralise Commonwealth control of its leadership. That is why we oppose the bill today.

(Quorum formed) I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"the House:

(1) declines to give the bill a second reading; and

(2) calls on the Government to introduce legislation to provide that, after a mandated period of time, decisions under the scheme are deemed to be approved, including but not limited to decisions concerned with:

(a) planning, plan reviews, amendments, and appeals of planning decisions;

(b) provision of services under the scheme including assistive technology, home modifications, and care; and

(c) settlement of invoices owed to service providers."

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Julie CollinsJulie Collins (Franklin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Ageing and Seniors) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Maribyrnong has moved an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the amendment be agreed to.

5:35 pm

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

The National Disability Insurance Scheme, or NDIS, is one of the most significant social policy schemes introduced into Australia, and Centre Alliance remains committed to supporting this scheme and its aims to improve the lives of people with a disability. However, there are always teething issues with major policy initiatives, and it would be fair to say that the current mechanisms for governing the administration of the National Disability Insurance Agency are causing unreasonable delays. For example, we have one nomination to the NDIA board that took more than 18 months of negotiations because state and territories could not reach a unanimous decision, and this is not good governance.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019 seeks to simplify appointments to the two boards that advise the NDIA by changing the requirements around consultation and agreement with the states and territories. These changes are designed to improve efficient running of the NDIA, and it should be noted the states and territories have already agreed to each of these measures and some are already in operation, albeit informally. It should also be noted the NDIS minister still has, and always had, the power to appoint members to one of the boards, and state and territory governments must still be consulted about appointments to the other board. Broad consultation on internal administration remains in place.

There are many real issues that concern me about the treatment of NDIS participants, including the failure to provide draft plans and the inconsistent experience of participants because some planners do not have the appropriate skills and training. I have raised these issues in the past and I will continue to advocate on these important issues. Earlier this year, I called on the then Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme to intervene and allow clients of the NDIS to review their draft plans before they're submitted for final assessment. Too often errors and misunderstandings in the draft planning stage have led to woefully inadequate plans, months of delay and exclusion from services for people with disabilities. I was deeply concerned when the then minister told me that, to remedy these issues, people could just ask for an internal review if they had a problem. NDIS participants and their families are telling me that these reviews are taking weeks and often months to resolve. Withholding draft plans from participants has disempowered and frustrated a number of families, leaving them feeling betrayed and misled by a scheme that was designed to empower them to thrive in their community. However, I'm pleased to see that the government is making progress in this area, with the minister announcing a plan to ensure quality decision-making within the NDIS—specifically, the rollout of joint planning meetings and the provision of draft plan summaries from April next year.

In the meantime, the streamlined governance bill will enhance good governance in administrative bodies and prevent the farcical delays that have previously plagued the NDIA executive. The Productivity Commission gave evidence during a Senate inquiry into the legislation and found that the changes were administrative in nature and need not wait until the conclusion of the Tune review. The Tune review is an investigation being conducted by Mr David Tune, an independent expert in public administration. The review concerns the standards of the experience of NDIS participants with a view to preparing a participant service guarantee and is not concerned with the internal administrative arrangements of boards. I share the view that this legislation does not need to wait for Mr Tune to deliver his findings at the end of the year.

Finally, I want to draw attention to the challenges faced by older Australians who, purely because they have acquired their disability after the age of 65, are not able to access the NDIS—for example, individuals like the approximately 2,000 people in Australia living with motor neurone disease, who will gradually lose the ability to speak, swallow and breathe. While I'm a strong supporter of the NDIS, it is disappointing that the same level of individualised support will not be made available to a significant proportion of the population who acquire a disability that is not part of the ageing process. By way of example, the level 4 home care package provides an individual with a means test subsidy amount limited to approximately $50,000 per annum. The NDIS, on the other hand, is not means tested and is not limited to a prescribed maximum funding amount. This inequity prompted Mrs Bobbie English to begin a petition calling for an end to the discrimination against people over the age of 65. I congratulate Mrs English on her advocacy and the thousands of people who have already signed the petition. As we approach the International Day of People with Disability, I call on the government to explain how they intend to address the funding imbalance, given that the care and needs of older Australians are only likely to increase alongside our ageing population.

I think we are doing a lot of good for a lot of people. However, like so many public policy areas that we have, it is somewhat of a lottery and some people are missing out. I urge the government in particular to consider the needs of people that acquire a disability post the age of 65 and who are unable to access the NDIS. We are a country with a big enough heart and enough funding to make sure that they too can be included.

5:43 pm

Photo of Melissa PriceMelissa Price (Durack, Liberal Party, Minister for Defence Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

The National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019 establishes streamlined governance arrangements that will simplify rule-making and decision-making under the National Disability Insurance Scheme Act. The changes also support the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability by ensuring it has clear authority to obtain information from the NDIA and the NDIS commission. I would like to thank members for their contribution to this debate. I commend this bill to the House.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Maribyrnong has moved an amendment that all words after 'that' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question before the House is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Maribyrnong be agreed to.

5:51 pm

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question now is that this bill now be read a second time.

Bill read a second time