Wednesday, 13 November 2019
National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue because, sadly, this government is failing vulnerable Australians with its handling of the rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the NDIS. And I don't say this as a political rebuke but as an accepted fact that we need to work from before we can make the system right.
It's clear that the system isn't working as it should. We know that it is difficult to access services under the NDIS. Every one of us in this place has had phone calls or visits to our offices from constituents, or has met people out at community events and heard from them about how the system is not meeting their needs. The NDIS is a great reform, but it must be done right. Sadly, we have people falling through the cracks.
My fellow Tasmanians are not getting their fair share. While for some the NDIS provides packages of support to profoundly and severely impaired Tasmanians and helps them to have some control over their lives, many Tasmanians are still missing out. There are around 11,000 Tasmanians who are potentially eligible for the NDIS, and about 6,500 or so currently receiving funding packages. That means that thousands of Tasmanians are missing support that they're entitled to and that they need.
Recently, I joined the shadow minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Bill Shorten, and the Tasmanian shadow minister for disability, Jo Siejka, in listening to NDIS participants and their families about their experiences of the scheme. We heard from a couple who came with their one-year-old child with cerebral palsy. Despite the clear immediate needs of the family, it took six months for their plan to be approved—six months!
A number of families talked about how exhausting it is providing round-the-clock care for their children, yet they're unable to get respite care approved as part of their plan because apparently it's a parent's job to parent—that's what they were told. So there's no respite care for them. Families also talked about the amount of work they do getting medical reports to justify their claims. Filling in the paperwork and collating the reports is practically a full-time job. In some cases, these reports were second-guessed by people not qualified in medicine and, in other cases, they weren't even read. Forum participants also spoke about the lack of supported accommodation in Tasmania. One parent who was able to find supported accommodation for her adult son had to take him out after two months because he was so severely and constantly bullied and assaulted by another resident. We also heard about lengthy delays in payments to service providers, even from approved services, and how the carers of participants had to chase the agency for payment. One local provider, it was reported, is owed close to $1 million by the agency.
While these experiences are terrible, we've also seen NDIS participants die before they can receive the equipment that they need and that has been approved. From what we are told by the community, some participants are finding the process of registering or having a plan reviewed taking months and, even once people have registered and had their plans finally approved, participants are then continuing to wait far too long for the services. They are finding that there is simply too much red tape and bureaucracy.
Participants visit their treating doctor or medical specialists, who then put in reports about whether a piece of equipment or therapy would be beneficial for the participant and should be put into the participant's plan. But the advice of these experts can be completely ignored and these items left out of plans. Decisions around what gets included in plans and what doesn't are inconsistent. A support which may be approved under one plan is rejected for another participant with the same or similar needs. And, of course, if the participant and the carer stand up and ask for the needed support to be put in the plan, as is their right, the plan is then reviewed, which causes further delays and ties up resources which should be used to deliver supports. It's not the job of the NDIS to tell participants, their carers and medical advisers that they are wrong.
In other cases we find the services participants need are simply not available. For example, some towns in Tasmania have no disability taxis, meaning that scheme participants are not able to use this form of transport to access services, increase their mobility and, of course, reduce social isolation. In addition in Tasmania we've got the Tasmanian government hiding behind the creation of the NDIS, walking away from its promises and obligations to Tasmanians, particularly with regard to the funding of vital disability organisations. The NDIS was never designed to replace all state funded spending in the disability sector, and the Tasmanian government shouldn't be using the scheme as a way to shirk its responsibilities.
It is clear that there are major issues with the NDIS at the moment, and it is clear that the government's management of the NDIS is dysfunctional. It is vitally important that we get this right. How we treat vulnerable people in our society is an indicator of the kind of society that we are and the kind of government that we have in place. Sadly, it seems that the government either has no idea what it's doing when rolling out the NDIS or, even worse, is deliberately implementing the scheme poorly.
I know it's hard to believe, but the government appears to be deliberately short-changing Australians with disability, their carers and their families. The defining feature of the 2018-19 final budget outcome is a $4.6 billion underspend in the NDIS. We've also seen a projected underspend of $1.6 billion for the 2019-20 financial year. So it's apparent that the Liberals are propping up their budget by underspending on the NDIS while people living with disability are missing out on the care and support they need and deserve. Australians with a disability and their families all deserve better. The effect of this underspend is that individual NDIS participants are, on average, $20,000 worse off. Vulnerable people shouldn't be unfairly targeted to prop up the government's surplus.
As I said earlier, the government's management of the NDIS seems to be quite dysfunctional. The bill we are debating today is a good indication of the chaos and confusion defining this government's mishandling of the NDIS. This bill amends the National Disability Insurance Scheme Act 2013 governance arrangements between the Commonwealth and the states and territories regarding rule making and decision-making under the NDIS Act. However, at the same time, the government's also conducting a full review of the NDIS Act and rules which has a focus on streamlining NDIS processes. In August, they announced a review of the NDIS Act to be undertaken by David Tune AO, PSM, commonly known as the Tune review, which is due to report at the end of 2019. So, while there is scope in the review to consider the NDIS governance arrangements that are subject to this bill, introducing the bill and holding the review at the same time seems to be completely ill thought out. If the government is serious about the current review, it should wait until the review is complete before this bill is introduced so that the NDIS Act and rules can be considered alongside any findings that may impact governance arrangements and the broader policy context.
Unfortunately, it seems that the government finds it easier to conduct a review than to act on the recommendations of reviews. There have been 20 reviews conducted into the NDIS—20. NDIS participants, their carers and their family members and NDIS providers have all told review after review after review the ways in which the NDIS can be improved. Instead of holding another review, the government just needs to act on the issues that have already been identified. Why isn't the government listening to those impacted the most? I know real action would be more welcome by participants, carers and service providers than yet another review. These are real, everyday Australians in need—not numbers on some balance sheet. It's people that are at the heart of the NDIS, and I often feel that the government misses this key point.
The government have really not ever taken the NDIS reform seriously and they've utterly failed in the management of the scheme in the six years that they've been in charge of it. As a third-term government, they should have already sorted out the issues, but they've failed, as minister after minister has neglected to give the NDIS the support that it needs. So far, those opposite have had six ministers responsible for the scheme—six. The current minister for the NDIS, Mr Stuart Robert, is continuing the mismanagement that he inherited. The NDIS is there to meet the needs of some of Australia's most vulnerable people. They deserve a government that treats their needs and concerns seriously and that acts to provide outcomes to people with disability.
Because of the delays, 77,000 people are missing out on the NDIS. On average, people only use about 50 per cent of their first plan. In fact, I've met with constituents and, when we've gone through their plan, we've found that some of the services in the plan aren't needed or even wanted, and how they go about accessing the services hasn't been properly explained to them. People have to wait, on average, four months to get a plan, but many wait much longer. Then there is the staffing issue.
The NDIS simply does not have enough staff. We need a workforce that is able to deliver services. In 2014, the Liberals put in a staffing cap, meaning there weren't enough workers, and there was a reliance—as we're very used to from those on the other side—on consultants and contractors. A staffing cap means longer waiting times and less access to services for those NDIS participants. There needs to be an increase in the number of staff to help clear the processing backlogs for the NDIS. In addition, we need to start planning for an increase in the delivery of services under the NDIS. As many as 90,000 extra NDIS workers will be needed over the next five years.
The government's failure to plan for the future is really a whole-of-government issue. Their incompetence is not just limited to issues with the NDIS. Through the Liberals' maladministration and lack of leadership, people are falling through the cracks—as I said earlier—as the NDIS is rolled out. This is the consistent feedback of NDIS participants, providers and carers and even state and territory governments.
The very poor implementation of this scheme is clear from the state of the agency responsible for its implementation. The National Disability Insurance Agency, the NDIA, was without a permanent CEO from April 2019 for a period of almost six months. For six months they didn't have a permanent CEO. It's seen a mass exodus of its senior leadership in the past few months. The agency also has a substantial lack of proper representation—and understaffing at the staff and board level—of lived experience of disability. To meet the needs of people with disability it's absolutely vital that their experiences are part of the decision-making and the strategic process. We can see that there is much improvement that can be made.
The bill that we're debating today amends the National Disability Insurance Scheme Act 2013 to change governance arrangements between the Commonwealth and states and territories regarding rule-making and decision-making under the NDIS Act. It creates a provision for a 28-day process for the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme to consult with states and territories on appointments, other than the chair, to the board of the NDIA and NDIS Independent Advisory Council, the IAC. The bill also introduces a definition for 'host jurisdiction minister' and replaces the words 'state and territory' with 'host jurisdiction' in section 127.
Labor has concerns with the bill as it stands. The bill was examined by a very quick inquiry of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs, which had just three weeks to inquire into and report on the bill. I would like to thank the Labor members of the committee in particular for their additional comments, which have informed Labor's view on this bill.
Labor does not support the introduction of the term 'host jurisdiction', because it fails to acknowledge the central role states and territories play in the governance of the NDIA and the important financial and policy contribution that they make to the scheme. Labor is also concerned that changing agreement requirements may have the effect of reducing the participation of states and territories in important governance decisions within the board and the advisory council.
Labor does not support the proposed amendment granting the Commonwealth minister the power to appoint board members without a majority agreement from the states and territories. We also do not support the proposed change which seeks to alter the requirement of the minister in seeking agreement on the appointment of a member to the IAC, from unanimous agreement to consultation only. Labor is also opposed to the proposed amendment which seeks to change the requirement of the minister, when seeking agreement on the termination of a member from the IAC, from unanimous agreement to consultation only. These reforms do not substantially improve the scheme.
Labor believes this government should be taking action on the issues that have been identified already. The government needs to resolve the issues of access to transport, employment and housing. They are issues that are impacting on NDIS participants every single day. In addition, the government needs to ensure the National Disability Strategy is appropriately resourced. I believe that Labor will have amendments to improve this bill, which I hope the crossbench can and do support.
The government likes to gloat about possibly delivering a budget surplus at the end of this financial year, but doing so by underspending on the NDIS is shameful. We know that for many it's difficult to access services under the NDIS. There are also some very good success stories in the NDIS, but under this government it's not working as it should and has left many vulnerable people without the services which should be their right. A government that thinks that ripping $4.6 billion away from providing services for people in need is one that has its priorities all wrong.
Labor will continue to stand up for people with disability and their carers and families by making sure they are in control of their plan through quicker, simpler and easier processes. This government is clearly not serious about taking action or about its new review. If it were, it would have recognised that the review would impact on this bill and it would have waited to ensure that any findings could be considered appropriately. The NDIS was a bold reform by Labor in the style of Medicare, superannuation and the minimum wage. The Liberals are deliberately underfunding the NDIS so they can prop up their budget position at the expense of Australians with disability and their families and carers.
Budgets are the way to pay for services that people need. But, unfortunately, this government is unable to see the real people. It just sees numbers. That shows how little regard the Liberals have for people with disability and their families. But, unlike the Liberals, the Labor Party will stand up for people with disability and their families, carers and loved ones.