Tuesday, 19 October 2021
National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021; Second Reading
The one thing I think we can all agree on is that the case of Ann-Marie Smith is heartbreaking. There is absolutely no way—with or without the NDIS, pre or post the NDIS, or anywhere in our society—that this should have been allowed to happen. It is an absolutely appalling reflection on society as a whole that this woman was allowed to endure what she did, and that ultimately led to her death. The more I think about it, the more incredulous I am that this was allowed to occur. We're talking about a woman who had a profound disability—a woman who was unable to toilet herself, shower herself or feed herself. At no point in what's alleged to have been one year was she taken out of a cane chair. I mean, how is this even possible? It's just extraordinary that a woman with a profound disability was left sitting in a chair for one year—not even taken to the toilet or showered. And God knows if she was ever fed. This is just abuse in every shape and form, and it's an absolute abomination.
But how did it occur? How can anyone who purports to be a service provider or carer allow this to happen and to persist? One woman has been charged with Ann-Marie Smith's manslaughter—because, allegedly, there was one carer allocated to Ann-Marie Smith. We know that Ann-Marie Smith was in the chair for a year. So if a carer was due to come to her three times a day—why was it only one person? Did this woman never have a day off? Did this woman never have a holiday? Did she work seven days a week for that year? I think there are a lot of questions for the provider, who I understand has been struck off as a provider of NDIS services. I think questions need to be asked as to how does that provider ever allowed a situation to occur where one woman was in charge of the care of a severely and profoundly disabled woman. No-one has accepted responsibility. How can one carer, who has been charged and has pleaded guilty to manslaughter, ultimately have been responsible for 365 days of care, seven days a week, with no other person visiting the house? We probably know that that woman didn't go out all the time, but the provider, that organisation, should have been up to the task and ensured that there was more than one provider attending to this woman. I am sure they have a roster, where staff are rostered on and off, so who else was put on in place? I think there are significant things that need to be looked at with some of these providers. We need to ensure that providers are not given an opportunity to throw all the blame on one carer employed by them—in some cases I believe they're claiming this was subcontracted to them—when we're talking about provision of care for 365 days a year, seven days a week. It is absolutely extraordinary.
I welcome that the NDIA and this bill will provide more oversight and more opportunities for us to ensure that these situations are never allowed to occur again. But it is important when we look at the context of the NDIS that part of the tier 2 supports that are supposed to be in place—the tier 2 that, unfortunately, to this stage hasn't been a high enough priority; but I do commend the minister for now taking a much more serious look at the tier 2 community supports part of the NDIS—are becoming a reality. The community supports were designed to ensure that those organisations who wanted to participate in community activities outside of the disability providers could receive training, guidance and communication on how best to deal with a person with a disability who wants to use their services and that there is more community awareness, acceptance and understanding of what people with a disability require.
Where we see shortfalls in our community—we've talked about it through COVID. Loneliness is real and it is a scourge in our community. People have really felt loneliness through the isolation of lockdowns. When we saw that people who were living alone weren't allowed to interact with others, it took some convincing of the state governments that perhaps they should allow friend bubbles or singles bubbles so people were not forced to isolate alone. We've talked about this in this place many times, and I know we don't have any direct figures, but I am sure we will learn over time what the consequences have been of some of the desperation and loneliness that people have felt through enforced isolation via COVID.
You can only imagine the isolation and loneliness that was experienced by Ann-Marie Smith. We have to understand she didn't live in a group home. She was living in a home that had been provided by her parents prior to their deaths. Some of the neighbours in her street had not seen her for a decade. The ones that had seen her more recently were saying they hadn't seen her for five years. As a society, how do we say that's acceptable? How do we say that we haven't seen the disabled woman that we know lives alone, whose parents have died, who's no longer sitting in her front yard and who's no longer sitting in her driveway with her dogs when we used to regularly see her sitting in the sun and at no point say, 'Clearly something is amiss here'?
So we as a society need to do better, and I know that we as a government and everyone in this place are looking to legislate how we can improve things, how we can provide frameworks and how we can ensure that organisational failures like this aren't allowed to occur and, when they do, punishment is significant and immediate. But we cannot enforce community standards in the way where, as I would have hoped, her neighbours would have kept more of an eye out and, when they hadn't seen her for a while, maybe thought to ring the police and say, 'Can you do a bit of a welfare check?' I know my office rang around doing a lot of various checking on some of our older constituents. We quite often sent police around to homes under very distressing circumstances to do welfare checks on people who were not coping with the isolation. But this is absolutely demonstrative of how some in our society have very little care or regard for their neighbours. It is something on which I think we can all look to do better.
I think it also points to one of the other issues. I know the independent assessment report from the joint standing committee is being tabled at around midday today. That, again to the minister's credit, has now been disbanded as an idea. But it is about how we need to look at what functionality needs to be assessed, how we look at goals and how we ensure people are achieving them, because I'm pretty sure if someone had actually gone to see Ann-Marie Smith they would have understood that one of her goals was to sit out in the sun with her dogs in the front yard, which she used to do. That functionality and those goals need to be supported so that people have an assurance that they can live the quality of life that they should.
Unfortunately, this is what we have seen as we have moved away from the group homes and as we have moved away from the old block-funding model. As I said in my maiden speech, this was always going to be something we were going to have to continue to tweak to make it fit for purpose. It is such a huge and fundamental change. It's the biggest social reform since Medicare. It was always going to take time to make sure we ironed out the kinks, got it right and made sure that we were delivering it in the best way possible. If there has ever been an example of why parents and carers of people with a disability are some of the people most focused on ensuring the sustainability and correct running of this scheme it is Ann-Marie Smith. Her parents hadn't known when they passed that this level of neglect would be allowed to occur, but it is the fear of every parent of a child with a disability. We need to know that our children are going to be supported well after we are gone. That is why there is no-one more focused on scheme sustainability than the parents and carers of a loved one with a disability. We need to know that, once we're gone, they will be safe, they will be cared for and they will have quality of life. They may not be loved in the same way as by their own family, but we need to know that they will be appreciated, they will be supported and they will enjoy the quality of life that they should.
I commend Senator Steele-John on the work that he's done with me on the Joint Standing Committee on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, along with Kevin Andrews, the member for Menzies, as well as Senator Brown. This area is one that I feel is genuinely bipartisan. It is one we can work on together because we are working for the betterment of not only the people currently on the scheme, the people that require the scheme, and their families. I think we all appreciate that this is a scheme for every Australian, because you just never know when you might need it.
So I support this bill and I commend this bill. I absolutely hope to continue working with all colleagues across the chamber from every team and with the minister to ensure that the NDIS is as fit for purpose as it can be and that people who require it are supported in a way that gives them dignity and true quality of life.