13 November 2019

National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Streamlined Governance) Bill 2019

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.