House debates

Wednesday, 30 March 2022


National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Participant Service Guarantee and Other Measures) Bill 2021; Second Reading

1:20 pm

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

Kenichi is a 23-year-old Western Australian man living with Down syndrome. Like many of the people I meet who have Down syndrome, Kenichi is full of vitality. He's living his life to the fullest, with thanks to the NDIS. Kenichi lives with his mum and his dad. He has three jobs: he works at Coles, he has a biscuit-baking business, and he is a Down syndrome ambassador. His job at Coles has been revelatory for the young man and is only made possible by his family, by Coles and, crucially, by the supports he receives from the NDIS. Without his NDIS funding and his carers, Kenichi would not be able to work and would not be able to attend his social group activities. It wouldn't be safe, and that's his parents' No. 1 priority—and rightly so.

But to hear his story of dealing with the NDIS in recent times is heartbreaking. Kenichi's parents have told me that in March 2021 Kenichi's mum was called to a discussion with the National Disability Insurance Agency, ostensibly to discuss a $300 shortfall in his plan. She agreed to the meeting, but when she arrived she discovered that it was a surprise full review meeting for Kenichi's plan, seven months earlier than scheduled—a total ambush. Despite the NDIS having no evidence to suggest that anything had changed for Kenichi—that his Down syndrome had been cured somehow—his total NDIS support funding was cut by almost 50 per cent. The family was given no opportunity to prepare for the meeting. There was no rationale to explain why his funding was cut. It was a bureaucratic king hit. It meant that Kenichi was unable to attend his group social activities, because a choice had to be made between his work and seeing his friends. His parents and his therapists have seen his mental health deteriorate since he's stopped his social outings. When you meet Kenichi, you cannot fathom doing anything that would stop him from smiling, but the Morrison government accomplished this.

Kenichi's is just one story among thousands of NDIS participants who've had their plans radically cut, with no explanation, no procedural fairness, no notice. All MPs, right across the political spectrum, are being inundated with emails, phone calls and letters from NDIS participants seeking urgent assistance after critical funding has been slashed, leaving people who have disability without crucial supports. Huge cuts are being made, with autistic children seemingly in the direct line of fire.

The Morrison government should come clean on its undeclared, undisclosed campaign to quietly slash the NDIS funds of people with disabilities across Australia. But even if they don't, people have already worked it out. Some participants, like Kenichi, have had their funding cut by literally hundreds of thousands of dollars. Others have had necessary residential home mods and assistive technology requests rejected. Many participants and their families are forced to take the fight with the Morrison government to the court, taking the government to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal with, where possible, the support of legal aid or an advocate. Most people can't afford lawyers—and nor should they have to. You should not need a lawyer in order to receive a legislated right in this country. But they have to go to court and face a team of government funded barristers and legal experts who are doing the government's bidding to ensure that NDIS participants don't get a cent more than the NDIA are willing to offer them.

For many other people with disabilities and their families, the exhaustion and the complete lack of faith in the system and in the government sees them take what is being offered by the government to try to make it work. This has meant quitting jobs in order to care for a family member or having a household budget running on empty to ensure that they can keep themselves or a loved one safe. Many parents are also being shamelessly asked why their child has not got better, while others are being belittled in NDIS decisions that say parents are not doing enough to help their child. The Morrison government must stop asking permanently disabled Australians if they are still disabled, if they're still blind, if they still have MS or if they still have autism.

It should not be a full-time job to handle the NDIS forms. It should not take a lawyer to access an NDIS payment. It is not unreasonable to want a phone number, a direct phone number or to speak to the same person twice in a row at the agency. It isn't good enough to prepare expensive reports to be read by unqualified assessors. Imagine if the Morrison government had to walk a mile in the shoes of these exhausted participants and carers. To say that the NDIS has issues after nine years of a coalition government is an understatement. There are too many heart-rending stories of meanness, too much victim blaming, and too much misery inflicted on people the scheme was meant to help.

The NDIS was always intended to be a universal right in the same realm as Medicare and compulsory superannuation. The scheme is built on a simple premise: allow people with profound, lifelong impairment to have a choice and control in their lives—choice and control. It was designed to give people with disability and their families options, access, autonomy. It was supposed to open up a world of options to people with disability so that they were no longer treated as second-class citizens, as many previously thought they were. Australia wanted people with disability to have opportunity, just like any other person in our nation, created with bipartisan support so that people with disability had security and their future would not be at the whim of changing government or values.

The coalition took carriage of running the scheme in 2013, almost nine years ago. Mr Morrison has said that the NDIS would always be fully funded. He said it as Treasurer, and he backed the scheme publicly as Prime Minister. As Treasurer, in 2018, he said that there was no need for a half a per cent rise in the Medicare levy to fund the scheme because the economy was strong enough to fund it. His loyal foot soldiers have been equally effusive, previously saying that the NDIS is the greatest nation-building project we'll see in our lifetime. How times have changed!

The premise and the dream of the NDIS is still alive. The disability community ensures that. But there is something sinister going on in the Morrison government that threatens the promise that we all made to people with disability years ago. Since early 2021, the Morrison government has put out a firehose of 10 different sets of numbers to justify its claims that the NDIS is unsustainable and must be cut. They've established razor gangs and elaborate and expensive marketing plans, and released so-called independent reviews, all with the aim of stopping people with disability accessing the funds. They say that the scheme costs too much money. They say that the participants are dodgy and greedy, and there are rorts in the system. They don't want participants to have choice and control. They want to exert supreme power so that the minister and the CEO can control the lives of people with disability.

The bill before the House originally had provisions that were unacceptable. We have provided amendments, and we're happy to see the amendments being put forward by the government. To be fair, we wrote them. The government has cut and pasted their names on them so that it looks like they've seen the wisdom. I'm pragmatic; I don't mind whose name is on the amendments so long as we improve the law.

The NDIS is a good scheme. It can be improved. Of that, there is no doubt. But it cannot be improved under this government. To hope that this government will improve the NDIS will be the triumph of hope over experience. I say to people with disabilities, to the people who love them and to their families: at the next election, if you are anxious about the future of the scheme, don't vote for the people who have made you anxious—instead, vote Labor at the next election to defend our NDIS.

To be very clear, Labor wants to see the scheme improved. There's no doubt there are some challenges in terms of unexpected pressures on the scheme. There's not enough community mental health funding, and that's because we need to do more in our schools to fund supports rather than relying on the NDIS. That's also because we have a lack of appropriate housing for people with disability. The government can't be trusted with the management of the scheme. They're spending too much on lawyers and consultants. We don't have enough direct staff. We don't have a properly trained workforce. The pricing mechanisms used in some cases are too generous, but in other cases are too insufficient for service providers and the workforce to deliver the services.

Labor has a clear set of values and principles by which we would improve the performance of the NDIS. But one way you don't improve the NDIS is to constantly make people anxious about whether or not the funding they got this year will be there next year. One way you don't make the scheme more sustainable is to constantly trash talk the economics of the scheme. This government has given up managing the scheme. It now relies on lawyers and the AAT. It now relies on making it harder for legitimate people to get into the scheme. It's not managing the scheme; it's given up. It's surrendered. That is why at the next election, if we want to defend the NDIS, you have to vote Labor, or you should certainly consider voting Labor.