August 24, 2021

I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution on the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021. As many of the contributors have noted, this bill proposes changes that would implement recommendations (1), (6), (7), (8) and (9) of the Robertson review into the tragic death of Adelaide NDIS recipient Ann-Marie Smith. I want to begin by saying how dreadfully sorry I am, on behalf of the 150,000 constituents of Shortland, that Ann-Marie Smith went through what she did before her tragic and untimely death. The system failed her, and this bill is important because it's an attempt to repair the system, at least partially, to make sure that does not happen again. Labor is supporting the bill in the House and will move amendments in the Senate to clarify the basis upon which participant information can be shared and to require the minister to have a review of the bill to ensure stakeholders' future consultation on these important issues.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme is a proud Labor legacy and one of the key achievements of the Gillard government. History will recall that Julia Gillard was the Prime Minister who introduced this scheme to make clear to our fellow Australians with disability that whatever support they need to live fulfilling and dignified lives they will get. Imagine the lives of people with disability and their families and support networks at this current time of the pandemic if there were no Disability Insurance Scheme. Ten years ago there was no such scheme. In fact, I remember attending the launch of the Hunter pilot scheme with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in the middle of 2013. It was a historic day for the Hunter as one of the pilot regions for the NDIS.

In talking on this bill, which the government maintains is about improving support for participants, I briefly want to go back to the creation of the scheme. The Productivity Commission reported the following to the Rudd government:

The current disability support system is underfunded, unfair, fragmented, and inefficient, and gives people with a disability little choice and no certainty of access to appropriate supports and little scope to participate in the community.

This assessment was 10 years ago. It's disappointing that, for all the progress that has been made, my constituents with disability still have issues with choice, having decisions made for them rather than making their own decisions. There are also issues with certainty when there are annual plan reviews, not to mention the insidious independent assessments introduced by the Liberals and Nationals.

In speaking on the improving supports for at-risk participants bill, I want to draw to the attention of the House one of the biggest issues NDIS participants have dealt with over the past year—that is, the attempted introduction of independent assessments, which is a shameful indictment on the Morrison-Joyce government and clearly undermines the claims by this government of a bipartisan commitment to the NDIS. The truth is, through attempting to introduce independent assessments, they were trying to make life more difficult for people with disability. That's not an accusation I make lightly, but the fact is that independent assessments were to be the blunt instrument deployed by this cruel conservative government to cut funding to NDIS participants.

I have raised an example in the House before of the cruelty of these so-called independent assessments to my own constituents, and that's the case of a six-year-old whose grandmother contacted my office because his mother was too distressed to. This young boy's plan had been cut from $100,000 a year to just $8,000 a year. That's over a 90 per cent cut in funding to his plan. What did this mean for him in terms of practicalities? His core support had been reduced from 35 hours a week to just five—a gigantic cut. This boy has a rare genetic disorder. His mother is a single mother. The reason given by the independent assessor for this drastic reduction was that, now that he was at school, he didn't need the support. This overlooked the fact that he was at school last year and needed the support, and now all of a sudden he doesn't.

The question I ask the government is: who is best placed to assess a participant's needs? Is it their doctors, their allied health professionals, their carers and the people who know their disability the most, or is it some random from a private contractor that the government was going to pay $339 million to with the explicit intent of making cost savings? The answer to this, obviously, is those that know the participant best are best placed to determine their needs, not some so-called independent assessor with a clear incentive to cut costs in the scheme.

In fact, the only reason independent assessments have been shelved for the moment is that they were met with universal condemnation by NDIS participants, NDIS stakeholders and state and territory governments. I thank and acknowledge all those who've fought against these changes and succeeded in getting another U-turn from the Liberals and Nationals. The take-home lesson from this sordid independent assessment experiment is that the Liberals and Nationals will not hesitate to attack the foundations of the NDIS just to save money, and this is plainly wrong.

As another example, I regularly get families of kids with autism coming to me in tears because they've gone through a review of their plan and found that their plan has been massively cut, and the reason that the National Disability Insurance Agency has given for the cut is that clearly the plan is not working because the child with autism is not getting better; they are not recovering from the autism. As the families and every independent expert has made the case to me, you don't recover from autism; you learn to live with it and to fulfil your potential. That is just another example of this government's callous attacks on the NDIS and the participants in it.

I have also had cases where someone's NDIS plan was dramatically slashed when they finished high school and went onto university. The justification given by the agency was that they were going to be under a lot less stress at university than at high school. Well, I just don't see how they could have made that assessment. For many people university is as stressful as high school, if not more stressful. To cut someone's plan so callously because of such an arbitrary decision just further emphasises the real motivations of this government.

I'd also like to talk about the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission component of the bill. I want to draw to the attention of the House a situation one of my constituents is experiencing right now. This constituent is highly vulnerable. I won't go into her particular condition, but like most of the country my Shortland electorate is in lockdown, and an issue has arisen for my constituent regarding her support worker having access to help her during the lockdown. My parliamentary liaison has had to refer this issue my constituent is having with her provider to the commission.

The above complex situations demonstrate the urgent need for an effective cop on the beat. Labor believes that everything possible should be done to protect people with a disability from neglect and abuse. The commission has a fundamentally important role to play, and yet it is ineffective and understaffed. Unfortunately this bill does nothing to address the significant holes in NDIS safeguarding that are evident in this commission.

The truth is, as a pilot region for the NDIS, my electorate and the participants in my electorate have gone through many generations of plans. In fact, at one stage, I had the distinction of having more complaints issued before the NDIA than any other electorate in the country. More must be done to improve the system. More must be done to improve it for constituents in my electorate. It's all very well and proper for the government to brag about it being a demand-driven program, but every year billions of dollars are cut from the NDIS because this government has put in place systems and staffing cuts to choke demand. You can say it's demand driven, but if you choke demand, if you restrict demand, if you cut plans in a thoroughly unscientific way, you are cutting the NDIS and you're doing a great disservice to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Australians.

Ultimately the National Disability Insurance Scheme is a fundamental compact between the Australian society and Australians with a disability. It is a compact that says that we will not leave you behind; we will make sure that, no matter how your disability occurred, whether through birth, a freak accident or some other mechanism, we will allow you and support you to fulfil your true potential—not just to give you the most fulfilling life possible but so that your potential and your contribution to society is not lost. This government is destroying that fundamental principle with its cuts and attacks on the NDIS.

I will finish by noting that tonight is the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. We wish all our Australian Paralympians well. I'd like to give a special shout-out to my constituent Rheed McCracken and wish all of them all the very best of luck. One of Australia's most distinguished Paralympians is Hunter local Kurt Fearnley. He's also one of the most eloquent and effective advocates for the NDIS. He said the following about the cost of funding the NDIS:

People with disabilities' lives do not live and die around an election. We're here for good and if you want to make permanent gains, you've got to give permanent funding.

The government should heed the advice of Kurt regarding funding. They should also support the amendments that my colleagues will make in the other place to strengthen this bill. As I said, the National Disability Insurance Scheme is a contract that Australia as a prosperous first-world social democracy has with people with disability, and unfortunately for my constituents this potential is not being realised.