Wednesday, 13 November 2019
National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I was in continuance on the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019 when we were previously discussing the bill. I'll remind the chamber as to where I was up to on this. We, along with the opposition, had contributed dissenting reports to the inquiry into this bill. The bill changes the appointments and terminations to the National Disability Insurance Agency, the NDIA board, and the Independent Advisory Council, the IAC, from one that requires unanimous support from the states and the territories to a process where the minister can override the states and appoint his own picks, thereby allowing the minister to potentially, if a minister was so minded, sack the board and the IAC.
As I said in August, there was a Senate inquiry into the bill. The evidence given to the hearing and the submissions overwhelmingly recommended against the package of the bill, due to their concerns about the ability of the government to influence the independence of the NDIS, which is very important. The government has not consulted with any disabled people or their representative peak organisations in writing this bill, meaning that their first formal ability to have a say on this bill was through the committee process.
We heard from the disability community and their peak organisations that there was overwhelming opposition to the inquiry. Nothing substantive has changed about this bill from the inquiry and the deeply overwhelming and concerning provisions remain, and the sector continue to express their concern. We are strongly opposed to the passage of this bill, and we implore people to listen to the evidence from disabled persons and from their peak organisations, who are saying, 'This is not the way to go.' We're also urging the crossbench to support the wishes of the disability community, who are so clearly working to improve and want to see the NDIA be as strong and as effective as possible. That is the background. I thought that I needed to go back over some of those issues, since it's a while since we debated this.
The board has been filled largely with former corporate CEOs from the banking and finance sector, people who are good at looking at balancing the budget but don't necessarily have experience in what is necessary to improve the lives of people, particularly disabled persons, in our community. It is absolutely essential that disabled people and people with that lived experience are on the board, for a start, but people need to be assured that the board is making, and has the experience to make, the best possible decisions for the NDIA. I think it's fair to say that, to date, people aren't confident that the NDIA or the NDIS are delivering. My colleague Senator Steele-John has pointed that out extensively not just in this debate but in other forums and in other debates in this chamber. An example of this is the past CEO, Robert De Luca, who was the CEO of the NDIA until earlier this year. He was previously the CEO of Bankwest, which doesn't have much relevance to disability. I'm not for one minute saying that Mr De Luca wasn't very mindful and understanding of disability, but the fact is he didn't come from that sector and he didn't have lived experience to take to the position of CEO of the NDIA.
This government is making and has made decisions that, in our opinion, have undermined the NDIS. There are not enough staff. Staff numbers have been capped. Even though the Productivity Commission recommended that the scheme needed at least 10,000 staff, the cap was put in place. That was a mistake, because this is a massive scheme and we needed to get it right from the start. Unfortunately, we haven't got it right from the start. We've heard overwhelming criticism of the NDIS. We've seen that people have not been getting packages, that people have been getting inappropriate plans, that people are still not able to access their plans, that people are waiting for months and months to get a package and that there have been awful situations where people have passed away before they got a package. We've seen inadequate training. Planners are asking participants inappropriate questions about their disability because they simply don't understand. They're making really bad calls.
I can never understand and will never understand why participants are not able to have a look at their plans when they are in draft so they can consider them and provide feedback. The answer to one of my questions in estimates, not that long ago, when I was asking about participants being able to see their draft plans and not be forced to sign off on them without seeing them properly was: 'We could turn the laptop around during the consultation process.' For crying out loud! It is ridiculous, plain ridiculous, that some of those fundamental things are not being done. While there are moves to improve the training, it is still inadequate. When you've got people who are asking and are continuing to ask—we've had feedback not long ago, haven't we, Senator Steele-John?—
about people being asked inappropriate questions in their sessions around their plans. That shows quite clearly that planners still do not have a fundamental understanding of some of the disabilities that they are dealing with. There aren't enough services in regional areas. People can't access the services that they've been funded to get, because they don't exist yet or they just don't exist. I think I've told the chamber before of the example of transport in a plan with people being told they could catch public transport in regional areas where public transport simply does not exist.
There is the inability to use services properly. There is a massive bottleneck of services, meaning that some participants can't utilise their plans properly, which leads to extra money in their plans, which usually leads to a review where participants' plans are cut because they didn't spend it. I cannot tell you how many times I have had people complain to my office—and I'm certain Senator Steele-John has exactly the same occurrences—about not being able to access the services they need, because they're not available, because we still haven't got an adequately trained-up workforce in the numbers needed for people to be able to access the services, so they can't spend their packages. So what is the decision? 'Oh, clearly you don't need that level of funding,' so their next plan is cut. The IT systems are not fit for purpose. The IT system was not fit for purpose from the get-go. It was borrowed from Centrelink and is so confusing that service providers have trouble with it, let alone disabled people who are trying to use the system to access their funding. The government are literally balancing their budget on the fact that there is underspend to the tune of at least $6.4 billion in the NDIS. This is money that the participants haven't been able to spend, because the system isn't working properly.
We want to see more disabled people on the board of the NDIS, people with a lived experience who understand the complex nature of disability and who are committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure that every single participant has a positive experience, enabling them to access all the supports and services they need to live a good life. We understand that the current governance frameworks have created issues in the process of efficient and effective decision-making and acknowledge that the motivation of this bill is to remedy this. We support in principle the proposed consultation time line for certain decisions and actions: 28 days for initial response, with the possibility of an extension of 90 days upon request. We note, however, that the consultation process with states and territories on matters which require agreement proposed in the bill are already administrative arrangements for intergovernmental consultation. The COAG Reform Council agreed to a 28-day consultation period in November 2017, which would see the Commonwealth seek agreement with the states and territories. Once this period has elapsed, failure to respond would be taken as agreement. Further, the intergovernmental agreement between the Commonwealth, states and territories, with the exception of Western Australia, now captures this process.
I've already articulated some of the issues about the appointment to the NDIA board and to the IAC. We don't support their proposed amendments for seeking agreement on the appointments and terminations of NDIA board members and members of the IAC. This bill is flawed. We have clearly articulated our opposition. We urgently need to see reforms to the NDIS. We need to have a board that has a wealth of lived experience and that disabled people are there making decisions over the scheme that was intended to give them choice over their services, improve their lives and give them a much better quality of life. The NDIS isn't doing that. We strongly support— (Time expired)
I rise to speak on this important bill, the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019. This legislation amends the National Disability Insurance Scheme Act 2013 governance arrangements between the Commonwealth and states and territories regarding rule-making and decision-making under the NDIS Act. I'm pleased to see the government's amendment to the bill to ensure that the disability royal commission has the power to access information and data from the National Disability Insurance Agency and the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission. Labor is seeking a further amendment to defer consideration of the bill until after the findings and recommendations of the current review of the NDIS are publicly released.
On 12 August 2019, the government announced a review of the NDIS Act undertaken by David Tune AO, PSM. The Tune review is due to report at the end of 2019, with scope to consider governance arrangements through the terms of reference. These include opportunities to amend the NDIS Act to remove process impediments and increase the efficiency of the scheme's administration, implement a new NDIS participant service guarantee and any other matter relevant to the general operation of the NDIS Act in supporting positive participant and provider experiences.
This bill was referred to the Senate Community Affairs Committee, and a public hearing was held on 30 August. Disability groups that appeared at the public hearing on 30 August had the opportunity to provide feedback on the bill. They raised concerns the proposed consultation requirements would undermine the equal partnership of the Commonwealth, states and territories underpinning the NDIS. They also said that characterisation of states and territories as host jurisdictions in the bill misrepresents and underestimates the role of the jurisdictions under the current full-scheme arrangement.
Disability advocates also objected to the timing of the bill in relation to the Tune review, recommending that any governance changes should be postponed until the review is complete. If the government is serious about the current review, it should wait until the Tune review is complete before this bill is passed. The NDIS Act and rules should be considered alongside any findings that may impact governance arrangements and the broader policy context. This cavalier and ad hoc response to NDIS policy has resulted in people falling through the cracks as the NDIS is rolled out.
The government has ripped $4.6 billion out of the system, leaving people with disability and those who care for them without the support they need, all so they can prop up their budget, and it is at the expense of Australians with disability and their families and carers. We've seen examples of this—the wheelchair-bound man who was told he wasn't disabled enough and the woman with spinal muscular atrophy who had to run a GoFundMe campaign so she could transport herself to university. There are also those people who are impacted by the coalition's cuts and maladministration who are out of sight and out of mind. There are families and children living in remote communities in the Northern Territory who, despite severe levels of disability and chronic need, have not been able to draw down one cent of their package. There is little to no assistance given to people in these circumstances to access their packages—who they need to call and how to organise the services they so desperately need. In many cases there is simply no service provider available.
The complexity, restrictions and bureaucracy around NDIS policies are excluding some of the most severely disadvantaged people from accessing the scheme. Managing the process online is a barrier to many in remote areas where digital access isn't guaranteed. There is a severe lack of providers in the bush, and the burden of care often falls on family members and loved ones. Self-managing an NDIS package is far from a simple process. Add to this the issue, as I said, with digital access. I remind the Senate that English is a second or third language in the Northern Territory, where we have over 100 Aboriginal languages, entrenched poverty and communities where no-one with a NDIS package is drawing down. Grandmothers and mothers and aunties in remote Indigenous communities are caring for loved ones with a disability with no NDIS support because of the barriers to self-management. The restricted practices also don't take into account issues around culture and remoteness. They certainly don't take into account the impacts of entrenched poverty.
In a remote Northern Territory community, a child with cerebral palsy was sleeping on the concrete floor. They did not have a bed, not because their family didn't think the child deserved a comfortable place to sleep but because they could not afford to buy the bed frame and mattress. A child with cerebral palsy needs a bed to sleep in; every child needs a bed to sleep in. But the NDIS would not let the family purchase a bed under their package. The package remains underspent.
A child who is PEG fed through a stomach tube was unable to claim their special formula through their NDIS package. This special formula is costly, and expensive to obtain out bush, and the family was finding it hugely challenging to meet the ongoing costs. A man with cerebral palsy was denied a $200 sunshade for his wheelchair. And the NDIS has no provision for cultural practices such as the use of traditional healers, or ngangkari healers. These healers often work side-by-side with traditional medical practitioners to improve outcomes for First Nations people.
We need cultural supports and brokers in remote communities to assist families and carers to self-manage their funds and to access their entitlements. This would not only assist those with disabilities living in remote regions; it would also result in local jobs in the bush. Come on! It's not hard. Meanwhile, the face of this federal government focuses on, and reflects, a meanness and a neglect when a child with cerebral palsy is sleeping on a concrete floor because his family couldn't afford a bed, which he would be and should be entitled to with his package. This shows how little regard this government has.
Labor will continue to stand up for people with disability and their families by making sure they are in control of their plan through quicker, simpler and easier processes. The NDIS is one of the most important social initiatives that this nation has taken. At full rollout, the scheme will be allocating and be responsible for $22 billion. Labor believes this government should be taking action on the issues that have been identified already by disability services, advocates, other people and families, and of course by NDIS participants, who are living with this government's lack of will or ability to take serious action.
It's clear to everyone that the Tune review will impact on this bill, and we should wait on its findings. That is why Labor is amending this bill to defer further consideration until after the findings and recommendations of the Tune review.
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.
The Greens have significant concerns about this legislation and do not support the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019. This bill proposes to change the process of appointments and terminations to the National Disability Insurance Agency board and the Independent Advisory Council from one that requires unanimous support from the states and territories to a process where the minister can override states and territories and appoint his or her own picks. Basically, it's allowing the minister to stack the board of the National Disability Insurance Agency and the Independent Advisory Council.
In the context of this concern held by the Greens, it's worth colleagues considering the rampant way that the government has, over the last two terms, stacked members, mates and failed LNP politicians into the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. This government has a shameful track record of stacking people onto boards and into cushy appointments. I accept that the Labor Party, when it was in government, did the same at the AAT. However, this LNP government has taken it to an absolutely new level.
Ministers in the current government simply cannot be trusted to make good appointments. They cannot be trusted to make appointments based on merit. But what they can be trusted to do is to look after their mates and to look after failed LNP politicians who have been appointed in recent years not just to the AAT but, for example, to administer territories and provinces of Australia. I want to be very clear: we are predicting, should this legislation pass, a stacking of the National Disability Insurance Agency, the NDIA, and the Independent Advisory Council.
As previous speakers have referenced, there was a Senate inquiry into this bill. The evidence given in the hearing and in the submissions overwhelmingly recommended against the passage of this legislation due to concerns about the ability of government to influence the independence of the NDIS.
This government has made an art form of not consulting with people with disabilities, and that's not only the case in the context of this current legislation but also the case in the way that the government has developed its draft legislation which is colloquially known as the religious freedom legislation. Religious freedom hasn't been broadly commented on in the media or in the public conversation, but the proposed legislation would have a significant impact on people with disability.
I want to go a little bit into the detail about that, because I think it's important that senators understand how the draft legislation that the government is currently considering would impact on people with disability. Basically, what that draft legislation provides for is that a statement of belief will be largely exempt from federal, state and territory discrimination law, including the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act and also the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act in my home state—might I add, the best anti-discrimination act in the country by a long way. As I said, a statement of belief will be largely exempt from antidiscrimination law, and the onus to prove that a statement of belief is not legitimate will fall largely on the person alleging that they have been discriminated against. So, for example, someone will be able to say, 'You're in a wheelchair because God's punishing you for sins in your past life,' and the onus of proof will fall on the person who is in the wheelchair and to whom that was said to prove that that statement of belief is not legitimate. It will make it harder for businesses, government agencies and non-government organisations to build workplaces that are inclusive for people with disabilities. Another example is that an employee of a business or a government agency could state that a colleague who's got mental health challenges has been possessed by the devil, a terribly discriminatory comment. But this government thinks that the onus should be on that person to show that that statement of belief was not reasonable.
The government's got that piece of legislation completely wrong. It's important that everyone in this place and those around Australia who are interested in these issues, including the rights of people with disability, understand that, in fact, that legislation will impinge grossly on the rights of people with disability. It's worth pointing out, in the Tasmanian context, that overwhelmingly the largest number of complaints made to the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission have been made by people with disabilities. In some years, the total number of complaints made under the Tasmanian act by people with disabilities exceeds the combined total of complaints made on the basis of race and sexuality. That's how significant that particular reform is for people with disabilities, and it shows that this government is actually not serious about ensuring that people with disabilities are not discriminated against and it's not serious about delivering what is in the best interests of people with disabilities in other legislation, including this bill that we're debating today.
During that Senate inquiry, as I said, the evidence and the submissions overwhelmingly recommended against the passage of this legislation. Labor and the Australian Greens both contributed dissenting reports to that inquiry. Nothing substantive has changed in this bill from the bill that was examined in the inquiry. The deeply concerning provisions in this legislation remain, and the sector representing people with disabilities continues to express its concern. As I said, the Greens are strongly opposed to the passage of this legislation. We implore the Labor Party to stick to their dissenting position following the Senate inquiry, and we really urge the crossbench to fall in behind the disability community and the peak bodies that represent people with disability and who are so avidly working to improve the NDIA.
In the broader context, this is a government obsessed with a budget surplus, and that is entirely driven by political considerations. In terms of public policy, that is a ludicrous position to take. Let's not forget that this is a government, a very conservative government, that believes a budget surplus must come before all else and that everything else will need to fall into line behind that ideologically driven desire for a budget surplus.
But what should be in the government's mind that's far more important than delivering a budget surplus is the lived experience of people with disabilities. That lived experience should be crucial for the board of the National Disability Insurance Agency so that it can function in the best interests of disabled people, and yet this is not the case. The board has been largely filled with former corporate CEOs from the banking and finance sector—people who are great at balancing budgets, but they're not necessarily that good at actually improving the lives of people with disabilities in our community. One example is Mr De Luca, who was the CEO of the NDIA until earlier this year, and previously the CEO of Bankwest. I can't see the relevance there to the lived experience of people with disabilities. If the minister is able to educate me on that, I'd be very happy to accept the lesson.
This government would never have brought in the NDIS. I acknowledge that it was introduced by the Australian Labor Party—in fact, it was one of the enduring reforms that were delivered during that politically contentious period of government. But it was a period of government that did deliver some good reform, and, in the view of the Australian Greens, the NDIS falls comfortably into that description. But this government—the current government—is already trying hard to break the NDIS.
Firstly, there are not enough staff. They've capped staff at 3,300, even though the Productivity Commission—usually much beloved of right-wing governments in this country—recommended the scheme needed at least 10,000 staff. They're not providing adequate training: planners are asking participants inappropriate questions about their disability. That's not out of a desire to hurt or harm, but simply because they don't understand the situation for people with disability because they have not had adequate training.
There are not enough services in regional areas and, in some cases, people can't access the services they've been funded to get because the services themselves actually don't exist yet. They have an IT system that's not fit for purpose. I'm advised that it was borrowed from Centrelink, and given the robo-debt scenario and the arcane and secret algorithms that have driven that terrible attempt at debt recovery, including in many cases people that never owed a debt in the first place, I personally wouldn't borrow any IT systems from Centrelink. I urge the government to reconsider that matter.
I mentioned earlier the ideological obsession with balancing the budget or delivering a surplus. This government is basically balancing their budget on the fact that there is an underspend to the tune of $4.6 billion already on the NDIS. This is money that participants haven't been able to spend, even though they're entitled to it, because the system is so badly broken.
In terms of the boards of the NDIS and associated agencies: what we need on these boards are actually people with the lived experience of having a disability. The whole NDIS framework is designed to be beneficial for people living with disability. It's not designed to be beneficial for the board members and it's not designed to be beneficial for the people working in it; it's designed to be beneficial and to improve the lives of people who live with a disability, and we're not going to get that to its maximum effect until we have people with lived experience of being disabled in positions of authority in those organisations. People who've got a lived experience of disability will understand the complex nature of disability and they will be committed to doing whatever is necessary to ensure that every single participant has a positive experience, enabling them to access the supports and services they need to live a good life. That's what this government should be focusing on.
The Australian Greens understand that the current governance arrangements have created issues in the delivery of services and the process of efficient and effective decision-making, and we acknowledge the motivation of this bill in seeking to remedy this. We support, in principle, the proposed consultation time frames for certain decisions and actions—28 days for an initial response, with the possibility of an extension of 90 days on request. We note, however, that the consultation process with states and territories on matters which require agreement proposed in the bill are already administrative arrangements for intergovernmental consultation.
In regard to the amendments around appointments to the NDIA board and the IAC, as I indicated earlier, we do not support the proposed amendments to seeking agreement on the appointments and terminations of NDIA board members and members of the IAC. We do not support the proposed amendment to section 127(d), which would, as I said earlier, give the Commonwealth minister the power to appoint board members without a majority agreement from states and territories. We do not support the proposed amendment to section 147(2) to (3A), which seeks to change the requirements of the minister when seeking agreement on the appointment of a board member to the IAC from unanimous agreement to consultation only. We do not support the proposed amendment to section 155(3) and 155(4), which seeks to change the requirements of the minister when seeking agreement on the termination of a member of the IAC from unanimous agreement to consultation only.
I think it's worth colleagues noting the submission of the Young People in Nursing Homes National Alliance. In my time in politics, particularly in Tasmania, I've visited a number of young people who are in supported accommodation, many of them in nursing homes, and I've heard directly from them about many of their concerns. The Young People in Nursing Homes National Alliance, in their submission to the inquiry, contended this:
… the NDIS Board, its advisory structures and its relationships with all participating governments must have a direct line of sight to the variety of communities and cohorts the NDIS must interact with. The States and Territories knowledge of their communities and services is critical to the eventual national success of the NDIS and must be retained in the selection process of these bodies.
The Greens absolutely agree with the sentiments in that submission.
We support the views of disability organisations and we very strongly assert that appointments to and terminations from the NDIA board and the IAC must remain in a majority decision model. Board members and IAC members play significant roles in shaping the strategic direction of the NDIS and the way that it functions and operates, and both of those matters are of crucial importance. Therefore, it's the Greens' position that these decisions must follow a majority decision-making model and, in fact, a majority decision-making model will enhance the prospects of a good strategic direction and also enhance the prospects of good operational decisions, which are the things that matter in the day-to-day lives of people with disability. Therefore, it is our position that these decisions should be made by a majority decision-making model, in recognition of the fact that unanimous decisions are very difficult to achieve and can compromise the efficiency and effectiveness of the NDIS governance system.
We also had some concerns around the timing of this legislation in the context of current reviews looking into the NDIS Act and the National Disability Strategy. Time prevents me from going through all of those concerns, but I do want to place on the record that the majority committee report notes the concerns raised about the timing of this bill. Those concerns suggest that any legislative changes to the governance of the NDIS should be postponed until after the NDIS review being undertaken by Mr David Tune AO, PSM—that's the Tune review—and the review of the National Disability Strategy. The majority committee report also acknowledges there may be scope within the aforementioned reviews to consider issues with governance arrangements.
At the end of the day, when we're considering anything in regard to the NDIS and its governance arrangements, we ought to keep one thing front and centre in our minds—that is, how do we best support people with disability? How do we best support them to live the good life that they deserve to lead?
I rise to speak on the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019, and let me be clear from the very outset: the Greens are strongly opposed to this bill. Before I say any more, could I also say how proud I am of Senator Steele-John for his absolute passion, his work, his activism and his advocacy in this area.
This bill changes the process of appointments to and terminations from the National Disability Insurance Agency board and the Independent Advisory Council. If this bill passes, the process of selecting the board will go from one that requires unanimous support from the states and territories to one where the minister can override the states and appoint his own picks. This bill allows the minister, in effect, to stack the board and the Independent Advisory Council and then replace them with their own hand-picked mates. Really, this is just another step in the corporatisation and centralisation of the board. We all know that the federal government funds the National Disability Insurance Scheme, but just because it does so does not mean that the states and territories are absolved of their responsibility to scrutinise the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The states and territories still have the responsibility towards their communities and their people.
In August there was a Senate inquiry into this bill, which the government has completely ignored. How disrespectful is that to the people who appeared before the inquiry and gave evidence as to why this bill is such a terrible idea? How disrespectful is it to all those people who made submissions? The evidence given in the hearing and in the submissions overwhelmingly recommended against the passage of this bill due to concerns about government influence and the independence of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The Greens want the National Disability Insurance Scheme to remain independent. Further, I think it is shameful that the government has not consulted with people with disability or their representative peak organisations in the drafting of this bill. How shameful and, again, disrespectful is that? It shows the government's contempt for the process and for the people who will be impacted by this bill every single day, every single hour, every single minute of their lives. We know that there is overwhelming opposition from the disability community and their peak organisations, which they have expressed throughout the inquiry into this bill. The government is just not listening.
Labor and the Greens both contributed dissenting reports to the inquiry. Nothing substantive has changed about this bill since the inquiry. The deeply concerning provisions remain, and the sector continues to express its concern. We are strongly opposed to the passage of this bill, and we implore the opposition to stick to its dissenting position from the inquiry. We also urge the crossbench to support the wishes of the disability community, who are working so avidly to improve the National Disability Insurance Agency.
The National Disability Insurance Agency board and the Independent Advisory Council should be just that—totally independent from the government—to allow them to always act in the best interests of the people with disability who are participating in the National Disability Insurance Scheme. I would like to quote from a submission made by Queenslanders with Disability Network. They say:
QDN notes that the proposed model of governance appears to be moving from a consensus model, where agreement among the States and Territories is sought before action is taken to a consultative model, where State and Territory governments (referred to in the legislation as Host Jurisdictions) are consulted.
Regarding the proposed changes around appointment of Board Members, QDN believes a reasonable argument can be made that there should be more constraint around the appointment of Board members due to the need to ensure the Board and Independent Advisory Committee's (IAC) composition reflects contemporary NDIS governance issues as well as the different compositions of each State and Territory. Importantly, given the national nature of the Scheme, governance arrangements should allow for strategic feedback and direction that reflects the diversity of jurisdictions' geographical spread and topography and the particular NDIS key issues impacting each. In Queensland, for instance, getting 30,000 new participants into the Scheme is a key priority which has seen the bi-lateral agreement with the Commonwealth extended by 12 months. This has not been reflected in other jurisdictions.
They go on to talk about the government's attempt to remove the consensus based model:
QDN agrees that the NDIS needs significant reforms in its governance structure to address interface issues between the Commonwealth and States and Territories. Now that the NDIS has achieved full roll out and interface issues with State service systems is such a critical issue with our members and all people with disability, QDN believes the role of the States and Territories needs to be more central to the scheme. This requires an overall strategic approach that sees the States/ Territories as partners with the Commonwealth and ensures the Scheme has improved integration with other service systems. QDN believes a thorough review of governance arrangements could achieve this.
QDN also say in their submission:
QDN believes the IAC composition should reflect the broad skill set required to achieve effective Scheme governance, including representation of people with lived experience of disability and their families.
And this bill does nothing of what people with disability and their advocates are actually asking for or need.
The Greens believe that lived experience of disability should be crucial for the board of the National Disability Insurance Agency. I just can't understand how you cannot have that in a board that governs the NDIS. It is ridiculous, and it is going to have a negative impact on the people who the scheme is supposed to help. It is not in the best interests of people with disability to not have a board that reflects people who are with disability. Yet this is the case, and that's not good enough.
This is a government that is obsessed with so-called budget surpluses. This government is literally balancing its budget on the fact that there is an underspend to the tune of $4.6 billion already in the National Disability Insurance Scheme. This is money that participants haven't been able to spend, because the system is so broken. What a farce! The Young People in Nursing Homes National Alliance said in their submission:
… we believe this Streamlined Governance Bill is premature and should be deferred until the review of the NDIS Act is complete, at which time the legislative provisions for efficient implementation become relevant.
Stakeholders who submitted to the inquiry all wanted better representation of people with a lived experience of disability. But this bill does none of that.
We know this government is already trying hard to break the National Disability Insurance Scheme. There are simply not enough staff to do the work necessary to run the scheme. They have capped staff at 3,300 even though the Productivity Commission recommended the scheme needs at least 10,000 staff. There is an ABC article that was published on 13 May 2019 that points out the complexities that people face in order to navigate the system, and I want to read out a few things from that because I think it's really important for us all to know that this bill is coming in the context of a system that is already struggling:
The ABC has reported examples of how people with disabilities have applied for funding for one type of assistance, only to be granted a different, less useful type or no assistance at all.
Including deaf man Lawrie Dobson who asked for $10,000 for hearing aids but received $15,000 for coffee and social outings instead.
This is what is happening out there to real people facing difficulties.
"Certainly in the advocacy sector, we see that there is a hole in the current system," chief executive of Disability Advocacy Network Australia, Mary Mallett said.
"It's a complex system for people to understand and navigate and there aren't enough people independent—
'Independent'—I think that's the key word here.
… there aren't enough people independent from the system to help people to work their way through it."
Out of more than 277,000 people currently on the NDIS, Ms Mallett said around 60 per cent have a cognitive impairment.
"These people are mainly dependant on family, friends and other people — like their support workers and service providers — to speak up for them," she said.
Ms Mallett argued that access to independent advocacy was "crucial" to the success of the NDIS.
These are just some of the problems that we see in the current scheme, but on top of this we know that there is inadequate training for staff. We know from reports that planners are asking participants inappropriate questions about their disability because they simply haven't been trained on how to work with people who have a disability.
One of the biggest problems with the services is that there is simply not enough service in regional areas. People can't access the services they have been funded to get, because they just don't exist, so, rather than doing some work on improving those, this government here is bringing in this bill to remove the independence. There is also an inability to utilise services properly. There is a massive bottleneck of services, meaning some participants can't utilise their plans properly, which leads to extra money left in their plans, which usually leads to a review where participants' plans are cut because they didn't spend it.
The IT system is not fit for purpose either. This was borrowed from Centrelink and is so confusing that even service providers are having trouble with it, let alone the very people that it is supposed to help: people with disability who are trying to use the system to access their funding. Yet the unspent funding is being cut through no fault of the people who got that funding but because of the fault of the system that isn't working for them.
The Greens believe that a healthy, functioning society embraces diversity and removes barriers to provide for equitable access and participation by all. All people have a right to independence, self-determination and choice in their lives. Surely everyone in this chamber agrees with that, and if you do agree with that then you cannot support this really flawed and terrible bill.
Disability policy and law is a matter of human rights as well as individual health and wellbeing. We want to see more people with disability on the board of the National Disability Insurance Scheme—people who have lived experience, who understand the complex nature of disability and who are committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure that every single participant has a positive experience that actually enables them to access all the supports and services they need to live a good life. And those supports and services also need to be provided to everyone in the community who needs them.
People with disability—we all know this—continue to fall through the cracks. People with disability continue to be locked out of the community. People with disability continue to be denied the same rights as other Australians. Failings of successive Labor and coalition governments have perpetuated this discrimination, often denying disabled people access to inclusive education, meaningful employment, adequate services and the support they need. It is an obligation on every single one of us who sit here and who sit in the other place to make sure that inclusive education, meaningful employment and adequate services are a bare minimum that people need.
Disabled people are so often shut out of our communities through outdated, discriminatory planning regulations. We must do better. We have to do better. There is no other option. It is definitely time—way past time, I would say—to talk about disability differently. It is way beyond time to start actually hearing and listening to what people with disability are telling us. It's time to build our places and spaces differently. It's time to change attitudes and realise that we are all different and unique and that an inclusive society is a better society for everyone, and we have a responsibility to change those attitudes as well as anyone else. We must recognise that it is not enough to just deliver services for people. We must work with them to ensure that they are the right services. We see that decisions that profoundly shape the lives of disabled people are currently being made without their genuine involvement. How can we ever justify that? We can't, because there is no justification for that.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme has the potential to transform the lives of people with disability, their families and their carers, and that must be our top priority. Of course, to do this, the scheme needs to work. The scheme needs to deliver on its promises and the scheme needs to meet the needs of the people. The Greens are 100 per cent committed to creating a fully funded and adequately staffed NDIS that is transparent, consultative and accountable. To be able to do that, we need the board to be independent. We need to have reflected on the board the lived experience of people with disability. We don't need the board to be corporatised and centralised.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme should, of course, be fully funded. The services that need to be delivered to people who need them have to be delivered as a matter of priority. It has to be staffed appropriately. Staff need to have the appropriate training, which is not actually being provided at this point in time. We need to remove the unnecessary staffing caps, because we need those staff and those services in every corner of Australia.
I take that interjection from my colleague. People shouldn't have to fight to get those services; that is the right of people who live in our country.
We need to improve the other deficiencies in the system, like the IT systems and the interfaces for participants and service providers. This government knows what needs to be done because people with disability have been telling them for a very long time. Today we should all commit not to supporting this bill but to those services that are so desperately needed and that are the right of the people who need them.
Those are the reasons why the Greens will not be supporting this bill. We are opposing this corporatisation, this centralisation and this losing of independence on the board. We want to see a board that has representation from people with the lived experience from the states and territories, because they are responsible for the people who live in the states and territories. We don't want to see people with disability falling through the cracks because of the lack of responsibility this government is showing towards them. The Greens oppose this bill.
I also welcome the opportunity to speak about the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019, because this bill screams that the government has its priorities completely wrong when it comes to the NDIS.
There are urgent problems for NDIS participants and their supporters, but instead of addressing those problems the government is holding yet another review. And then, with this bill, it is pre-empting the findings of that review. There have already been 20 reviews into the NDIS, and it's now time to get on and invest in solutions. With this latest strategy, the government is not even focusing on the most pressing problems in the NDIS but instead on the matters that are covered by this bill. So let's look at what this bill does and also at what it doesn't do.
The bill seeks to change the process for the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme to consult with state and territory governments around the appointment of board members to the NDIA and to the NDIS Independent Advisory Council, other than the chairs of those organisations. In effect, this bill means that agreement from only a majority of state and territory governments will be required for those appointments when, at the moment, agreement by all governments is required. That could have the effect of reducing the participation of the states and territories in the extremely important governance decisions in the NDIS. Today, states and territories are absolutely critical and crucial in the delivery of the NDIS, and that critical role is just not recognised in this bill. That's why Labor is not keen on the introduction of the term 'host jurisdiction' in place of 'state and territory', because that change appears completely unnecessary. It devalues the role of the states and territories and it does nothing to address the real problems faced by NDIS participants today.
Let's look at what this bill doesn't do. What it doesn't do is to provide any help to get more services out to NDIS participants who are desperately in need of those services today. Today there are tens of thousands of participants, carers and service providers who are battling through severe levels of dysfunction in the way that the NDIS is administered, trying to get access to funds and access to services. Right now, the money is just not getting out to the people who need it. That is no surprise, given the government has underspent $4.6 billion on the NDIS—$4.6 billion! That is a lot of money. It's real money; it's real money that could have gone to participants and ensured that children weren't waiting for over a year to get a wheelchair. It should have gone to participants to make sure that they don't have to set up GoFundMe pages because they think that might be a quicker way of getting assistance than trying to navigate the NDIS.
As we know, the Prime Minister says that this underspend is because the NDIS is a demand based program and that there is just not the demand for the services. Well, that is complete and utter rubbish. It is completely ridiculous. It is not that there is less demand from Australians with disabilities; it's that they can't successfully navigate a system that has a whole lot of problems that bar them from accessing the services that they need. The demand is just not being met today, and there are far too many people who are having to go through hell and back to get access to the funds and services they need.
The NDIS is a great Labor initiative and we are proud of it, but it hasn't been implemented properly by this government. Let's take a look at the condition of the agency that is supposed to be administering the scheme. There is a real lack of representation and understanding of Australians with a lived experience of disability in the NDIA. A huge problem is the understaffing crisis, which is leading to longer wait times and less access to services because of the government's arbitrary and dangerous staffing cap. I do congratulate the disability activists and the Community and Public Sector Union for their advocacy in pushing the government to deal with this staffing cap and add 800 much-needed extra staff, but the NDIA remains chronically understaffed, and the government haven't removed the cap; they've just reset it. To top it all off, as we know, the NDIA was without a CEO for months, and it's seen an exodus of senior staff from its ranks. All of this is having a huge impact on the lives of the people who need assistance and services the most.
While the government continues to turn a blind eye to the problems that are plaguing the NDIS today and tries to pretend that everything's fine and there's just no demand for the services, we are constantly hearing about the issues faced by those trying to get access, and everyone in this place is hearing these problems. I know that my office and the offices of my colleagues receive a nearly constant stream of requests for help from our constituents in dealing with the problems of the NDIS, but, through a lack of leadership, people are falling through the cracks as the rollout of the NDIS continues, and this is what we're hearing time and time again from those on the ground: the participants, the carers, the providers and the state and territory governments.
The stories of people who are contacting our offices and the stories that are featured in the media are incredibly upsetting. Can you imagine being permanently disabled but having to come in every year and prove it? Can you imagine having to get multiple therapists to provide proof because someone decided that one therapist's proof wasn't quite enough? How would it make you feel to go through that every year, often getting a different NDIS plan depending on which NDIS planner you see? There is very little consistency in this scheme, and navigating the system is an absolute nightmare for participants. Families are often asked to provide reports, and then there's a delay, and then the planner they've been seeing at the agency changes, and the new planner wants new information. They want to see everything again, and they decide that you don't qualify. You are then forced to appeal.
What is really concerning is not only that the number of appeals is increasing but also that the number of families that have to engage a lawyer to help them navigate the system is increasing as well. You should not need to engage a lawyer to access the support that you need for your child with a disability or for yourself. You should not have to access a lawyer. And what about those NDIS participants who are trying to navigate the new arrangements for access to transport services?
Taxi allowances in the NDIS are so inadequate that people are using them up within weeks, when they are meant to last for a whole year. If you live in the bush, this transport is really the difference between being able to get out and, as Mr Morrison likes to say, have a go or being stuck at home quietly by yourself, isolated and unable to get out and participate in the broader community.
These failings in the government's rollout of the NDIS have real consequences for real people. They have real consequences in my own family. My nephew is an NDIS participant. Cenk is a beautiful, happy 15-year-old boy. Both his parents—my sister and her husband—are absolutely devoted to him. Cenk has autism and he is entirely non-verbal. In addition to that, he needs help with the basics of life, like showering, getting dressed and going to the toilet. His difficulties communicating can lead to very challenging behaviour. One minute he can be very sweet, content and happy and the next minute he can fly into a fit of frustration and rage. His parents do an absolutely amazing job, but they really need help. Cenk attends a specialist school, and that school is focused on his needs. But he may need to live with his parents throughout his adult years. His parents—my sister and her husband—need help, they need respite and they need qualified, skilled and consistent help at home.
Let me tell you a little bit about my sister's experience in trying to navigate getting access to that support, because she has found the process of negotiating the NDIA absolutely disempowering. She herself is a qualified teacher of children with disabilities, and she has strong networks of families who are facing similar challenges. So she, you would imagine, would be very well placed to navigate the NDIA and to advocate on behalf of her son. But she has been absolutely overwhelmed by the hoops that you have to jump through to get help, the barriers that appear to be put in your way.
The first program provided to my nephew was completely inadequate. It left them without help, it left them frustrated and it left them completely overwhelmed. What they need most is respite and help at home—someone to meet my nephew at the bus and spend two hours with him before his parents get home from work, someone who might be able to let my sister and her husband get out of the house from time to time. The first program offered very little funding for respite. It did, to be fair, offer funding for other programs, but those programs were difficult for her to access. The money was tied to certain programs which she couldn't find anyone to deliver and programs which did not meet her core need of respite. Meanwhile, other families that she knew who had children with very similar needs were being allocated either much more help or, like my sister, not enough.
To the participants of this program the outcomes seem entirely unfair, entirely arbitrary and, in many cases, unreasonable. People trying to navigate the system are constantly worried about whether they're doing a good enough job. People find the NDIA process adversarial. They are made to feel like they are gaming the system when they are just trying to get assistance for themselves and for their family members. People are constantly worried about whether they're doing a good enough job advocating for themselves or advocating for the persons with disabilities that they're assisting to get help, whether they're saying the right things, whether they're providing the best information, whether they're navigating the system as best they can and, crucially, whether anyone is listening and whether they will be heard.
Within all of this my sister decided to seek a new plan. Again, the process was absolutely frustrating and disempowering—again, frustrating and disempowering for a person who is very well qualified to navigate the system. Every time she goes to the NDIA she sees a new person and has to tell her whole story over and over again. As of just last month, the NDIA decided to more than double her core funding in recognition of Cenk'ssignificant disabilities and significant needs and in recognition of how little assistance she was already receiving. She's finally found a person who manages Cenk's routines and behaviours, and she does have the extra help that she needs. But let's be clear: it should not have to be that hard. Again, she's a qualified teacher of children with disabilities, advocating on behalf of her son. Imagine if you had to go through that to advocate on your own behalf. I think everyone here knows that I have barely scratched the surface when it comes to these problems with the administration and implementation of the NDIS.
The government's determination to tear down the NDIS instead of building it up shows how little compassion this Liberal government has. Its approach to the NDIS is like so much of what this government does, like attacking the most vulnerable people in our community, attacking people on social security with mandatory drug tests, stigmatising and penalising Newstart recipients with restrictive cashless cards, telling pensioners that their pension is 'generous', and doubling down on the arbitrary, stressful and draconian robo-debt scheme. All this shows no heart and no compassion.
This is a government that does not stand up for Australians with disability. It's a government that does not stand up for ordinary Australians, full stop. They won't stand up for you if your child has to wait for over a year to get a wheelchair. They won't stand up for you when you're told you're not disabled enough. They won't stand up for you if you think that starting a GoFundMe page is going to be quicker and more effective at getting the funding and support that you need.
This whole process of navigating the NDIS needs to be quicker. It needs to be easier. It needs to be simpler for participants to manage and take control of their own plans. Right now, today, what I hear from NDIS participants is that they have to learn a whole new language in order to be able to navigate the NDIS with any degree of success.
We really need to see staff levels increase in the NDIS to help clear the huge backlogs of people who are waiting for help. It is fantastic that advocates have been successful in raising the government's staffing cap. But let's be clear: more staff are needed. The government have just moved the staffing cap; they haven't abolished it, and they need to abolish it.
Most of all we need to make sure that the NDIS is properly resourced. With all of these problems that we are all hearing about, there can be no more convenient underspends on the NDIS—in the order of $4.6 billion—just in order to prop up the government's budget bottom line. There is already a huge list of issues that have been identified with the NDIS, and really what we all need to see is the government getting on and fixing those problems. We don't need a review that the government obviously isn't serious about, and we don't need this bill.
If the government were serious about the NDIS, it would focus on the real issues that are facing participants today. Unlike this government, Labor will always stand up for Australians with a disability, their families and loved ones. We conceived and established the NDIS. We can imagine the future that it could have. We can still see the hope that it offers so many Australians, and so we will continue to tell their stories in this place and expose the government's neglect of the NDIS and its participants. We will keep fighting for the participants of the NDIS.
I rise to speak on the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019. I'd like to state this up-front, to acknowledge and thank my colleague Senator Jordon Steele-John for how passionate and strong an advocate he has been for disability in this country. I'm very proud to be in the same party room as Senator Steele-John.
I'll start by being really clear that the Greens don't support this bill. This bill changes the process of appointments and terminations to the National Disability Insurance Agency, the NDIA, board and the NDIS Independent Advisory Council, the NDIS IAC, from one that requires unanimous support from the states and territories to a process where the minister can override the states and appoint his or her own picks—in other words, thereby allowing the minister to stack the board and the IAC. This has been the subject of an ongoing Senate inquiry. The evidence given in hearings and in submissions has overwhelmingly recommended against the passage of this bill, due primarily to the concerns about the ability of the government to influence the independence of the NDIS and how the NDIS operates.
At this point, I would also like to acknowledge that the committee came to Tasmania recently and there were a number of hearings—the joint parliamentary committee came to Tasmania recently and looked at disability services. The issue was raised about a Tasmania man, Tim Rubenach, and it's a heartbreaking story. I know Tim's family in Tasmania, and Tim's sister, Hannah, was deputy mayor of Break O'Day Council in north-eastern Tasmania. Tim died a tragic death in May 2018, ultimately from pneumonia, but his family described the process that they went through with the NDIS as a form of abuse.
Tim contracted bacterial meningitis when he was a baby and he suffered a whole life of severe epilepsy. As a point of interest, his sister, Hannah, campaigned for many years for the use of medicinal cannabis for her brother. In fact, she even grew the cannabis herself and made the oil herself. She wrote to the police, letting them know what she was doing and where the cannabis was. I'm just making very clear that she was a very public campaigner because she saw the importance of medicinal cannabis and its application to her brother Tim, and how it helped with his epilepsy. The police didn't arrest her. In fact, they said: 'For now, you're fine. We understand the application.' I actually looked at both of those letters. I just think it's an important side thing about Hannah, who campaigned for so many years to try to help her brother.
Ultimately, Tim's mother, Beverly Rubenach, was very clear that the delivery of the bed that was approved by the NDIS for her son was delayed for many months. In the end, it didn't arrive in time. Indeed, the bed was delivered on the Friday but they buried their son on the Saturday. They had to take him to Launceston General Hospital where a special bed was made for their son. It was highly traumatic for the whole family. Tim died ultimately of bleeding stomach ulcers, and the tilting bed that he needed for many months just wasn't delivered. A whole series of mistakes and errors were made, and, of course, apologies.
It was a really good case study of how the NDIS wasn't working for those who needed it, and there are a whole range of processes that are being looked at as to why these failings occurred, but, in the end, what that family had to endure was torture. It was simply not good enough. They have recently spoken, only a couple of weeks ago, about the state of disability services in Australia. Indeed, they called for a specific inquiry, nearly two years ago, into Tim's death and how the NDIS had failed them. At least they've been able to have their say now publicly in the inquiry, and I'm proud to also be putting this on Hansard today. But many of the issues that have been raised in relation to this legislation go to the failings in the NDIS, and that is actually listening to the people on the ground and what they need and those disabled people who need the services.
The government hasn't consulted with any disabled people or the representative peak organisations in writing this bill. They have heard from the disability community and their peak organisations throughout the inquiry, and there was overwhelming opposition to the passing of this legislation. Both Labor, as has just been expressed, and the Greens have contributed dissenting reports to this inquiry. Nothing substantive has changed about this bill following that inquiry and all the evidence that was heard. The deeply concerning provisions remain, and the sector continue to express their concern.
As Senator Steele-John has so eloquently put in his speech, as have a number of my colleagues: we are strongly opposed to the passage of this bill and we implore the opposition to stick to their dissenting position. Having listened to their contributions this morning, I imagine that they will do so. We urge the other members of the crossbench to support the wishes of the disability community, who are so avidly working to approve the NDIA.
What is it? Is it privatisation? Is it continued outsourcing and privatisation? Is it penny pinching? Where's the obsession with wanting to run a budget surplus coming from, and how is that impacting what we do in this place? This is giving the government the ability to stack the board of the NDIA with their corporate mates. There have been a number of appointments that have been raised in regard to this. This is the key point: the NDIA board and the Independent Advisory Council should be just that, independent, totally independent from the government to allow them to act in the best interests of disabled people who are participating in the NDIS.
Lived experience of disability should be crucial for the board of the National Disability Insurance Agency to function in the best interests of disabled people, yet the evidence shows throughout the inquiry this is not the case. The board has been largely filled with former corporate CEOs from the banking and financial sector. It may be perfectly valid that these people are good at managing financial agencies—they're good at balancing budgets—but that doesn't mean they are the right qualified individuals for improving the lives of disabled people in our community. An example, Robert De Luca, who was CEO of the NDIA until earlier this year, was previously the CEO of Bankwest. He may have been very good at his job at Bankwest, but there's not much relevance to disability.
A couple of broader critical points have come out of the inquiry into the NDIS. There are not enough staff. Staff have been capped at 3,300, even though the Productivity Commission recommended the scheme needed at least 10,000 staff. The government could come out and say that the scheme is underspending and, therefore, they need to take away $4 billion plus to put somewhere else, but clearly the indications are that this scheme needs to be much better staffed than it already is. We've seen inadequate training. Planners are asking participants inappropriate questions, for example, about their disability, because they don't understand. There are not enough services in our regional areas, as can be taken from the very sad story of Tim Rubenach. People can't access the services they have been funded to get, because they don't exist yet.
There is the inability to utilise services properly. There is a massive bottleneck of services, meaning some participants can't utilise their plans properly, which leads to extra money in their plans. This usually leads to a review where participants' plans are cut because they didn't spend it. The IT system is not fit for purpose. This system was borrowed from Centrelink and is so confusing that service providers have trouble with it, let alone disabled people who are trying to use the system to access their funding. This government is literally looking to balance its overall budget on the fact that there is an underspend to the tune of $4.6 billion already in the NDIS. This is money that participants haven't been able to spend, because the system is fundamentally broken. We want more disabled people on the board of the NDIS—people with lived experience who understand the complex nature of disability and who are committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure that every single participant has a positive experience, enabling them to access all the supports and services they need to live a good life. I don't think anyone in this chamber would disagree with that proposition.
I said a few months ago that I thought the biggest piece of legislation that we were going to pass in this parliament was tax cuts to Australians. This government have unashamedly rolled that out as their premier piece of legislation, the policy they took to the election. But let's not forget that over the forward estimates we have to come up with $180 billion to fund tax cuts. Primarily, and you can't dispute this fact, that will be for the benefit of wealthy Australians. The Greens didn't vote for these tax cuts, because we knew this would hamstring future governments. We knew that the thumbscrews were going to be tightened at some stage. Some of us who've been in this chamber for a few years remember the zombie budget cuts of 2013-14, which didn't end well for the Liberal-National government. We know what strategy is at play here: promise tax cuts to your mates and to your base and then find the money and move towards small government, which is very much the philosophy of the LNP. Where are we going to find $180 billion over the forward estimates? Well, here's $4.6 billion we can take away from the disability sector!
There would potentially be an argument in tough economic times if these tax cuts had actually helped Australians and had actually helped the economy, but all the evidence so far is that they haven't. If anything, they may have gone to paying off some people's mortgages and reducing mortgage stress, but there has been no evidence at all that it has flowed through to higher wages. There has been no evidence that it has flowed through to consumer spending. It has potentially increased investment in the housing market, but that is unproductive investment when we desperately need businesses to increase their investment in this nation going forward. The Greens, over this parliament and the next, are going to continually remind whoever is in government that we've had to come up with $180 billion to fund these tax cuts, which I think just about every economist in the country disagreed with.
We understand that the current governance arrangements have created issues in the process of efficient and effective decision-making and acknowledge that the motivation of this bill is to remedy this. We support in principle the proposed consultation time lines for certain decisions and actions: 28 days for an initial response, with the possibility of an extension of 90 days upon request. We do note however that the consultation processes for states and territories on matters which require agreement proposed in the bill are already administrative arrangements for intergovernmental consultation. The COAG Reform Council agreed to a 28-day consultation period in November 2017, which would see the Commonwealth seek agreement from the states and territories. Once this period has elapsed, failure to respond would be taken as agreement. Further, the intergovernmental agreements between the Commonwealth, states and territories, with the exception of Western Australia, now capture this process.
We have a number of other, broader issues with this bill. We have issues with the appointments to the NDIA board and the IAC, issues with 'host jurisdictions' and, of course, issues with the timing of this bill. The Greens don't support the proposed amendments for seeking an agreement on the appointments and determinations of NDIA board members and members of the IAC. We don't support the proposed amendment of section 127(4D), granting the Commonwealth minister the power to appoint board members without a majority agreement from the states and territories. We don't support the proposed amendment of section 147(2), which seeks to further change the requirements of the minister when seeking agreement on the appointment of a member to the IAC from 'unanimous agreement' to 'consultation' only. We don't support the proposed amendment of section 155(3), which seeks to change the requirements of the minister when seeking agreement on the termination of a member from the IAC from 'unanimous agreement' to 'consultation' only.
Young People in Nursing Homes National Alliance contended in their submission to the inquiry:
The NDIS board, its advisory structures and its relationships with all participating governments must have direct line of sight to the variety of communities and cohorts the NDIS must interact with. The States and Territories knowledge of their communities and their services is critical to the eventual national success of the NDIS and must be retained in the selection process for these bodies.
The Greens support the views of disability organisations and assert that appointments and terminations to the NDIA board and the IAC must remain in a majority-decision model. Board members and IAC members play a significant role in shaping the strategic direction of the NDIS and its functioning. Therefore, it is our position that these decisions follow a majority decision-making model in recognition of the fact that unanimous decisions are very difficult to achieve and can compromise the efficiency and effectiveness of the NDIS governance system.
We do not support the replacement of the term 'states and territories' with 'host jurisdictions'. All Australian states and territories are party to the intergovernmental agreement with the Commonwealth on the scheme. Changing this label serves only to confuse and convolute understanding. The Australian Federation of Disability Organisations highlighted this in its submission. This proposed change in language erodes the equal-partnership principle which acknowledges the integral role that both play in market stewardship, financial contribution and client-facing aspects, which fundamentally underpin the success of the NDIS.
Lastly, in relation to issues with the timing of the bill, we are concerned about the timing in the context of current reviews looking at the NDIS Act and the National Disability Strategy. The majority committee report notes the concerns raised about the timing of this bill, which suggest that any legislative changes to the governance of the NDIS be postponed until the outcomes of the NDIS Act review being undertaken by David Tune—the Tune review—and the review of the National Disability Strategy are known. The majority committee report also acknowledges that there may be scope within the aforementioned reviews to consider issues with governance arrangements for the NDIS as raised in the inquiry but recommends that the bill proceed, notwithstanding the review. We do not agree with the recommendation of the majority committee report to proceed with this bill. The Australian Greens acknowledge concerns raised in evidence around the timing of this bill and recommend that, in a broader policy review context, any such changes to governance of the NDIS be considered in the context of any changes which emerge from these reviews.
In summary, we do not support the passage of this bill. We are concerned that the amendments collectively diminish the role of the states and territories and grant the minister effective unilateral power in relation to hiring and firing members of the board and the IAC and making decisions about membership of the board and the IAC.
I went to the very first meetings on the NDIS in Tasmania. I went to three of them in various parts of the state and met with stakeholders while the NDIS was being planned and rolled out in trial form in Tasmania under the Labor government back in 2012-2013. It's very sad to see that, seven years later, these concerns linger and that many of these issues haven't been ironed out. Indeed, the changes that we can see here are just going to add more complexity and more difficulty to achieving the original aims.
This is a significant reform, and Labor should rightly be proud of what they brought in when in government. I understand the amount of work Senate committees did on this before my time. The evidence they collected around the country over many years in many places through a very long, detailed and thorough process led to a very significant reform in this country. We have an opportunity to continue to improve that, not to take money out of it, not to stack the board with people who don't have experience in this area, not to continue down this road of outsourcing and privatisation.
This is a very strong role for government. This is a very significant piece of legislation and a very significant reform, and the Greens will continue to do what we have done under the leadership of Jordon Steele-John and advocate for the disability sector.
I also rise to speak on the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019 and, in doing so, follow many of my colleagues in this place who understand the fundamental importance of our NDIS and who understand just how critical it is that we get the implementation of the NDIS right. Labor understands this inherently because, together with Australians with disability, their carers, their families and their advocates, we built the NDIS. We will always fight to ensure it's delivering on its promise to Australians. That's our commitment to Australians with disability, to their families, to their carers, to their advocates and to all of us who believe that the NDIS is fundamental to our values of fairness in Australia.
The government introduced this bill less than a month before announcing a full review of the NDIS Act and rules. The review will focus on streamlining NDIS processes and will have scope to consider the NDIS governance arrangements that are subject to this bill. This leaves us with questions about what it is they are trying to achieve here. Labor didn't support the idea of a further review when it was proposed, because the fact is there have already been 20 reviews into the NDIS conducted already. Isn't that enough? Labor believes that we actually need action on the issues that we already know exist within the NDIS, action that would also have been more than welcomed by participants, carers and service providers.
Australians with disability are sick of waiting for action. They are sick of waiting for support. They are sick of waiting for the NDIS to fulfil its promise to them and to all Australians. The government said they needed a review, and so here we are, but let's get real. If this government is serious about the current review that they had to have, then it should wait until the review is completed so that the NDIS Act and rules can be considered alongside any other findings that may impact on governance arrangements and the broader policy context—unless this is just another stunt by this government and they don't actually have a plan to consider the findings of the reviews they have announced.
This bill 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 act. It creates provisions for a 28-day process for the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme to consult with states and territories on appointments to the board of the National Disability Insurance Agency and the NDIS Independent Advisory Council. Labor recognises that these arrangements have largely been happening administratively, but the substantial change in this bill is that appointment other than that of chair would be made with the agreement of the majority of the Commonwealth and host jurisdictions other than the Commonwealth in all states and territories, as applies now. Labor is 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. This would be unfair, as the states and territories play a significant role in the implementation and allocation of the NDIA.
The bill introduces a definition for 'host jurisdiction minister' and replaces the words 'state and territory' with 'host jurisdiction' in section 127. 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 contributions that they make to the scheme.
The Liberals have ripped $4.6 billion out of the system through their underspend, leaving people with disability and those who care for them without the support that they need. They are underfunding the NDIS so they can prop up their budget position, and they are doing it at the expense of Australians with disabilities, their families, their carers and their advocates, and everyone working within the scheme. The effect of this underspend is that, on average, NDIS participants are $20,000 worse off.
Let's be very clear: it is because of the government's inaction that people are falling through the cracks as the NDIS is rolled out. This is the consistent feedback of NDIS participants, providers, carers and state and territory governments. It's the feedback we've heard at forums in South Australia. I've attended multiple such forums both prior to the election and after. It's the feedback we've heard from South Australian individuals like Jessica, who lives in Adelaide. Jessica and her five-year-old daughter, Ava, moved from Townsville to Adelaide two years ago, and since then they have not been provided with any new equipment from the NDIS. Jessica has said her daughter is in pain every day because she can't spend more than an hour in her chair. The paperwork for a chair took more than a year because they couldn't find a qualified therapist, and when they did they kept sending her paperwork back. All specifications needed to be justified, and some were rejected, such as having wheels which could be used on grass. After two years, Ava was still waiting.
Beyond stories like Jessica's and Ava's, we have heard countless examples of the real-world impacts that the Liberals' cuts and neglect are having across the country, including families who can only get a response from the NDIA or the Liberals when they start a community campaign exposing the neglect, like Angus and his mum in Queensland, who relied on a wheelbarrow for transport on the family farm because he couldn't access a suitable wheelchair, or Kayla in Penrith, who had to start a GoFundMe page to get a car so she could get to and from university—a GoFundMe page when we have the NDIS! Tim in Tasmania tragically died while waiting for the NDIA to deliver vital medical equipment. A wheelchair-bound man with progressive spastic paraplegia was initially told he wasn't disabled enough. And there are countless people with disability who end up in hospital because they don't have suitable NDIS plans. There are inconsistent and inadequate transport arrangements. The cap on subsidies in Tasmania leaves people with a disability isolated. A woman from Adelaide, South Australia, who cares for a severely disabled sister said at a recent forum, 'I have $150,000 sitting here, but I can't pay anyone,' because she was unable to find providers and was told to join waiting lists with no end dates.
In August this year, Labor's shadow minister for the NDIS, Mr Bill Shorten, visited the Gold Coast and met with Shannon Manning, a mother who is dealing with a lot on her plate. She has two children, seven-year-old Meadow and her younger brother, Madden, both of whom deal with severe disability. Like many parent carers, Shannon has injured herself due to her caring responsibilities. The experts have determined that she requires 24-hour support for a year just to deal with her own injuries, including respite once a week. But, despite these reports from experts and her own pleas, she's been constantly rejected by the NDIS. She's been told things like, 'Your daughter is not disabled enough,' and was even rejected for a new wheelchair for her daughter. Hearing Shannon say that she just wants to keep her children safe and give them every opportunity within the adversity of their disability was incredibly heartbreaking. This is what all children deserve regardless of their circumstances.
These are just some examples. I'm not the first senator to walk in as part of this debate and bring tragic, tragic examples of where the NDIS is failing people. The speaker before me had them as well, and I'm sure the speakers after will bring even more examples of where the NDIS is letting Australians with disability down. All of these examples show that the Liberals are failing the people who depend on the NDIS and they are failing their families.
The poor implementation of this scheme is also clear from the state of the agency responsible for its implementation, which has seen a mass exodus of its senior leadership in the past months, a staffing cap that means longer waiting times and less access to services for NDIS participants, and a substantial lack of proper representation and understanding, at the staff and board level, of lived experience of disability.
Unlike the Liberals, the Labor Party will always stand up for people with disability and their families and loved ones. We want to make sure that people with disability and their families are in control of their plans, through quicker, simpler and easier processes. The government must increase the number of staff to clear the processing backlogs for the NDIS. They need to get to work on resolving the issues of access to transport, employment and housing, and they must ensure the National Disability Strategy is appropriately resourced.
Labor believes the government should be taking action on the issues that have been identified already, the issues which are impacting on NDIS participants every single day. But clearly they are not serious about taking action or even about their own review, because if they were they would have recognised that the review would impact on this bill and they would have waited to ensure that any findings were considered appropriately.
Labor has proposed today two second reading amendments to this bill. The first moved that the NDIA staffing cap be removed to allow the agency to properly and without restriction do its job for the Australians who depend on the NDIS and their families. The second amendment would defer consideration of the bill. As my colleagues and I have already outlined today, the Tune review, which is currently underway, has the scope to examine the area of the state and territory stake in government arrangements. The government should sufficiently consult all state and territory governments and disability advocates and allow the Tune review to report back on governance arrangements.
As I have said, unlike the Liberals, the Labor Party will stand up for people with disability, their families and their loved ones. We will expose the neglect and we will make sure that Australians with disability get the care and support that they deserve. We will continue to stand up for people with disability and their families by making sure that they are in control of their plans through quicker, simpler and easier processes. We will stand up for people with disability and their families by holding the Liberals to account to increase the number of staff to clear the processing backlogs for the NDIS. It is time to act on these issues of transport, employment and housing, and it's time to ensure the National Disability Strategy is adequately resourced.
A staffing cap has been imposed on the NDIA by this government and the consequence is that the NDIA is not resourced to the level it needs to be to support Australians with disability. The staffing cap is forcing our disability scheme to breaking point and it must be removed. Labor built the NDIS, and it was our vision that the scheme would have a workforce of nearly 11,000 by this point in time. But instead the staffing level for direct employees has been artificially and arbitrarily capped at 4,000. How can these staff possibly do all of the work that is required? The cap needs to be removed completely, and the workforce really needs to be at the levels projected. But the Liberals' cap, which they first put into place in 2014, has denied the NDIA the human resources required to approve plans for people with disability and get vital equipment like wheelchairs, beds and hoists out to those who need them. It is time to remove this cap and to give the NDIA the opportunity to do its work with adequate resources. This has caused far too much dysfunction in the scheme and ultimately has had the impact of causing hurt for people with disability and those who love and care for them.
It's not just Labor calling for the government to remove this cap. We've heard these calls from disability advocates and the Productivity Commission. The cap has led to massive and costly outsourcing and an overreliance on temporary contractors, who aren't able to give people with disability continuous service. The NDIA has reported a massive increase in the use of consultants and contractors over the last two years. On top of this, the government have starved the NDIS of vital funds, overseen executive exodus at the agency and failed to appoint a CEO for nearly 170 days. The former CEO of the NDIA resigned on 30 April this year. It was the responsibility of the government to appoint a new chief executive officer to this position, but they failed to do so for 170 days. It was 170 days before they made the announcement of a new CEO. This speaks to their prioritising of the NDIA, an agency that hundreds of thousands of Australians and their families rely on.
Australians are rightly entitled to ask: Is 170 days a reasonable time period to leave a multibillion dollar organisation without a leader? Is it a reasonable period of time when the peak public body for Australians with disability is under crisis and riddled with stories of failure for Australians with disability and their families, their carers and their loved ones? It is not reasonable. It is not good enough. Australian families deserve better.
We are not expecting the impossible from this government. We only expect that they care enough to do their jobs when it comes to serving these Australians. Enough is enough. The government needs to give the NDIS the care and attention it deserves. They need to show Australians with disability and their families and their carers the care and attention that they deserve. They can start by releasing pressure from the scheme, which is overwhelmed, and by scrapping the cap. Fixing the scheme will not be possible without doing this.
We're told that more than 7,000 people working for the agency are employed through labour hire firms or local area coordinators. I get that these workers are doing a tough job. They're doing a tough job in a tough environment characterised by underspends and underresourcing. We know the impact of these staffing arrangements on people with disability, because inadequate staffing levels and insecure employment have led to high staff turnover, high workloads and a loss of expertise within the agency. As my colleagues have spoken about earlier today, we have seen staff put on rolling contracts. Of course, this results in less job security. It leads to high staff turnover. When that is the case, where is the continuity for participants within the scheme? All these issues tell us, absolutely and without doubt, that we do not need another review.
On the issue of the underspend, this government has constantly stated that the NDIS is a demand driven package, and that is why there's been an underspend of $4.6 billion. But this isn't because the program is demand driven; it's because of bureaucratic delay.
Australian families are at breaking point, and there is not enough support or respite for families and carers within the NDIS packages. We have heard countless tragic stories of parents who just aren't coping. Day services are also under pressure. We've seen a quiet evacuation of services leaving the NDIS. There are still huge gaps for NDIS users who fall into hospital and, once they do, are no longer covered. They are told, 'This is a health issue.' It is unbelievable, but we have a government constantly defending their $4.6 billion underspend. Of course we'll have this underspend when so many Australian families are being denied the care and support they need and that was promised to them at the onset and implementation of the NDIS.
All of these issues tell us, absolutely and without doubt, that we do not need another review. South Australians with disability need action now. They need care, they need support and they need a system that works for them. They need to be heard. Labor, with advocates and with people with disability, built the NDIS, and we will always make sure and fight to ensure that it is working for Australians who need it.
I remember the blood, sweat and tears that went into getting the NDIS into being: the tireless work of Australians with a disability, their families, their carers and their loved ones; the incredible work, passion and determination of advocates; the detailed and careful work done by Mr Bill Shorten into the design of the scheme; and, of course, the passion, determination and bravery of former Prime Minister Gillard in getting it over the line and getting it funded. People still tell us every day how much the NDIS matters to them and how much Labor's support mattered to them.
This scheme is fundamentally important, but we must make sure it works better for Australians. We need to make sure it is delivering on its promise. We cannot do that if we don't get the implementation right. We should be under no illusions that the NDIS is working. It isn't working now. It's not working for the people who rely on it. It's not working for their carers. It's not working for the people who love them. It's not working for the staff within the scheme. That means it's not working for Australia.
The NDIS speaks to some of our most fundamental values as a nation—our values of fairness, our values of caring for one another, our values of treating our fellow Australians with care, with dignity and with respect and our values of being there to support others in need. That is why we believe in the NDIS, that is why we built it and that is why we are determined to see Australians with disability given the care and the support that they need and that they were promised, because this is the Australian thing to do. But the government are not taking it seriously. They are not prioritising the people who need them. They are not prioritising the promises that we have made to Australians with disability. It is absolutely time the government undertook some serious work to get it fixed, and I assure you Labor senators on this side of the chamber will not rest until they do.
I rise to speak on the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019, and I echo the remarks of my colleagues so far. This bill wants to change how we appoint and terminate folk to the NDIA board and the Independent Advisory Council. It wants to change the process from one where unanimous support is required from the states and territories to a process where the minister can override the states and appoint his own picks. Of course, this will allow the minister to stack both the board and the IAC. We've got some amendments to fundamentally change that and to say that, no, of course we should be respecting the input of the states and territories and that, in fact, we would like a majority of the states and territories to agree with the proposed selection. But we'll see how we go on that amendment.
This government has truly got form in picking jobs for its mates. The list of examples of that, particularly immediately prior to the last election, is longer than anybody's arm. Once again, we have a government that simply wants to tap its mates on the shoulder and slot them in and doesn't want any piece of legislation or this parliament or the states and territories to get in the way of its selection. I'll come back to the backgrounds of the sort of folk that it's chosen so far.
In August this year, we had an inquiry into this bill, and the evidence that was given in that hearing and in the submissions overwhelmingly recommended against passing this bill. The concerns, of course, were the ability of the government to influence the independence, or rather undermine the independence, of the NDIS. We usually have inquiries into bills to hear from experts, to hear from affected members of the community and to genuinely have a consultation process, but it seems that this was a 'tick and flick' exercise, because here we are, against all of the evidence given in that process, and this government just wants to put itself in charge and just wants to put one minister in charge of picking his mates to give them jobs. So I am sorry for all of the folk who took the time to participate in that Senate inquiry. I'm sorry that your views appear to have fallen on ears that are completely unreceptive to them. Yet here we are. This, of course, builds on the fact that the government has not consulted with any disabled people or their representative peak organisations in writing this bill—the same people it heard from through that inquiry, who, of course, overwhelmingly opposed this bill.
I want to note one of those submitters in particular. The Young People in Nursing Homes National Alliance said:
The NDIS board, its advisory structures and its relationships with all participating governments must have direct line of sight to the variety of communities and cohorts the NDIS must interact with. The States and Territories knowledge of their communities and their services is critical to the eventual national success of the NDIS and must be retained in the selection process for these bodies.
We agree with the position of that organisation, the Young People in Nursing Homes National Alliance, and with a number of others that appointments—and terminations, for that matter—to the NDIA board must remain as a majority decision model, and it must not just be the minister deciding who's in his good books that day to give them a plum job.
The other point I want to make at this stage is that we have also proposed that the NDIA board have a legislated, mandated quota of 20 per cent of its membership being people with disability, and we want that quota to be achieved by 2021 at the latest. That should not be an unreasonable suggestion. This should not be a radical proposition that a body that is meant to be delivering services to people with disabilities actually have some people with lived experience in the decision-making roles. We have proposed that in our dissenting report. It's an issue that Senator Steele-John has a marvellous track record on, and I'm sure he will continue his advocacy in that regard. We will be continuing to push for people with lived experience to not just be consulted—the government didn't do that this time, and then they ignored them when they participated in the Senate inquiry process—but actually have direct input into the decision-making of this crucial body. We know that that 20 per cent figure would reflect the population of Australia who have disability. We think that for this crucial decision-making and strategic priority-setting body it makes perfect sense for there to be at least 20 per cent of the NDIA board legislated as mandated for people with a disability.
I mentioned our dissenting report. The Labor Party also did a dissenting report into the inquiry, and nothing has changed in the bill since that inquiry, those dissenting reports or the views of the submitters. Those deeply concerning provisions remain and the sector continues to express its concern. We are strongly opposed to the passage of this bill and we implore the opposition to stick with their dissenting position following the inquiry. We note that they have some amendments, which we support, that I'll come to. We also urge the crossbench to please support the wishes and respect the lived experience of the disability community, who are so avidly working to improve the NDIA. I fear that the government has the numbers to ram this bill through, otherwise we wouldn't all be here talking about it right now, but I would urge at this very last minute for the crossbench to reconsider, to look at the evidence that was provided in that Senate inquiry process and to respect the experience of people who live with a disability, who deserve top-quality service and not just a minister's mate heading up a really important body.
It's not just the minister's mates who are getting picked; it's the minister's mates in the corporate sector who are getting picked. You've probably heard the Greens talk before about the very cosy relationship between this government and the corporate sector. It is a very cosy relationship indeed. They scratch each other's backs. Plum jobs flow and political donations flow. Well, people have had it. They want their democracy back and they don't want this board to be used as a plaything and a toy for political favours for the corporate sector. If that is an incorrect assertion, I will stand corrected, but that is the perception of what is going on here. The government, if they want to avoid that perception, should drop this bill. The NDIA board should not be a province for the minister's corporate mates. I haven't checked whether they have made donations in the past, but considering there was $100 million of corporate donations to both sides of politics I'd hazard a guess that those very folk and their organisations have donated to the government and possibly also to the opposition in the past. I haven't checked those particular figures; I will go and do so. The key point here is that the NDIA board and the Independent Advisory Council should in fact be totally independent from the government to allow them to act in the best interests of disabled people who are participating in the NDIS.
Coming to the board: it has already largely been filled with former corporate CEOs from the banking and finance sector. I'm sure they're very good at banking and finance, but do they have lived experience of disability? Do they have that connection to the community and to the advocacy bodies? No. The government is deliberately standing in the way of that happening with this bill. One particular example is Mr Robert De Luca, who was the CEO of the NDIA until earlier this year. He used to be the CEO of Bankwest. I don't know whether Bankwest really have much to do with disability service provision, but I would find that extremely unlikely. You need people with experience and, most importantly, you need people with lived experience to be in these crucial decision-making roles.
This government is really doing its best, in our view, to break the NDIS. They have capped staff at 3,300, even though the Productivity Commission said it would need at least 10,000 staff. I acknowledge that we have an amendment from the opposition that would remove that cap. We will be supporting that amendment because there should not be a cap, and it certainly shouldn't be a cap that's one-third of what's actually required to properly administer the NDIS and to deliver the services that everyone in Australia should be entitled to rely upon. But it's not just the staff cap; there's also inadequate training. Planners are asking participants inappropriate questions about their disability simply because they don't understand, because they haven't had the appropriate training. This government has not taken the appropriate financial decisions to ensure that that's being delivered, and, not only that, there are also not enough services to go around, and that's particularly the case in rural and regional Australia.
Obviously I'm from Queensland and I'm going to share with the chamber some particular examples of where my office has sought to help people in regional areas, but far from remote situations, where they simply haven't been able to access services they've been funded to get, because those services don't exist yet. The first case of my office helping out was with a lady in Toowoomba. Her daughter, who is an adult now, had been housebound for three months—three months—because the NDIS wouldn't install ramps for her wheelchair. That was Linda and her grown-up daughter, Emma-Jane. She wrote, in great detail, to my office begging for help. We did what we could, and ultimately her ramp was installed. We are so relieved that that's the case, but she shouldn't have had to wait three months. Sadly, the examples don't stop there.
A lady in Toowoomba had been waiting for six months for a determination of the review of her NDIS plan. I want to read some of the email that she sent to my office seeking our help—and we certainly did provide the assistance we could to her. She wrote: 'I've been waiting six months for a determination of a review of my NDIS plan. I had a plan going, but as soon as my specialist placed quotes to request assistive technology equipment, the NDIS chose to put my plan into review. They promised me that I'd have my essential equipment, like my power chair, my shower chair, my hoist and my ramps, before the birth of my daughter, but instead of helping me they sent me to review five days after she was born. This was despite numerous emails from my OT and support coordinator detailing that my health was deteriorating.' Not to mention the fact that she'd just had a baby. 'I'd become so swollen that my skin split open and I got pressure sores from the inappropriate wheelchair cushions. I did the review at the Toowoomba office in August, as requested, and I was promised that I'd be reviewed within three or so weeks. They also told me that I should never have been reviewed in the first place and it was a mistake. They also made me redo my goals.' In February the following year she wrote: 'The review has not been completed. My support coordinator was told it had been sent on to the national review team before Christmas, but my health has deteriorated again in recent days, so I called them back at the Toowoomba office again. Yesterday they tried to tell me that I was not under review. Then another person decided that I was still under review and that nothing was approved. I was called by a senior officer from the Toowoomba office this morning to tell me that they are unreservedly sorry that I've been left under review for six months and that they'll fix it this coming week.' She goes on to say: 'The issue with this is twofold. Firstly, how did this happen? How could this be allowed to happen? And, secondly, they've told me that, because it's been too long, all of those quotes and the reports my specialist provided as to why my equipment is reasonable and necessary can no longer be used and must be resubmitted, so this means even further delays in getting approved. The new plan will be approved by those individual quotes, which will need to be singularly approved.' She goes on to say, 'This is just not good enough. My health is rapidly declining and I've been virtually housebound while waiting for the outcome'—I remind you that she's just had a baby—'I cannot keep living this way. What makes it worse is that the assistant minister to the minister told the office here that they must approve my AT in April last year. They disobeyed him. If the scheme is not answerable to the ministry then who are they answerable to? The scheme has major systematic failures.' That's the second example of a Queensland constituent who is already labouring under an underfunded NDIS. This bill does nothing to fix those problems and, moreover, continues the ability of picking mates to put them in charge of who sits at the top making these strategic decisions.
The last comment that I want the chamber to be aware of is from another Queensland constituent of mine, who makes the point: 'Under the NDIS there is little to no support for mental health conditions when it is not a primary condition under which the person is covered. This is an incredible travesty, in particular, as to how it relates to LGBTIQ+ people who've already heightened risk of mental health conditions and suicide. I know that the current Medicare system is inadequate for providing sufficient and affordable mental health treatment at the best of times, but when this is compounded by disability the need for more support is significant.'
Those are just a few examples of the real problems that people are facing that I hoped the government would actually listen to and start to fix, but instead $4.6 billion was cut from the NDIS in the budget. Because they were so desperate to win an election and to claim they were back in surplus, they are balancing the budget off the back of people with disability. They claim it's because there was an underspend when, in fact, these and so many other examples are due to delays, lack of services and the inability to use those services properly because of the huge bottleneck that's happened. That's not even to mention the fact that the IT system was borrowed from Centrelink. Gee, it's done so well there! There haven't been any problem with robo-debt there, have there, folks? So the IT system is compounding these other problems.
I've already talked about the fact that we need these systemic problems addressed and that we would like to see at least 20 per cent of people with lived experience with disability on the board, but I'll also now make just one final point. The majority committee report on this bill noted real concerns about the timing. The report said that legislative changes to the governance of this bill really should be postponed until the outcome of the review of the act which is being undertaken by Mr David Tune—it's known as the Tune review—and the review of the National Disability Strategy itself. It said the government should wait for that review to happen before making any legislative changes. That seems like a perfectly sensible suggestion to me, if you are reviewing not only the act but also the strategy. But here the government are trying to take away the input from states and territories and put the minister's mates in charge, probably with more links to the corporate sector because they made such generous donations to their re-election campaign. That's how things roll under the government. So not only are they moving ahead; they are actually moving ahead and not tackling the real issues that real people are raising with them about how this system is not working properly. Then they have the audacity to rip out $4.5 billion of funding from a program that was meant to be a real comfort and saviour to people. I hang my head in shame at the priorities of this government, as do so many other people around the nation.
I want to pay tribute in particular to the work of the disability organisations who participated in good faith in this Senate inquiry and expected to be heard and listened to and who haven't been, who've been ignored by this government, who don't have a legislative quota on the NDIA board and who, frankly, do amazing work every single day on scant resources, such as the Disability Advocacy Network in my home state of Queensland, who I met with, with Senator Steele-John. I also want to commend the patience of people who are living with disability and living under the NDIA scheme. You are trying your best to make it work, but bureaucratic hurdles are being put in your way because of the way the government have underfunded it and bungled the implementation and the rollout. I'm sorry, and thank you for your resilience. The parliament will try to fix this. Many of us in here do hear your concerns. They are valid and we will seek to act on them. But, at the minute, the government just haven't prioritised you, have they? Instead, they're prioritising the appointment process for the board. They want the minister to be able to put his mates in charge. They don't want to listen to the states and territories anymore. The states and territories can now give advice only. They can't have any input, just advice. This is just an apology on behalf of the Australian Greens that the government are so woefully underperforming in their duties.
Coming back to this bill, I say to the government: for heaven's sake, wait for the Tune review. Have some people with lived experience on the NDIA board, would you? It's not a crazy suggestion. Actually, what a marvellous idea it would be to have informed policy and genuine independence by not having the minister able to pick his friends to sit on the board. So we don't support the passage of this bill. We don't support diminishing the role of the states and territories in the decision-making process. We don't support the minister having unilateral power in hiring and firing members of the board of a so-called independent committee.
We will be supporting the amendments from the opposition about removing the staff cap; we think that's really important. I think there's an amendment about waiting for that Tune review; we support that as well. We have some of our own amendments that my colleague Senator Steele-John has flagged already, which go to the fact that the states and territories should still have input, and a majority input at that. With that, I again plead with the crossbench to please listen to the disability sector and to the lived experiences of people who are suffering under this system, and please don't rubber stamp this bill with whatever other side deal you've got going with the government. You should not be using people with disability as pawns. Please listen to their evidence and do not support the passage of this bill.
Today I rise to make a contribution to this debate on the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019—so-called 'streamlined'. The concerns of Labor senators in this chamber about the NDIS are significant. But, specifically in relation to this bill, the bill very much appears to be devaluing the role and decision-making powers of the states and territories.
I might remind this chamber that Western Australia took some time as to whether it would come to the party and sign up to the NDIS. It was reluctant, and for good reason, because it felt the accountability for communities of people with disability very acutely. It had to work through, with a great deal of trust, the existing operating systems for disability services in Western Australia to transfer them to this national scheme. We had a state based trial as well as a national trial to try and compare the types of services. There were attributes of the state based scheme that people very much wanted to hang on to, to make sure that they were properly adopted within the national scheme.
While many promises were made in the actual rollout of the scheme, there are a great many and significant concerns about the way in which the scheme, in effect, operates on the ground in Western Australia. Things like local area coordinators—which are a feature of the NDIS, and in large part a feature of the NDIS because of the valuable role that they played historically in Western Australia—had their powers to do things like approve plans greatly diminished under the existing NDIS. We can't see the decision-making aspects of this legislation in relation to the board, in relation to the powers of the states to make appointments and for the time taken for the government to consult in absence of the very real issues on the ground for state governments, for service providers and, most importantly, for people with disability themselves and their families.
We have sensible amendments to put forward to this chamber. This includes, importantly, deferring consideration of the bill until the findings and recommendations have been published from the review that's being undertaken at this time by Mr David Tune. Frankly, it seems ridiculous that this government should be seen to be wanting to race ahead with these kinds of governance changes while the substantive issues inside the NDIS, which might, in fact, affect governance, have not yet been announced.
The NDIS should be a source of pride for members of the Labor Party, as it was for Labor in government, having created the scheme. I have noted Western Australia's reluctance to step into the scheme. Over time, it was very much about building the confidence that we would have an ongoing and reliable tax base as well as a sense that people's demand to get into the scheme would be based on need and not arbitrarily capped. The government says that this is a demand-driven system but, frankly, nothing could be further from the truth.
It was the idea of the NDIS being a demand-driven system that brought Western Australia to the table, because, while Western Australia had good disability services schemes, it involved a lot of bureaucracy and budget management, in terms of getting people into the scheme, when they clearly met the criteria to get into the state supported schemes. We really did want to see a universal, nationwide scheme that treated everyone fairly across the states, assessed someone's need for support fairly, assessed it in a timely way, adapted to changing needs and got those resources into the hands of individuals with disability, family members and community members that they trusted.
It is such a shame now that, some six years after the Liberal Party came into government, they have stuffed up again and again in terms of the rollout of the scheme. This Liberal-National government have deliberately underfunded the NDIS by $4.6 billion. It does prop up your budget position but at the expense of people having everyday dignity in their lives. You are propping up the budget position at the expense of Australians with disability and their families and carers.
The effect of this underspend is incredible. It is terrible. We see the effects of it come in and out of our offices every day. I'm quite certain that the government will be seeing the effect of that underspend in and out of its offices every day as well and that hopefully it's also doing its best to advocate on behalf of constituents who are experiencing difficulties with the NDIS. But the government should turn those experiences into action by unclogging and uncapping the staffing levels and by unblocking the NDIS system so that it is a truly demand-driven system, which is absolutely not the case in terms of how the government is currently managing it.
The consistent feedback of NDIS participants, providers, carers and, indeed, state and territory governments is that the system is not working. You've been without a CEO for nearly 170 days and with a mass exodus of leadership in past months. You've got a staffing cap that means longer waiting times and less access to services for NDIS participants. You've lifted the staffing cap from some 3,230 to 4,000. That is not a demand-driven system. Labor estimated a great deal more staff would be required at this point of the scheme's rollout. Very concerningly, there's a substantial lack of proper representation and understanding, at both a staff and board level, of people with lived experience of disability in our community. All of this means that the rubber has not hit the road on the NDIS in the way that it should have.
As I highlighted before, my office has received inquiry after inquiry and plea after plea from people who are participating in the NDIS who have been absolutely dudded on their plans. There have been calls and correspondence from parents looking out for their children and having to fight just to get the funding and the plan that they had agreed to. I'll outline, for the chamber today, some of those examples.
One constituent has an adult son who's been in full-time care with severe brain injuries since he was a baby. He and his family are well used to dealing with the disability care system in Western Australia. Because of the significant nature of her son's disabilities, she didn't have a problem getting the funding that her son needed under the state system. But it was when they moved to the NDIS that their troubles began.
They found, in their planning meetings, that their contact person was difficult to get hold of, making the process take longer than it should have. Incredibly, they then gave her son someone else's plan. Things continued to drag on. When the actual results of the planning meeting came through it turned out that the funding had been cut by more than half of what they, as a family, had agreed to. This immediately meant that this man and his family were unable to access the day-to-day care and support that he had been used to receiving, profoundly impacting on his needs. I cannot underestimate in my plea to the chamber today what a significant impact this situation had in terms of the stress on him.
His mother tried to reach out to the NDIS to get a review but she wasn't responded to for two months. She needed extra intervention to get her request looked at. I talked to service providers about how the system used to work and how local area coordinators were empowered in Western Australia in a way that they are not empowered to agree to changes in someone's plan. When you have a disability your needs can change quite profoundly and quite quickly. The idea that you have to wait months to get a review of your plan is simply not flexible enough to meet people's needs.
Another family called on behalf of their small child who was born with a range of health issues, resulting in multiple therapy appointments to support her development. Moving to the NDIS meant the child's therapy hours were almost halved. They applied for a review, of course, as you would do, but they did not hear from the NDIS for a full five months before they were even granted a review meeting. For five months this child was not getting the therapy and the treatment she needed to stop her from losing progress during a critical stage in her development.
Another whom my office has helped multiple times since 2018 is a mother in Perth's northern suburbs who has called continuously for better delivery on her son's plan. She engaged with the planning and following up. She put in huge efforts to keep the lines of communication open with the NDIS so that she and her son were not left in the dark during planning, between the start and end dates of that planning. Time and time again she would not hear from the agency and they would not take the time to properly communicate with her. I have seen the distress that the uncertainly of the scheme has caused this mother, and many other families, in it not being there to help and support her, her son and the stability of their family life.
Those opposite might wonder what this possibly has to do with the administration and decision-making aspects of this bill, the so-called streamlined governance. I don't want to see the states disempowered in their advocacy around supporting families with disability. Canberra is a long way from Western Australia. I very much value the role of the minister for disability in Western Australia, the state government and all of the state disability service agencies in communicating with people with disability. They need to have an amplified voice at the table, not a reduced one.
I, my office and my team are very happy to help families with the NDIS, and we will continue to do so. I really want to take the opportunity to thank my staff for their efforts. I also want to thank the staff of the NDIS. We're really fortunate to work with NDIS contacts in WA who do genuinely care about delivering for their clients. They genuinely care about improving the lives of people with disability.
But should it really be the case that people are driven to talk to their local member of parliament about their NDIS plan time and time again? Absolutely not. Each time we hear these stories come through our office, we grow more and more concerned about the delivery of these services in our communities. I absolutely don't want to pin these issues on the ground staff, who I know are working really hard to roll out the NDIS in the governance framework and management systems that they've been given, but they absolutely are understaffed.
Instead of bringing this bill to the chamber, a much more effective thing to do would be to lift the staffing cap of the NDIS directly. At this point of the scheme, as I said before, we'd projected a workforce of some 11,000 staff. Instead, you've constricted the proper funding of the scheme with an arbitrary staffing cap. You have only 3,230 directly employed staff. Is it any wonder that people can't get their plans reviewed and amended in a timely way, let alone like we used to have in Western Australia, where your local area coordinator would absolutely be able to see immediately the need for a hoist because someone's circumstances had changed or the need for a therapy or a different intervention because of the change in circumstances and would quickly be able to support a family to make those changes?
Our disability scheme is at breaking point because of the onerous staffing cap that you've put in place. It means the NDIA simply does not have the resources on the ground to approve plans or to get vital equipment like wheelchairs, beds and hoists out to people who need them. We continue to hear through my office the stories of, for example, people who have been unable to get basic things like wheelchairs approved. The cap is causing too much dysfunction in the scheme and ultimately is hurting people with disability and those that care for them and love them. I cannot overstate the high levels of distress and dysfunction that come when you don't get a chance to sign off and agree to what you'd planned for, managed for or worked very hard to negotiate with the NDIS. It can come back arbitrarily amended.
So we've seen that groups ranging from disability advocates to the Productivity Commission very much also want to see abolition of this cap. We've seen costly outsourcing and an over-reliance on temporary contractors who can't give people with disability the continuation of service that they need. We've seen a recorded 600 per cent increase in consultants and contractors over two years, from $70 million in 2016 to $430 million in 2018. As other senators have highlighted to this chamber, we've seen important allegations of conflicts of interests in terms of lucrative outsourced contracts. The agency's own chair, Helen Nugent, was embroiled in these conflict of interest claims. We've seen, in effect, $4.6 billion ripped out of the NDIS. We've seen an executive exodus at the agency and a failure to appoint a CEO for some 168 days. The government has done enough harm to this vital scheme, and it is absolutely time to stop. But, reflecting on this, we see that, when we talk about this, the government characterises the NDIS as a demand-driven system. It simply isn't. The staffing cap is very much an application of it not being a demand-driven system.
Let me highlight to you another way in which it is not a demand-driven system. I've been talking to service providers in Western Australia who have effectively had the rates that they can bill the NDIA for, for basic carer support— (Time expired)
I rise to speak to the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019. Frankly, we could talk forever about the misnomination of what these bills that the government are advancing actually do. It concerns me that we find ourselves in that situation here again with this poorly named bill, in light of the evidence that previous senators have put on the record and what is continuing.
The hallmark of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable, and the NDIS is a concrete example of the goodwill and justice in the hearts of the Australian people. When Julia Gillard introduced the bill to fund the NDIS in 2013, Jenny Macklin rightly said:
We know this is a reform that's time has come.
A reform that will deliver significant benefits to people with disability, their carers and families and to the wider Australian community.
Labor created the NDIS, and we did it to ensure that every Australian with a disability would finally have security and dignity in their lives. I was very proud to be the member for Robertson in the green chamber at that time when those very erudite and accurate words were put on the public record.
The NDIS was a groundbreaking initiative by the previous Labor government. But, since the election of the coalition government in 2013, that government in its various iterations has done its absolute best to undermine this life-changing program. The Liberal-National government have left the NDIS in a state of permanent neglect. They have achieved this in a range of really disturbing ways. Australians going about their lives would be shocked at the way in which this government has capped, curtailed and contained what the NDIS was supposed to do. The capping of staff at less than a third of what the Productivity Commission recommended as required to do the job was a choice of the Liberal-National government.
A phone having r u ng in the chamber—
to you and to my husband, who I can't answer the call from! They have also continually underspent to prop up what they describe on the macro scale as their budget bottom line. They have left vulnerable Australians, in the course of that action, tangled in a nightmare of red tape and dysfunction. This reality cannot be allowed to continue. The horror stories of the NDIS under the watch of this government, now in its third term of office, cannot continue. There must be change. This poorly named 'streamlined governance' bill is wholly inadequate to the task.
There's a young boy with cerebral palsy in Tennant Creek who was forced into out-of-home care after the NDIA withdrew his funding. This is not a story from a time past; this is happening right now, in our time, on our collective watch as Australians under the failure of leadership and miserly containment of the NDIS that is characteristic of this government over the last six years. There's a young girl of seven in my duty electorate of Robertson, on the Central Coast, who was refused any NDIS plan despite a clear diagnosis of autism, leaving her without support for weeks and forcing her family, already trying to do the very best for their young daughter, to engage in a process of appeal. A young boy in Queensland had to be pushed around his family farm in a wheelbarrow because the NDIS delayed granting him a wheelchair, despite his mother spending hundreds of hours on the phone to the NDIS. In Minister Stuart Robert's own seat a mother, Shannon Manning, has been refused support for herself and her children again and again by the NDIS and was unable to even get a wheelchair for her daughter. These are the people that the NDIS should be looking after. These are the people that the NDIS should be supporting. These are the people that ordinary Australians around the country believe the government is supporting. But as soon as you start to look behind the veil of 'we support the NDIS' that we hear from those in the government you see failure after failure.
I acknowledge the ongoing effort and hard work of my colleague in the other place, the shadow minister for the NDIS, Mr Bill Shorten, who has been doing what this government refuses to do. He has been out meeting families in forums across the country, hearing their stories and advocating for them, doing the work that should have been done by the department support and the agency support that should have been set up by this government. Six years of neglect is what Mr Shorten is trying to clean up. At one of these forums on the Central Coast, just last month, we heard from families who have had to borrow money from a lender to buy groceries to feed their family, because they needed to use the money that they would normally pay for groceries to pay for the reports necessary for their NDIS assessment for their child. I don't know about you, but I think most Australians would think that is a disgraceful thing to have happening in our time. The NDIS is about supporting people, not forcing families under huge financial pressure and subject to wage stagnation and job insecurity to spend their grocery money to comply with really arbitrary, difficult government processes that build a barrier between them and the NDIS that they richly deserve.
Labor created the NDIS. We heard all the weasel words on the other side—'Yeah, we support it too'—but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and this government is not delivering anything like the support that is required to make this program a national success and an international beacon of Australia's capacity to care for the most vulnerable. That is our first responsibility as human beings. It is absolutely our responsibility as legislators and leaders in this country to deliver the care that is required. Labor created the NDIS, and Labor will always protect it from Liberal and National party cuts and mismanagement. There are an estimated 460,000 people who will be using the NDIS at full rollout. This system needs to work, or the lives of those who receive it will be at risk. The families who support them as units are at risk. Indeed, we have heard, and it has been documented in the public space by the fourth estate, our colleagues in the media, that people have died as a consequence of the failure of the NDIS to provide them with their urgent needs. Implementing a scheme is not always easy, and teething problems can be expected in any major policy rollout, but they are made worse by chronic underfunding, by delays, by short-term management techniques and by the disingenuous action that I think characterises this government's response to the challenge of rolling out the NDIS.
Critical to the NDIS is the work that the NDIA does in support of it, and the NDIS can only roll out properly when the NDIA has stable and dedicated leadership. The National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019, which is the subject of discussion here in the Senate today, amends the National Disability Insurance Scheme Act 2013 to alter governance arrangements between the Commonwealth and the states and territories regarding rule-making and decision-making under the NDIS Act. It also mandates that any appointments to the NDIS Independent Advisory Council would be made with the agreement of the majority of jurisdictions—the Commonwealth and the host jurisdictions—rather than the Commonwealth and all states and territories, as applies now. Labor does not support the introduction of the term 'host jurisdictions', because it fails to acknowledge the central role that states and territories play in governance of the NDIA and the important financial and policy contribution they make to the scheme. I am concerned that the changing agreement requirements might reduce the participation of states and territories in important governance decisions with the board and the advisory council. This is about Australia. Everybody has to be invested in it, and certainly the states and territories have to be highly invested in it.
This bill comes less than a month before the Liberals and Nationals announce the findings of a full review of the NDIS Act and rules, which will focus on streamlining the NDIS processes, with scope to consider the NDIS governance arrangements that are subject to this bill. There have now been 20 reviews already conducted into the NDIS. We don't have time for more reviews. There's no need for further review. Action must be taken by this government on the myriad of issues already identified in the system by participants, carers and service providers. If this government is genuinely serious about the current review, it should wait until the review is complete before this bill is passed so that the NDIS Act and rules can be considered alongside any findings that may impact governance arrangements and the broader policy context. This is why Labor will move an amendment to the motion for the second reading of this bill to defer further consideration until after the findings and recommendations. I support amending the motion in the terms that Labor will advance. If this amendment is not successful, Labor will be very concerned about any implications of the government's management of this bill in an ongoing way.
This bill won't stop the farcical lack of leadership in the NDIA, where the coalition failed to instil a new CEO, leaving the agency leaderless for 170 days, and it comes on the heels of an exodus of senior executives, with four leaving in the space of seven days in July this year. When Labor left government in 2013, it left a healthy framework and a rollout plan. Instead, despite being six years into the rollout, the government is still unwilling to iron out access problems and has claimed the $4.6 billion underspend as a victory for their budget bottom line. So let's be clear about what's going on with the cases that I described in my opening remarks—the cases of families having to go and borrow money to be able to feed themselves so that they can pay for the reports to have their child considered eligible for the NDIS, and the delays, the interruptions and the appeals. That process has been so well rolled out by this government that it saved the government $4.6 billion, and they think that's good. I tell you what: the families that needed the money five years ago and still needed it a month ago don't think it's good, and I don't think they'll think it's great that that $4.6 billion, which could have been part of it and could have been helping them, is now being banked by this government and advertised all over the country as a great outcome.