Wednesday, 16 June 2021
Statements by Senators
National Disability Insurance Scheme
The National Disability Insurance Scheme was created to give disabled people what we need to live a good life, just like everyone else. It was supposed to be guided by our goals and our lived experience and informed by the expertise of the professionals that we know and trust. The Liberal government are trying to undermine these key principles of how our NDIS works to make it more difficult for disabled people to get the supports we need. If this weren't bad enough, they are also trying to make it so that key NDIS decision-makers no longer have to listen to the evidence provided by our trusted doctors and specialists. Instead, they want to force disabled people to be assessed by a stranger who is paid by a private corporation and has no understanding of the person they're assessing or their disability. Under these changes, it will be so much more difficult to get the funding for the supports we need.
We know that it doesn't have to be this way, that the Liberals can only make these changes if they are able to change the law. We know that disabled people across the country are united in a campaign to prevent this from happening, to protect the NDIS from the Morrison government and to ensure that every disabled person has what they need to live a good life and that the scheme works to that purpose. Today, I want to take head-on one of the key justifications the government has put forward for the need for these so-called changes, and that is the question of cost.
This government, which is very happy to fritter away tens of billions of dollars on defunct defence projects, has recently discovered a desire to rein in spending on certain projects and has taken aim at the NDIS. However, if we look at the actual figures of the cost of the agency and the cost of this scheme, we see a very different story. Every single budget since the NDIS was created up until the last two years of financial information revealed a scheme that was running a significant underspend. There were very many good reasons for the existence of this underspend and, at every point, disabled people in our organisations said clearly to the government: 'Keep that money in the scheme. Save it for a rainy day so that, if costs ever go up higher than expected, that money is there to cover that.' This underspend trend culminated in 2019 with a $4.6 billion underspend in the scheme and what it actually cost in that year. Again disabled people said very clearly to the government, 'Keep that money in the scheme, because at some point it will be needed.' Instead, the Morrison government made the decision to take that money and put it into general consolidated revenue, to put it back in the overall pot and not keep it aligned with the agency.
What happened the next year? Just as disabled people had predicted, the scheme ran at a slightly higher cost than was expected—about $1.1 billion. Now, the next year, so this last budget, again saw the scheme run a little higher than expected. Had the government listened to disabled people and retained that $4.6 billion within the scheme, then today, as we sit here, the NDIS would still be running under budget. The fact that it is running slightly above what it was projected to, slightly more than what is allocated to it, is a direct result of the Morrison government's decision in 2019 to take the underspent money and put it back into consolidated revenue. Why? So that they could have their 'Back in black' budget moment. So that Josh Frydenberg could sit there with his nice little black mug and pat himself on the back.
Everything beyond that moment in time, everything beyond the last set of figures that we had from the last budget, speaking to the actualised cost of the NDIS—which, again, I cannot overstate; it runs at a slight overspend because of a decision the Morrison government made—everything beyond that point are projections, estimations, predictions. And so it is legitimate that the community of disabled people, who are staring down the barrel of these terrifying changes being justified because of an increase in the cost of the scheme, wish to scrutinise the underlying assumptions that underpin those estimations and those projections. And that is exactly what the disability community have asked the government for, have asked the agency for. We have said very clearly: 'Give us your financial sustainability report. Give us the assumptions which underpin your actuarial modelling.'
Why is it that we want those figures? Well, we want them because, between October of last year and today, the government's projections of the cost of the NDIS in the forward years have gone from $25 billion, to $30 billion, to $40 billion as I sit here today. And when you have such wild increases in the projected cost of something, it is really quite reasonable to want to see the assumptions that underpin those projections, particularly when the supposed cost of this scheme, which has increased from $25 billion to $40 billion, has tracked perfectly with the pressure being applied to this government to drop these terrible changes to our NDIS. It's almost as though they were racking up the figures to try to pressure the crossbench into passing this legislation. Who would have thunk it from this mob?
I also want to make very clear that the proposed changes that the government are putting forward are very likely to have adverse consequences upon communities that the government have not factored in. And one which gets very little coverage, but is critically important, is the impact of these changes upon allied health professionals working in rural and regional communities. The government are proposing that allied health professionals be contracted to undertake so-called independent assessments of disabled people. These are physios, these are psychologists, these are occupational therapists—and often these are people who have never worked in these particular fields with these particular participants. They are currently working, right now, in the mainstream of the allied health profession in rural and regional Australia. These are communities that we know are chronically understaffed and under-resourced by these professions, and it is the proposition of this government that they would divert those allied health professionals from playing that generalised role to playing this specific role of functioning for the NDIS as assessors. This means there will be fewer of these professionals for the general community, something which has been flagged with us again and again by the peak bodies of these organisations.
In the final minutes, I also want to draw the community's attention and the chamber's attention to the commentary of Professor Bruce Bonyhady, who is rightly regarded as the architect of the NDIS. He gave evidence before the inquiry into these changes and said very clearly that the cost pressures on the scheme that do exist are the result of government inaction in relation to the broader disability sector and what is needed to support disabled people who are not themselves NDIS participants. This government has had control of the agency almost since its inception and has comprehensively failed to develop the tier 2 supports that are needed to support people who are not themselves NDIS participants.
Professor Bonyhady drew our attention particularly to the ways in which this series of changes conflicts with the original intent of the scheme, and he is right to have done that. He also brought our attention to the fact that, had the Morrison government done its job over the past seven years and worked with the states and territories to develop comprehensive alternatives to coming into contact with the NDIS, there would not be the certain cost pressures that there are upon the scheme. The Morrison government are attempting to make their failures and their decisions disabled people's problems, and that is not okay.