NDIS Amendment Bill Speech

19 November 2019

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.