Senate debates

Monday, 27 November 2023


National Disability Insurance Scheme; Order for the Production of Documents

10:02 am

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Trade and Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

I have previously outlined to the Senate details of the government's claim for public interest immunity over documents related to the NDIS Financial Sustainability Framework. I refer senators to these comments.

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the explanation.

Once again, the government is failing to comply with an order of the Senate. The order of the Senate is simple. We are requesting the government provide to the public the financial sustainability framework signed off by the states and territories. Based upon this framework, the government in its last budget booked over $50 billion of cuts to the NDIS—$50 billion worth of cuts! Before anyone from Labor tries to argue that they aren't cuts, I would refer them to every statement that the Labor Party made about Tony Abbott's reckless and dangerous cuts to health, education and the ABC after the 2014 budget.

The Abbott government framed those cuts as simply corrections to trajectory in expenditure in exactly the same way the government is attempting to do in relation to the financial sustainability framework, and the Labor Party rightly called them out for the $8 billion of cuts to health, housing and education that they were. Upon the very same basis, the Australian Greens have been very clear in calling these cuts out as the cuts they are. It is the Labor Party's continuing failure to publicly provide the details of the financial sustainability framework they agreed with their state chief ministers and premiers that is driving so much fear in the disability community. Disabled people believed that the cycle of mistrust, of misleading in relation to our NDIS was over with the removal of the Liberal government. But by their actions, they have recreated this environment of deepest fear in the community, particularly for neurodivergent people, particularly for autistic people.

This feeling of fear and distrust is made so much deeper when the very minister in charge of the NDIS takes to the public airways to make claims that are rightly labelled by disability advocacy organisations as misleading and unhelpful. What were these misleading and unhelpful comments? In relation to autistic people and the relationship between the diagnosis of autism and access to the NDIS, the minister for the NDIS said, 'We want to move away from diagnosis writing into the scheme because then what happens is everyone gets the diagnosis. Again, just so I'm really clear, this is the full quote in context:

… obviously there's every person is an individual and unique and it all depends on evidence. We just want to move away from diagnosis writing you into the scheme because what happens is everyone gets the diagnosis …

Has this man ever in his life experienced what it is actually like to get an autism diagnosis in Australia—the amount of time it takes, the amount of money it costs and the stigma that you face? What a ridiculous, offensive thing to say! How awfully that perpetrates the idea that neurodivergent people, particularly autistic people, are in some way faking their condition.

This comes on the back of months—in fact, years now—where both sides of politics have perpetrated a lie and supported the continual spreading of a lie, and the lie is simply this: there are more people in the community diagnosed autistic than there actually are autistic people in the community. There is no evidence to support this claim. There is no evidence of an overdiagnosis of autistic people in the Australian society, because there is no data speaking to the baseline existence of autistic people in our society pre the NDIS. There is evidence, pre the NDIS, that the state based support systems for diagnosis and assessment were patchwork, underfunded and often non-existent pre the NDIS. The NDIS has come in and people have finally been able to get access to the services and supports they need, and somebody is tracking the data. Therefore, we now see autistic people in the community.

The Greens will continue to call for transparency and call out ablism.

10:07 am

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, rise to take note of the minister's quite disgraceful response. Yet again, he spoke for ten seconds. That is nothing short of what we would colloquially call a two-fingered salute to the 631,000 Australians with serious and permanent disability on the NDIS. The contempt which this government is showing for not just Australian taxpayers, but also Australians with disability is quite frankly breathtaking.

They are doing everything they can to hide the data on the forward projections of the NDIS. They have cut $74 billion over the next ten years, but have refused to release the data—the actuarial report—that would demonstrate to Australians with disability where that money is coming from. There are only two ways to cut that amount of funding from an insurance scheme: cutting participant numbers and cutting the average cost per participant. This is from a government who came in promising the world and promising things that they knew they could never, ever deliver to people with disability. It was cruel; it was wrong. They keep compounding that now with their actions, and we have again seen that utter contempt from Senator Farrell on behalf of Minister Shorten.

Not only are they hiding this data, which we will end up finding—we will end up getting it one way or the other, because that is simply the right thing to do, in terms of financial transparency. We're not talking about $1 million. We're not even talking about $1 billion or $10 billion. We are talking about $74 billion that those opposite have ripped out of the NDIS forward projections without telling anybody how they are going to fund it.

Not only have they lost the trust of the disability sector and the confidence of everybody in this chamber and this place with their duplicitous and, quite frankly, cruel behaviour; they've managed to lose the trust of their own Labor state governments! Let me read some of what their own ministers in state governments have said. The Labor Victorian government has accused the Albanese Labor government of being underhanded and keeping states in the dark on how to bring NDIS costs down. I quote the Victorian Labor disability minister, Lizzie Blandthorn:

I'm very concerned, to be honest, about where we find ourselves with the Commonwealth in relation to the NDIS.

…   …   …

I feel very ill equipped to advise our first minister as to how she should approach those discussions when the Commonwealth are being underhanded.

She goes on to say:

There's no clarity as to what it means for foundational support, and the lack of definition means there's no clarity about how much any of that will cost.

She goes on to say:

My fear would be it would fall on the states—

of course it will fall on the states, because it was always the states' responsibility to pay for the disability supports for the four million people who were never going to be eligible for the NDIS—

and I'm also concerned that the Commonwealth Government is going to cut Victorians out of the NDIS.

She said:

I think it's fair to say that there's broad agreement across the Commonwealth that we need to ensure that the NDIS is a sustainable system that works for people with disabilities.

…   …   …

That said, how you get to an 8 per cent target—

the target those opposite have set, without telling Australians how they're going to meet it, when, at the moment, in the last quarter, it was an annualised 15 per cent inflation target rate—

without changing reasonable and necessary and reducing services… I don ' t think the Commonwealth has been forthcoming on that.

She also claimed that there was no modelling available to show disability ministers what it would look like. No wonder those opposite are not complying with this Senate order to deliver the documents that show what's sitting behind the sustainability framework, because it does not yet exist. They're not only keeping people with disabilities and the Senate in the dark; they are also keeping the state ministers, who they somehow think are going to fund this document, in the dark.

The ACT Labor-Greens government has also aired its grievances with the Albanese Labor government. The ACT Minister for Disability, Emma Davidson, has said that she would not agree to any plans to change the scheme, unless better services were in place. She said:

Enough with the talk about costs, and how governments avoid paying for services people need. We should be talking about how to get better support for people.

Shame on you all.

10:13 am

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | | Hansard source

Is there anything lower than what this government is prepared to do? Before the election all we heard was Bill Shorten, the member for Maribyrnong, out there saying what a great advocate he was for the disability community. That was complete and utter rubbish; just another broken promise, I guess, in the litany of broken promises that this government continues to deliver. What a cruel blow to some of the most vulnerable in our community.

The thing that absolutely gets me is that those on this side of the chamber have always reached out and always tried to work within the NDIS as a bipartisan issue because it is too important for it not to be. Yet, for those opposite, that is nowhere near their DNA. They cannot do anything in a bipartisan way for the benefit of Australians. Everything is about playing politics, and politics at the most base level. It is absolutely beyond comprehension. We joke when we have transmission Tuesday running—I think we might be up to week 8—bringing back the inquiry into the transmission lines that are going to destroy communities in rural and regional Australia. The contempt with which these ministers come into the Senate, refusing to produce these documents that the Senate itself has ordered; the contempt with which they treat this chamber; and the contempt with which they treat people with a disability puts shame on all you. Shame on you. It is absolutely disgusting. The thing is, though, the people that are most concerned about sustainability, the people that are so anxious when they read these reports, are the parents of children with a disability who need to know that this scheme will be there for their child when they can no longer care for them. Those opposite are prepared to do nothing, work with no-one, not be upfront and not be honest with anyone. Whether it's with the opposition, the Greens or the Australian disability community, they refuse to be open and honest. Now we know they're refusing to be open and honest with their own Labor state governments.

One would hope, having a Labor federal government and Labor state governments in every state on the mainland, that they could all get together with their ideological pot and stick into it what they think they can do to make this scheme sustainable. There have been suggestions made. I do think that there are too many kids going on the NDIS, but that's because the states vacated the playing field when it came to community health. Kids that needed a little bit of speech therapy or a little bit of OT, and some that needed behavioural supports and therapies or aids in the classroom, have been completely abandoned by the states. When we talk about the NDIS, I've heard Mr Shorten use the term 'the only lifeboat in the sea', and he's not wrong in many instances. But there's also been an attitudinal shift, because I can tell you, before the NDIS, parents put their hands in their own pockets. I know there's a cost-of-living crisis and everyone's finding it tough, but there are parental responsibilities sometimes that if your kid needs a swimming lesson, you pay for it. If your kid needs a couple of speech therapy sessions, it shouldn't always have to be at the expense of the taxpayer. That comes with being a parent, sometimes. This was promised by those opposite when they introduced the NDIS, 'Don't worry, you'll never have to pay for any of this ever again. There's community health at state level'—well, that's gone—'and, if it's not there, the NDIS will pick up the bill.' That's not what the NDIS is there for.

There are things that can be done. We know that there are subjective tests and objective tests, and we know how assessments are being made. Some people may be 'putting on' the NDIS so that they can get access to it. We can have a look at some tests that will actually define whether or not a child should be on the NDIS, and we can track their development, if they're in an early childhood pathway, to move them off the scheme. If that is what the government's looking at doing, looking to introducing a vineland or mullens scale test, I'd be there to support them. I think this would be a great thing: take the data, see what the kids are doing and how they're developing over a period of time, see what's working and what's not working. I'd be absolutely happy and happy to help. I think it's a great idea. But we don't know if that's what you're doing, because, instead of coming in here and providing your thinking behind the financial sustainability—how you're going to cap at eight per cent or rip $74 billion out of the scheme—rather than being upfront and honest about where that's going to come from, you're drip-feeding into different newspapers which diagnoses you want to see removed. You're drip-feeding which groups will be impacted and how it's going to work. You're drip-feeding what the states are going to have to pick up, without talking to them, and creating more uncertainty and anxiety for a cohort of people that should be the most protected by this place—because that is what we are here to do.

10:18 am

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of the minister's response, as I did on the Monday of the last sitting week and as I'll do on the Monday of the next sitting week if we're still in this position. It is important that people listening to this debate, in the gallery, understand what is happening here. We're having a debate in relation to one of the most significant social programs which is administered by the federal government for the benefit of Australians. Six hundred and thirty-one thousand Australians have benefits under the NDIS, and there will be hundreds of thousands more Australians who will come under the scheme in future years. That's what we're talking about.

We, in the opposition and on the Greens crossbench, are seeking fundamental documents, core documents, to understand the sustainability of the program in the context of the government saying that they will cut $74 billion of funding from the NDIS over the next 10 years. We are trying to understand, discharging our obligation as a house of review, how the government can say on the one hand that they are going to cut $74 billion from this scheme over the next 10 years, and, on the other hand, we see the latest figures which tell us that's just not possible.

Something has to give. As Senator Reynolds so eloquently put it, either the number of participants needs to decrease or the amount spent per participant needs to increase. Something needs to give. We are asking to see the actuarial data which forms the basis of the government's assertion that it can cut $74 billion from the NDIS over the next 10 years, but the government is refusing to give us that information. We represent the Australian people. By refusing to give it to us the government is refusing to give that information to the Australian people, and the Australian people deserve that information. They deserve the senators in this place having the opportunity to analyse that information and ask questions of the government in relation to it, because that is how the system is meant to work.

In my capacity as the chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, I'm currently looking into a reference in relation to Australia's freedom of information laws. I've read the basis for those laws as they were first passed. Australia was a leading jurisdiction in the world on FOI. It was about transparency. It was about the Australian people having the right to know the basis upon which policy decisions are made. That was one of the bases of the FOI scheme. Here we are, some 40 years later, and the government is refusing to provide one of the most important documents in relation to one of the most important schemes that this government administers. It is simply not good enough. We will keep prosecuting this point. I congratulate Senator Steele-John on his prosecution of this point, and Senator Reynolds.

We need to understand the actuarial basis on which this government asserts it can cut $74 billion out of the NDIS. All the evidences—I have figures given to me by my good friend Senator Reynolds—is to the contrary. Let me give an example. Total scheme expenses for the three months to 30 September 2023 were $10.1 billion, or 0.9 per cent higher than the estimate from June 2023. They were nearly one per cent higher over the course of a calendar quarter. The report showed plan inflation at 5.1 per cent in the September quarter or 15.1 per cent per annum. Where are these cuts coming from? Where is the maths? What is the actuarial basis? It doesn't any make sense at all.

The Senate deserves that information so senators can analyse it and ask the questions that our constituents expect us to ask. That's the way the system is meant to work. What are you hiding? Provide the information, not just to this Senate, but to the Australian people.

Question agreed to.