Senate debates

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Statements by Senators

Northern Territory: National Disability Insurance Scheme

1:25 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to talk about the operations of the National Disability Insurance Agency and how they are affecting the National Disability Insurance Scheme and its clients in the Northern Territory. Last month I was advised by local stakeholders that they were very concerned at reports that senior NT management at the NDIA would be relocated interstate. This raised a lot of concerns for me and particularly for those people and families in remote regions trying to access services under the NDIS.

Firstly, I'd like to make the strong point that local issues need local solutions. We already know there are serious concerns with the operations of the NDIS in the Territory. Moving the decision-maker thousands of kilometres away would not make the NDIS better for Territorians. The NDIS exists to improve the lives of people with disabilities, and, to ensure this, National Disability Insurance Agency staff must be employed locally and have the authority to fix issues. Local advocates are clear about the need to have local knowledge and on-the-ground expertise as the scheme rolls out in the Northern Territory.

The member for Solomon, Luke Gosling, and I wrote to the Prime Minister last month, raising the concerns of our constituents. I might share with the Senate what we said in our letter to the Prime Minister. We said that the decision to shift NDIS management out of the Territory does raise serious concerns about the government's ability to deliver the locally adapted services Territorians with disability need. In the latest quarter, over half of all NDIS participants were using less than 50 per cent of their plan, and this means people are missing out on the support they need. In many cases, across the Territory, this is because a genuinely local approach to making sure services are available is not in place. Local issues do need local solutions.

We haven't heard back from the Prime Minister. I understand that his attention is focused on other issues. But, again, let me say to the Senate: even those issues that are distracting the Prime Minister and the cabinet have a profound impact on the needs of Australians out there, who need members here to take responsibility and do their jobs.

Noelene Swanson, the NT state manager of National Disability Services, Vanessa Harris from the Northern Territory Mental Health Coalition, and Liz Reid, the president of Physical Disability Australia, chair of the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations and NT representative on the NDIA Independent Advisory Council, have worked and lobbied tirelessly not only on the issue of retaining senior NDIA staff in the Northern Territory but also on the need to improve the model for the NDIS in the Territory. They deserve to be heard and listened to. Their views about the need to have local solutions and local resources need to be taken into account. But the voices and concerns, the lives of people with a disability in the Territory obviously don't rate a response when you are too busy being distracted by what is currently going on with our government. We have a unique set of circumstances in the Territory. We know we have some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people living in our remote regions who need improved access to the NDIS.

Reports on the NDIS have highlighted low take-up rates in the Territory and high levels of unmet need. Earlier this year, an independent evaluation of the NDIS found the scheme's trial around Tennant Creek did not improve the local supply of disability services and unmet demand remained high. The review found that outcomes for NDIS participants were variable, with those with stronger English language and advocacy skills fairing so much better than others. The authors said that the key promise of the NDIS of choice and control for people with disabilities remained an almost theoretical concept in the Barkly Region because of a lack of services. The report stated that the NDIS trial in the Barkly Region was never expected to be an easy task—for senators here, the geographic position of the Barkly: it is around the Tennant Creek region of the Northern Territory and covers a vast area right up to just below Katherine and certainly above Alice Springs—and that the number of participants in the NDIS did not reflect the high levels of disability within the region. It highlighted that outcomes for NDIS participants were variable and poorer for those living in Aboriginal communities.

At the end of the evaluation period, they concluded that both its approach and its implementation were ineffective and that the NDIS had not managed to adapt sufficiently to the specific needs of the region. This indicates a need for more locally led and place based tailored solutions to planning, market development, access to services and risk management as described in the bilateral agreement. Consistent strategic intent is fine. How that is led and implemented locally needs to vary to suit the circumstances. Centralising leadership and decision-making for the majority of the NDIS functions will further delay decision-making and much-needed service development for the people of the Northern Territory. No other jurisdiction has the combined demographic or geographic features of the Northern Territory.

The NDIS is here to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Australians with a disability. Under the Turnbull government, it has been hampered by lengthy delays, plans having to be constantly reviewed and people simply not getting the support they need. The NDIA earlier this month announced a new structure, but advocates are still wondering why the NT's local NDIA manager has authority only over planning issues. The Turnbull government needs to lift the staffing cap for the NDIA. It also needs to ensure that senior staff are available to manage the rollout of the scheme locally. Territory disability advocates were very happy to hear the announcement from my colleague in the other place the member for Barton that a Labor government will remove the Liberal's arbitrary NDIA staff cap. This will free the agency so that it will be able to make the best long-term decisions about how to deliver quality services to Australians with disability. Last year, the Productivity Commission recommended that the staff cap be scrapped. Disability advocates have been calling for its abolition for years. And the staff cap is a relic of the former Prime Minister Abbott's horror 2014 budget and creates a perverse incentive to rely on contract staff and outsourcing despite the NDIS being the biggest social reform since Medicare. The staff cap has no impact on NDIA's overall funding level, which will not need to change with its removal.

Recently, the NDIA has committed over $145 million for contract and temporary staff, outsourced call centre functions to the multinational Serco—the equivalent of up to 380 full-time jobs at a cost of $63 million over two years—and spent over $61 million on consultants in 2016-17 and 2017-18 alone. At the same time, the scheme's rollout is currently behind schedule—the equivalent of over 46,000 people missing out on the NDIS. People with disability have faced massive plan review backlogs and have missed out on the essential supports they need.

We need to take the roadblocks out of the way of the NDIS. People with disability need to be at the heart of everything the NDIS does. It exists to provide essential services, not to line the pockets of multinationals. NDIA staff do work hard and try their very best with what they've got. This arbitrary staff cap is just putting more unnecessary pressure on them. The staff cap creates a false economy, forcing the NDIA to rely on outsourcing and contractors, which is often more expensive. The cap makes it harder to develop a first-class public sector workforce with the outstanding skills in delivering disability supports that will be needed well into the future.