Senate debates

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Matters of Public Importance

National Disability Insurance Scheme

5:02 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

I inform the Senate that, at 8.30 am today, eight proposals were received in accordance with standing order 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Keneally.

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

'Withholding NDIS funds from the states is not an appropriate way to balance the budget'

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clocks accordingly.

5:03 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to speak to this MPI raised by my colleague Senator Keneally. The NDIS is such an important reform for people with disability in this country and, quite frankly, I'm disgusted that the Morrison Liberal government is delaying the provision of essential services to people with disability just to prop up an artificial surplus. Those opposite really should hang their heads in shame. I've seen firsthand so many times how the services that are provided under the NDIS can make life better and more comfortable for people with disability, give them dignity and assist them in day-to-day living. These people deserve a government that respects them, not short-change so the government can reach their goal of a budget surplus.

We've seen recently a letter by the New South Wales Liberal and Victorian Labor governments to the minister responsible for the NDIS, Mr Stuart Robert, trying to access around $1.6 billion in funds that the federal government is deliberately withholding. This isn't about politics; this is about doing the right thing. It is about the government doing the moral, right thing. New South Wales and Victoria have governments from across the political divide, but they can see that the people with disability in their states, and in other states and territories, are being deliberately short-changed by this Morrison Liberal government.

Mr Gareth Ward, the New South Wales Minister for Families, Communities and Disability Services said:

I want to make sure that money doesn't sit in a bank account offsetting the Commonwealth's budget, which is what it's doing.

And I agree. The money just shouldn't sit around in the federal government coffers in some kind of cheap accounting trick. It should be used to improve the lives of people with disability.

We're still seeing tens of thousands of families with family members who deserve support being given the red tape run-around, not being able to access modest services to improve the quality of their lives. In such a situation, to deliberately delay funds to meet an artificial goal of a temporary budget surplus is just plain cruel.

We've also seen some serious allegations of fraud in the NDIS. It's yet another example of this government's mismanagement and incompetence when it comes to running its agencies. The government needs to investigate the alleged fraud and ensure that the NDIS funds are being put to good use, because the government's failure to correctly administer the NDIS is impacting on the people who rely on it.

The latest Council of Australian Governments quarterly performance report into the National Disability Insurance Agency's operations showed that in Tasmania 67 per cent of participants rated satisfaction with the agency's planning processes as 'good' or 'very good'. This isn't a particularly glowing figure, especially compared to two years ago when satisfaction in Tasmania was at 97 per cent. In Tasmania—my home state and your home state, Madam Acting Deputy President—we have heard that there are widespread issues relating to disability transport and to the availability of NDIS approved allied health professionals.

The joint standing committee on the NDIS held a public hearing in Hobart in October last year. I'll spend a couple of moments highlighting some issues that Tasmanian participants are facing. Representatives of Li-Ve Tasmania told the committee:

Participants are scared of reviews too. We've had participants who've gone for a new commode chair and all of a sudden their community access has been slashed by $20,000, completely unlinked. So you've got a group of participants who are terrified to go back, even though their plans don't meet their needs, because of the negative experiences they've had. Then they've had to go back for another review.

Witnesses from the Office of Public Guardian also outlined some key concerns:

There are unacceptable delays in the planning process… the delays occur in scheduling both initial and review plan meetings, in having plans approved, in sourcing services for plan implementation and, most importantly, for securing urgent reviews. There are inadequately skilled and experienced planners. Some appear to us to have a very limited understanding of the support needs arising from a disability and/or a lack of understanding of cognitive impairments and the associated communication issues that will often accompany those kinds of impairments… The failure to provide for crisis services… is certainly a concern from our point of view and we consider that the NDIS really does need to provide contingency funding to be available for crises when they occur and for clear procedures and processes to access funding and services… provisions need to be established in response to crisis situations but also for market failure situations, particularly for participants who have exceptional needs and challenging needs…

It's up to the government to start fixing some of the issues faced by my Tasmanian constituents instead of delaying payments to the states and territories to prop up their budget. By deliberately delaying these payments to the states the Morrison government is short-changing people with disability and denying them the care that they desperately need. They are causing unnecessary delay and unnecessary suffering.

We're talking about a government in its third term. It's them. They're responsible. They shouldn't be callous, they shouldn't be petty and they shouldn't be downright mean when it comes to targeting vulnerable people, many of whom cannot speak up for themselves. (Time expired)

5:10 pm

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Nobody could seriously question the Morrison government's rock-solid commitment to disability services, yet, here we are. To see this issue being treated as a political football is quite simply offensive, but if Labor insists on inviting us to debate and defend our credentials in cleaning up the mess of the NDIS we inherited from the Gillard government, then Senator Keneally can consider this speech my RSVP.

The latest attacks on our funding commitments to the NDIS conveniently overlook seven years of hard work from the coalition to finish the job started by Julia Gillard with such undue haste. In the dying days of her government she ordered the NDIS to start from 1 July 2013, defying a recommendation from the Productivity Commission to start a year later. As the commission later pointed out, the NDIS was like an airplane being designed in mid-flight. The MPI has no foundation whatsoever and proves a thorough lack of understanding on the part of the opposition about how the NDIS is funded and their ignorance about the purpose of the NDIS Reserve Fund. The government completely rejects any proposition it is withholding funding to the NDIS to the states or to the territories. The government also completely rejects that funds identified for the NDIS Reserve Fund is propping up its budget. The NDIS is fully funded on an ongoing basis for every participant meeting the eligibility requirements. It is fully funded in a way that allows the Morrison government to build a strong economy and bring the budget under control.

Full scheme funding arrangements that have been signed by the Commonwealth and every state and territory except WA clearly articulates that states and territories make a fixed contribution to the NDIS, indexed at four per cent a year, and that the Commonwealth will pay the balance of all NDIS costs, taking into account the contribution of all states and territories.

Since 2013, the growth of NDIS participants has been commensurate with increased spending. In 2017-18, spending on the NDIS was $6.4 billion. In 2018-19 it was $13.3 billion. This year it will be $17.9 billion, and by 2020-21 it will be $22.2 billion. With the budget showing a $4.5 billion increase in NDIS spending next financial year, how can Labor claim a $1.6 billion cut. Labor is already guilty of cynically mischaracterising a highly technical budgeting issue known as an estimates variation and now the deceit continues. Labor's claims that we're somehow under resourcing the NDIS is completely wrong and it's pure mischief.

Once and for all as the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, and the minister have stated repeatedly, the NDIS is fully funded. It is a demand-driven scheme, and if demands exceed our estimates, the funding will be there—a point Labor's Linda Burney was willing to concede on ABC radio before the last election. When questioned if Labor would put more funding into the NDIS if elected, shadow minister Burney replied with this, 'There doesn't need to be a commitment; it's a demand-driven program.' In 2019-20 there has been a $850 million increase in funding through the individual plans of NDIS participants. This boost also reflects an increase in payments to service providers such as personal care workers, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and psychologists. An extra $400 million in NDIS funding has also been provided for administration costs and people supported under existing Commonwealth disability programs before their transition to the NDIS.

Labor is in the scurrilous habit of lying about their social funding programs. We recall their claims of Medicare in 2016. Four years later they're at it again with the NDIS. The NDIS is on track to reach 460,000 participants in 2020. Today, more than 338,000 people have been supported by the NDIS and have active, approved plans in place. Many of these people are kids being supported across areas ranging from health, wellbeing and lifelong learning to support in daily activities. Before the NDIS was established in 2013, families faced an uphill battle to find coordinated quality support. As the mother of a son with autism, I shared the pain of dealing with limited available services and expensive metropolitan best-practice therapies. The introduction of the NDIS has been a great help to many families, including my own, who previously had little to no assistance.

The NDIS is the biggest social and economic reform Australia has undertaken since the introduction of Medicare. The latest COAG Disability Reform Council performance report tells us that 56 per cent of people on an NDIS plan identified with having autism or an intellectual disability. After my son's diagnosis we were completely lost on where to find support and daunted by the prospect of having to scale a mountain of red tape before finding a pathway. Now, in my role as senator, I again recognise the need to reduce the amount of red tape and make processes easier. I'm relishing the prospect of playing my own role in providing long-term, sustainable improvements for many families living with disabilities across Australia.

The Commonwealth and all states and territories that have signed up to full-scheme funding arrangements have agreed the objective of the NDIS Reserve Fund is to improve participant outcomes and manage scheme sustainability on insurance principles by using the Reserve Fund to manage the lifetime risk of participants' supports. The NDIS Reserve Fund is designed to support participants over the longer term. Any suggestion the fund would be spent all in one go or provided back to the states and territories is just pure rubbish. The Commonwealth and all states and territories have signed off on an agreement to establish the Reserve Fund using accumulated cash currently sitting with the NDIA. No government is expected to make an additional contribution to the NDIS Reserve Fund. Accumulated cash set aside for the Reserve Fund remains in the NDIA's accounts and is not being used to balance the budget.

The NDIS plan reaffirms the government's commitment to support people with disability to achieve their goals. The plan reaffirms the National Disability Insurance Agency's commitment to deliver world-leading NDIS to an estimated half a million participants over the next three to four years. The plan is all about establishing the NDIS on to a business-as-usual footing and long-term success. The plan focuses on quicker access and quality decision-making, increased engagement and collaboration, market innovation and improved technology, a financially sustainable NDIS, equitable and consistent decisions, and improving long-term outcomes for people with disability, their families and carers. The government asked what the NDIA what they needed to deliver, and we listened. The NDIA is currently filling an additional 800 APS positions capable of exercising delegations under the NDIS legislation, bringing the total NDIA workforce to more than 11,000.

One of the key deliverables is the implementation of the participants service guarantee. The independent review of the NDIS Act by Mr David Tune to inform the development of the guarantee has been complete and sets the foundations to establish the guarantee. The government will use the findings to update and clarify the legislation and remove barriers to a better NDIS, with a government response to be released shortly.

The government's NDIS plan is already having a significant impact. There are now 338,982 Australians benefitting from the NDIS as at 31 December 2019, including 134,455 people receiving disability supports for the very first time—40 per cent of the total number of participants. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants are up to 7.8 per cent. Culturally and linguistically diverse now represent 11.1 per cent of participants who received a plan in the quarter. The average wait time for children zero to six years to meet NDIS access has been reduced from 43 days in June 2019 to an average of fewer than three days in December 2019. The average time for children currently awaiting a plan has reduced from 104 days at 30 June 2019 to 44 days as at 31 December 2019.

We are all in this together—and frankly, we owe that united front to people with disabilities, who deserve so much more than having to listen to gratuitous, unfounded and feeble accusations from a Labor Party that deliberately ignores the truth.

5:20 pm

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

When it comes to the NDIS, disabled people have watched a bit of a political blame game play out for a long, long time now, and while that debate's been going on we have been falling through the cracks and suffering. And I've got to say, listening to the contributions that have been made so far, that I find myself deeply frustrated by the continuation of that blame game. The reality is, if you look at the history of the NDIS, mistakes have been made on both sides. And there is an attempt now to cast the contribution made on one side or the other as perfectly pure, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth.

Senator Hughes, in her contribution, talked about the rushed nature of the scheme—that it was rushed into being. There is some merit in that argument. It was rushed. I remember it. I remember campaigning for it. I remember looking at the time lines and thinking they were very ambitious. But you've got to remember why it was rushed. It was rushed into being because the Labor Party, the Greens and the disability movement knew that the Liberal Party wanted to kill it. We knew that you wanted to kill it, because your advisers were out there saying, 'Oh, it's a nice idea, but we can't quite afford it.' Maurice Newman, head of Tony Abbott's business advisory council: 'It's a nice idea but not something we can afford.' So, we knew it had to be brought into being.

Senator Hughes talks about demand, and this is something we hear from the government a lot: if there's more demand there'll be more funding. Well, I tell you now, there is more demand, and that demand is not being met. The agency is being suffocated by the staffing cap that has existed upon it, without reason, for the best part of 10 years now. The institutional knowledge that has been lost in that time is profound. The waste and inefficiency caused by outsourcing to the private sector has been horrendous, and the outcomes for disabled people have suffered as a result. Disabled people know exactly what has happened to their scheme in the past six years, and that is that it has been under the management of a party that never really believed in it in the first place but regarded it as a political third rail that they dared not touch. So, it was passed from one incompetent minister to the next, until it washed up with Mr Robert.

The reality of the NDIS today is that it is letting far too many disabled people down. How do I know that? Because we keep dying. How do I know that? Because in the time that the NDIS has existed the rates of abuse, neglect and isolation have not moved a jot. How do I know that? I spend so much time talking with my friends, advocates who work in the space, going through horrendous stories of people having to waste their lives fighting agency decisions through administrative tribunal processes, just trying to get what they need, just trying to get what they are entitled to, just trying to get what they should be able to expect.

The real kicker in all of this is the structural underspend in this scheme that the government is now using to prop up its budget. I'll say it again really clearly: this government is balancing the books on the backs of disabled people. When you look at the driving causes of that underspend, it's not that people don't want services and supports; it's that they can't access them. If a deaf person in WA has had for a year 10 hours of interpreter support a day in their plan, when they sit back down with their NDIA planner in a year's time they won't have used half of it—not because they decided that they wanted to stay indoors but because currently they can't access that much interpreter support in WA because there is an absence of interpreters on the ground.

Those kinds of problems have been created by a fundamental lack of engagement in the disability space by both sides of politics. The real essence of why this scheme is still so much less than what people need is that neither side of politics in Australia actually truly understands what disability is in 2020. There is still so much belief in a medical model of disability that puts the impairment with the person rather than in a social model of disability that correctly identifies disability as the result of barriers in society created and sustained by ableism. That lack of acknowledgement has led to an approach to this scheme that has fallen back into the old pattern of turning to somebody who asks for support and saying: 'It's a bit too pricey. We just can't go that far.' That attitude needs to change, but it can't change until the NDIS has the resources that it needs and it ultimately can't change until everybody in this place takes their lead on the NDIS and every other piece of disability policy from disabled people. I thank the chamber for its time.

5:27 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to say at the outset that the Labor Party will never resile from putting this government in the spotlight regarding the NDIS, because currently what the government is doing is wrong. To prop up their budget, they are banking money that is meant to go to the NDIS and to participants. That is exactly what they're doing. To come in here and suggest that all it is is an accounting process is just disingenuous. It is downright insulting to participants in the NDIS and their families.

Each and every senator and member of the House of Representatives should know exactly what is happening out there in terms of the NDIS because they should be getting the calls and the emails from participants and their family members. They are coming to, ringing and emailing their offices for assistance. If they have got a plan, they can't access the services, get the equipment or organise for somebody to give them occupational therapy. There are huge issues in terms of the NDIS and how it's being run.

A number of issues were raised by the previous Liberal speaker, Senator Hughes. I know Senator Hughes is well aware of some of the issues that the NDIS has, which of course go to the fact that there are delays and underspends. We know why there are underspends. We know why there are delays in reviews and in plan building. That goes also to the fact that there is a staffing cap on the NDIS. It is easy for the government to remove that staffing cap. The government has been called on by numerous disability advocates to remove the staffing cap to enable staff to be put in place to go through the plan building and to reduce the delay that is currently happening in the NDIS. But it's fallen on deaf ears. I don't know whether that's because in this government we've had about six ministers in this critical area, six ministers that just seem to hand it over as soon as they can. It's just not good enough.

Photo of Sarah HendersonSarah Henderson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That's a really appalling reflection on me personally. You should withdraw that.

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, it is true, Senator. As I said, the Labor Party will hold this government to account in terms of the NDIS. As this MPI states, we will also hold them to account around the issue of withholding NDIS funds. I want the Senate not to take my word for it. We know this is the view of both the Victorian and the New South Wales state governments. The federal government wants to hold on to the $1.6 billion worth of funding for the NDIS to try to make their books balance, despite the many people with disability throughout Australia that desperately need the money to be spent on care and support. The New South Wales minister for disability, Mr Gareth Ward—a Liberal minister—has said: 'I want to make sure that money doesn't sit in a bank account offsetting the Commonwealth's budget, which is what it is doing'. That's what Mr Ward said, the New South Wales minister for disability. Mr Ward went on to say: 'There's $1.6 billion sitting on the Commonwealth's balance sheet that we want to spend on people with disabilities.'

I also would like to remind colleagues that the $1.6 billion is part of the appropriation we voted to give the NDIA with the passage of the last budget. This $1.6 billion comes on top of the $4.6 billion underspend in the NDIS last financial year. That is a total, over two years, of $6.2 billion ripped from the NDIS to help the government manage their deteriorating budget position. As Senator Bilyk said in her contribution, quite rightly, this is cruel and heartless in the extreme. This latest $1.6 billion underspend on the NDIS will cause heartache and despair every day for the very people it was intended to help. People living with a disability are missing out on care and support because this government is not putting out there the measures that need to be undertaken. I mean, as I've already said, lifting the staffing cap, acting on recommendations of a very good committee, a bipartisan committee, the Joint Standing Committee on the NDIS, who have put forward unanimous recommendations, which need to be acted upon by this government and will help to reduce some of the delays and the issues around plan building and trying to get equipment for people.

Also, what we now see causing huge delays is the fact that there isn't the professional workforce available. I am talking about allied health professionals. We don't have enough allied health professionals who are able to do the work that they have to do prior to the participants going out and sourcing equipment, whether it be a bed or a chair or whatever piece of equipment, that they have been able to source through their plan. This is a real issue. We really have not yet seen anything from this government that's going to fix those issues.

As I've already said, the New South Wales government have highlighted their concern that it will be people with disability in regional areas, and Indigenous Australians, and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, who will miss out on support and services, thanks to the withholding of this $1.6 billion. Just this week in my home state of Tasmania it's been revealed that New Horizons, which is based in Mowbray in the seat of Bass—Ms Archer's seat—was unsuccessful in its bid for funding under the NDIS ILC grants scheme, even though there were, I think, 300 applications—28 were successful, but, of course, none in Tasmania. New Horizons has been there for more than three decades, doing a wonderful job leading the way in inclusive sport and recreation.

As I said when I first started my contribution, the Labor Party will always highlight issues around the NDIS. The NDIS is a transformative scheme. It is transforming people's lives and we need to ensure that the funds that have been set aside for the NDIS are used for the NDIS and not used to prop up the federal government's budget.

5:37 pm

Photo of Sarah HendersonSarah Henderson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this matter of public importance, and I do so with a great deal of pride. I would like to comment on a couple of comments that Senator Brown just made in her contribution. I really take issue with Senator Brown and the particularly disgraceful comment that she made that ministers in our government couldn't wait to hand over their job. I think that's a shocking reflection on the commitment of our government and ministers, including myself. When I was Assistant Minister for Social Services, Housing and Disability Services I did that job with a great deal of pride and a great deal of honour. I was very sad when I was not able to continue as the assistant minister. For Senator Brown to reflect on ministers in that way, I really do think that she should come back into the chamber and withdraw that comment. When I was the assistant minister, I was incredibly proud to stand up for people with a disability, to stand up for their families, and their carers, and everyone in their world, to make sure that they had a better life, that they could be the very best that they could be.

One of the most significant reforms that happened when I was the assistant minister was our reform of the special disability accommodation allowance, which wasn't being included in people's packages. So, people were being left in a situation where they could not go out and seek accommodation, because they didn't know what sort of resources they had. That just seemed to be completely the wrong way around and we fixed that. I don't think I probably had a better day as the assistant minister when I joined Kirby Littlely and her family when she moved into her new home in Belmont in Geelong. There was such a sense of joy. We are seeing that joy all around the nation. These are people who previously had nowhere to live, whose parents and families were wracked with grief, not knowing what would happen to their children. Now, through the SDA, as but one example, which supports those who have the highest needs—around six per cent of all people who have a disability—this is absolutely transformative. So I'm incredibly proud of the work that we are doing in delivering the NDIS. That is not to say—and I do acknowledge the contribution of Senator Steele-John—that there have not been problems. Yes, there have been problems. There have been challenges. There has been too much bureaucracy at times. But our government, led by our Prime Minister, has been single-minded in our determination to improve the NDIS to make sure Australians with a disability get what they deserve by way of support, services and funding and to ensure that, as a nation, we can hold our heads high, because this is a world-first social insurance scheme.

I want to pay tribute to all Australians with a disability, their parents, like Senator Hughes, their carers and, of course, all the workers in the disability sector who play such an important role. And I will put on the record that, before the election, it was very disappointing that the current member for Corangamite, Ms Coker, drove around in a trailer saying she was going to put the heart back in the NDIS. It was a very embarrassing and, frankly, low political act to use people with a disability to try to make a point, obviously attacking me. And I regret today that we cannot celebrate with a sense of bipartisanship what we are doing on both sides of the chamber. On the point that Senator Steele-John has made about the scheme being rushed, yes, it was rushed. It basically began on 1 July 2013, one year before it was meant to. It was rushed because the then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, wanted to roll out the scheme a few months before the federal election. And I want to correct a very important statement that Senator Steele-John made: there was absolute bipartisanship. When Tony Abbott was opposition leader, the Liberal opposition was absolutely and utterly committed to rolling out the NDIS. I want to put that very strongly on the record and correct what Senator Steele-John said.

Of course, we are here because there is more politicking over the NDIS, and I do very strongly reject the premise of this MPI. The Morrison government has always been committed to fully funding the NDIS, and it's very clear that the Labor Party—with the exception of the member for Barton; I do acknowledge her concession—does not understand that this is a demand driven system. The money is there and it is provided for so that it can be drawn down as required. That, unfortunately, is the inconvenient truth which undermines the motion before the Senate today. What we are seeing is an increase in the NDIS budget as it is rolled out across the nation, from $13.3 billion in 2018-19 to $18 billion in 2019-20 and to $22 billion under the full scheme, which is no less than what Labor would commit to, of course, if it were in government. As I say, this is just some really regrettable politicking.

The NDIS, under our government, has evolved into the largest and fastest social reform, and one of the most significant social reforms, in our history. There are now nearly 340,000 Australians benefitting from the NDIS. And, of course, as at 31 December, there are another 134,000 people receiving disability supports for the first time—40 per cent of the total number of participants. So we are rolling out the NDIS at a very rapid rate. We're also listening. When things are not working—and that was certainly the experience when I was the assistant minister—we are listening and fixing the things that are not working, such as lifting the staff cap. So we certainly took very strong action to lift the staff cap.

The COAG NDIS quarterly report found that the average wait time for children aged up to six years to receive NDIS access had reduced from 43 days in June 2019 to an average of less than three days in December 2019. So, yes, there was a problem with children waiting too long, but we got in there and we fixed it. We have worked very hard to reduce the waiting time on the plans, and we've also worked very hard to reduce issues such as when someone wants to amend their plan and, of course, when someone wants to access assistive technology without having to get a number of quotations. So there was lots of bureaucracy which hampered the NDIS at an earlier stage but which our government is now tackling under our new minister, very much led by the Prime Minister, and we are doing that with a great deal of pride.

As I say, through schemes like the SDA, we are changing lives. We are making the most substantial contribution by way of committing $22 billion at full scheme rollout by 2021-22. That money is there. That money is provided for in the budget. Just look at the converse argument: imagine if we did not provide more money than was required in the budget. There would be a shortfall. As it is a demand-driven scheme, if there weren't a surplus amount of money in the provision for NDIS drawdowns then there would be a shortfall. Our government is not going to allow that to happen. As I say, that money is there. It can be drawn down when required. The faster the scheme rolls out, the more quickly the drawdown occurs.

So this is one of the many ways in which we are supporting Australians, and we're doing it because we are running our budget responsibly. We are making sure that through 29 years of continued economic growth, with low unemployment and lower taxes, and by fixing Labor's mess that we inherited—its spiral of debt and deficit—we are running the budget responsibly so that we can stand up for so many Australians who have a disability and provide all the other services that make Australians' lives all the better.

5:47 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's interesting to hear the comments from Senator Henderson. There is an underspend of $1.6 billion. There are numerous examples of poor performance of programs of the NDIS because of being underfunded and under-resourced. There are staff freezes. It is a third-term government managing this, yet we're still seeing, consistently, problems with the NDIS and how it's performing. We see the government using some of Australia's most vulnerable people, people living with disabilities, as an accounting trick to convince the Australian people it has a budget surplus. Leaving aside the question of whether this government, through its economic mismanagement, does or does not have a surplus, the fact remains that there is currently $1.6 billion sitting on the Commonwealth balance sheet. That is $1.6 billion—

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Four point six? I'm sorry; I'm corrected. It is $4.6 billion that states have been told they cannot access to fund people with disabilities to have access to essential services. It's come from 'underspending', in layman's language, on the NDIS. We're talking about billions of dollars the government is supposed to spend on people with disabilities, but it's now apparently using it to balance its books. It is using people with disability, people with dire need for support from our community.

In fact, as senators on the other side who spoke previously have said, this was an initiative that the opposition at the time and the government at the time came to a consensus on. I can remember those negotiations and those arguments. I can remember when Tony Abbott was brought kicking and screaming to the table. The reason why is that good, thinking people of all politics outside the Liberal Party, including people who voted for them, turned around and said that what Labor was proposing made sense. It gave people respect and it gave them an opportunity to look after their families and have some assurance about their families into the future. Now we see what they're doing. Now we see them turning around and doing budgetary tricks.

It's not just Labor who are angry about this government hobbling the futures of people who just want to go about their lives and be the best they can be. New South Wales Liberal minister Gareth Ward, who himself is visually impaired, has blown the whistle on his own side. They haven't answered that argument yet, have they? They haven't answered the argument that's been put forward by one of their own. This senior Liberal minister in the New South Wales government said that these are 'people who sit in a room all day with no support, looking at the four walls' and talked about the cruelness of this government holding onto its money. Those are not my words. Those are not Labor's words. That is one of their own saying how devastated they are by the lack of action, the inappropriate steps and the lack of appropriate steps by this government.

The minister has gone public with stories of despair of people who desperately need speech therapy or occupational therapy to be able to live a full and dignified life but simply cannot get it. That the Morrison government is calling this denial of funding an underspend in the first place is a disgrace. We all know how Scott Morrison and Stuart Robert have mismanaged the NDIS system. Don't believe it because I'm saying it—believe it because one of their own is saying it. In actual fact—and even more importantly—people with disability and their carers are saying it.

My office, like many others, has received so many representations from constituents who have been affected by the callousness and inhumanity of this government. We received correspondence about a Meals on Wheels service who had booked $20,000 to $30,000 worth of work supplying meals for high-need individuals. They were left high and dry for 18 months. NDIA was not paying them, and they ended up basically supplying meals to hungry and vulnerable people at a loss, limiting the reach of their program.

Then we had representations from the father of a young man, who we'll call Jack, with several disabilities, including being completely blind. He had been given less than a third of the funding he needed to have any semblance of a normal life. Jack did everything that he was required of the NDIS. He had a comprehensive plan prepared for him by an approved not-for-profit NDIS provider. The plan provided for all of his disabilities. It was holistic and comprehensive, taking into account his carers' needs—his carers being his mother and father.

Instead of funding the comprehensive plan, the NDIS funded less than one-third of it. The funding ran out in December last year, and Jack has been at home since then. He cannot use a phone or feed himself. His father has had to take the last month off work to relieve his mother, because Jack feels unsafe without having someone there with him. He, in fact, was learning to use the phone with the funding that he previously had that was cut off. But funding for those lessons were cut two years ago. He was told that the NDIA could only see him as being blind and could not see him as having other disabilities such as autism, OCD and anxiety, despite having submitted reports from both a psychiatrist and a psychologist.

5:53 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution in this debate. From the outset, how ruthless, shonky and dishonest is this government? That's what the Australian people have come to realise since the election. They have been taken for a ride by this government. In the last two days, the people of Northern Tasmania, my home state, have learnt that this government has denied NDIS grant funding to a disability support and recreation organisation, New Horizons. We know the track record of how shonky the grants programs of those on the opposite side are, but the fact that the Morrison government is unwilling to support New Horizons, who actually change people's lives and improve people's wellbeing, beggars belief. It really does.

I question the humanity of this government, which will not be assisting—will not be funding—an organisation that helps people to live a respectful and better life. Under the NDIS Information, Linkages and Capacity Building grant scheme, 28 grants were issued. You might ask, how many of those went to Tasmania? Well, I can tell you: it was zero. That's what it was: zero, to my home state of Tasmania. This news has gutted New Horizons. It's also gutted the northern Tasmanian community, because this funding black hole will not disappear unless the federal government does the right thing by the people of northern Tasmania.

I would expect—and I know people of northern Tasmania would expect—that the federal member for Bass would do more than just write a letter to Minister Stuart Robert. With all due respect, she's a member of the government. She should be banging on the Prime Minister's door. She should be banging on Stuart Robert's door, demanding a better outcome for her electorate. What we've seen from the local member is a report, as we've read in the local newspaper, that she has written to the minister. New Horizons—just in case she's not aware of what New Horizons does in northern Tasmania—provides meaningful physical and social activities for over 462 people in northern Tasmania who have a disability.

Well, Bass is a marginal seat. You would think that, as a member of the House of Representatives in a marginal seat, she would be in there fighting to retain her seat. Those votes alone will change the member for Bass at the next federal election. New Horizons, based in Mowbray, has existed since 1986. I've had a long association with them in the various roles that I had before I came to this place. People with a disability deserve the support of their federal government. But the funding that New Horizons gets and how they use it goes beyond just physical and social activities. Their work actually prevents social isolation associated with disability. And there is a crucial need for this important work to continue. It also plays a crucial role in building more-inclusive communities.

As I said, we've read in the local paper that the Liberal state government is going to contact the federal government over this decision. Well, whoopee-doo! It's a marginal seat. I can't believe that the federal member hasn't already been banging on the Prime Minister's door. We have a federal and a state Liberal government that aren't even talking to each other. So, I call on the federal member for Bass—who doesn't like to be accountable for the decisions of the federal government—to actually be a strong voice for those people from the disability sector and from our local community who need her to be that voice. I'd have to question, yet again: of 28 grants, I find it hard to believe—and I'm speaking about only one organisation in Tasmania, New Horizons; but what about the other organisations in Tasmania that have missed out? I wonder, is this another sports rort? How were the grants actually determined? Was it also done on the basis of marginal seats or target seats? Was it colour coded? I would really like those sorts of details to come before us. But the important thing is that we know that this government has never really been fair dinkum when it comes to the NDIS and funding it. We know that they've used it to prop up their budgets.

The Australian people and people with disabilities in my home state deserve so much better. We know that this government ripped $4.6 billion out of the NDIS to prop up their Claytons surplus while agency executives were being given huge bonuses. How was that fair? Massive delays and institutional malaise have seen more than 1,200 Australians with disabilities die while waiting for an NDIS package. It's a bit like the home care packages: 30,000 older Australians have died in the past two years. It's not a very good track record, and you cannot be trusted with the NDIS. (Time expired)

5:59 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I think I want to call this speech, 'What happened while you weren't watching,' because there are so many Australians out there trying to do the very best they can with their lives, particularly people who are caring for those with a disability. While every hour of their day is spent on caring and advocating for someone they love with a disability, this government went through the most extraordinarily deceptive set of motions to take money away, from people with disability, to the tune of $4.6 billion. They euphemistically called it an 'underspend' and then they decided to shuffle it off to the side to try to balance their books—to balance their books on the back of people with a disability.

This is an absolute disgrace. I wholeheartedly endorse the comments of my fellow senator from New South Wales Senator Sheldon, who revealed that the Liberal government in New South Wales is well and truly alive to the problems of this federal government and its deceptions around the matter of disability, and those of Senator Polley from Tasmania, who put on the record in the closing moments of her speech the fact that 1,200 people died while waiting for a package to give them some support on NDIS.

I'd like to let this chamber know about a remarkable group of people with whom I walked, on Sunday, at the Gough Whitlam Park in Earlwood. I found out about this particular group by a great leader in the trade union movement in New South Wales, Graeme Kelly, who's the head of the USU. Thirty thousand members got information from Mr Kelly, and 20 of his executives walked with him having decided that they would support the Save Our Sons Duchenne Foundation in their quest to try and give a decent life to young boys—in particular, but some girls—who have been diagnosed with Duchenne, a motor neurone disorder that sees young people who reach about the age of five or six suddenly present with muscular difficulties that very much limit their lives without adequate support.

I want to pay respect to Mr Kelly for the leadership that he's showing there, and his executive, and his commitment to try to help this community. But the reason that help is being wrapped around charitable work is that this government has failed every test in the rollout of the NDIS. I want to acknowledge Elie and Nancy Eid who set up the Save Our Sons Duchenne Foundation in 2008, and their son Emilio who they are caring for. I also want to acknowledge Michael Galderisi who's a general manager. He was outraged and shocked—many of the parents were shocked—to find out that the reason their kids are waiting for vitally needed resources, including wheelchairs, is that this government set up so many barriers and impediments to them that they couldn't access the care they need for their children.

There are families that I walked with on Sunday who despairingly talked about the next round of participant planning that they will be forced to do every year. Every single one of those parents who spoke to me was really very concerned about the permanent erosion of any support that they might receive. They talked about a completely untrained workforce, about somebody being sent to them by this government—and not enough sent because they had a cap on it—somebody ill-prepared and ill-educated, to create a plan that didn't even acknowledge the needs of the illness. So ill-prepared were they that they didn't even know what the disease was or what the real needs of the young person were. This is parents fighting a system that was organised by this government, constructed by this government, but not delivered to the people of Australia. Rather, they used it as an ATM, a bank machine, to get cash to prop up a headline where they wanted to declare a surplus.

We cannot believe a word they say, because ordinary, hardworking Australians who want to believe in some of the things we heard Senator Henderson say, who want to believe that this government will look after people with disabilities, have been failed. While they weren't watching, and were living their lives, this government let them down. (Time expired)

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

The time for discussion on the matter of public importance has expired.