Minister Shorten interview with Josh Szeps


JOSH SZEPS: The NDIS costs more than the entire Medicare system. It costs more than aged care. How do you make a system that's so important, yet now so big and unwieldy work best and be sustainable? That's the question that's being raised at this big NDIS conference in Sydney, a two-day conference on the future of the scheme. Today, the Minister for the NDIS, Bill Shorten, will address the conference. The Minister joins me now. Thanks for being here, Minister.


SZEPS: Even some of the people who originally designed the NDIS are worried that it may be losing its way. Are you?

SHORTEN: Oh, listen, I've got to say that the scheme is much better than I think your introduction gives it credit for. Yes, it is growing faster than expected. Yes, I think the scheme can be run better. But I just want to fundamentally reassure all those hundreds of thousands of people with disability who may be listening to this show, who keep reading the sort of disaster media on it, the scheme is here to stay. We just want to make sure every dollar gets through to the people for whom it was designed. Also, just one little sort of point I make is people compare it to Medicare. It's certainly a universal scheme. But when you look at the cost of health care in Australia, including hospitals and everything else, the NDIS is nowhere near as the same dimension of cost and we are changing lives every day with the scheme. So yes, it can be run better, but it's fundamentally a great thing.

SZEPS: Your point about Medicare being that Medicare doesn't pay for all the state run health care that we get?

SHORTEN: [Inaudible]

SZEPS: Mr. Shorten?


SZEPS: Sorry. It just sounded like you were hopping in and out of a submarine. The Chairman of the Albanese Government's independent review into the NDIS says that participants who have psychosocial disorders are often getting help from care workers who aren't necessarily trained to support them towards recovery and that their carers are often doing a great job of providing NDIS services. But the sustainability of the scheme isn't really there if people are staying on it and aren't adequately trained in getting people into jobs and off the scheme. Is that a concern you share?

SHORTEN: It's an issue. But again, any media coverage that says that the scheme is not sustainable, I just don't accept the start of that proposition. But it is the state …

SZEPS: Well, hang on. Can we just- let's just pause there then if you're going to raise that a couple of times. So we've got more than half a million Australians who are participants in the NDIS, 10 per cent of boys between 5 and 7. The NDIS’ own latest annual financial sustainability report which was released in November says it'll hit $89 billion in 2032, with more than a million participants and the upward end of those forecast is $115 billion. The ABC costs $1 billion. We're talking about $115 billion program. Would that be sustainable?

SHORTEN: You're the first person who said that we should measure the scheme's costs by reference to the ABC. I'm just saying- I'm not disagreeing with the issues about could the scheme be run better? Is there waste? Are there practices which shouldn't be funded? So I'm not saying that. But I guess what I am doing is- for people with disability, when they hear people generally talk about the sustainability of the scheme first and then them second, they think, oh my God, here we go again, we're just on the chopping block. So whilst I don't mean to sort of annoy you or get you off side in this interview, I am going to keep correcting media people who start any discussion about the NDIS from saying it's a crisis. It can be run better. And so you talk about- you used about three different points there and let's go to some of them. One of the challenges for a family that has a beautiful baby or a little child with a developmental delay is that the NDIS is the only option. Whereas quite often some little children may not need a full NDIS package, they just need some assistance for a period of time so that they can then get the best out of their school years. So the challenge there is not if the scheme is sustainable. The challenge is what are we doing outside of the scheme to provide supports for people who might not need to be on the scheme. But if there's only one off ramp for developmental delay in little kids, then everything becomes an NDIS answer.

SZEPS: I take that point Minister.

SHORTEN: I’m respectful of the point you're making about cost, and we're proposing a series of reforms over the next three and a half, four years, which we think will moderate the growth trajectory. But it is important that people with disability don't have to hear a sort of a headline debate in the media that somehow say they're too expensive, because they're simply not. Disability could be any of us at any time. But I do think there are rorts and scams we need to learn. Another thing which really gets on my goat, Josh, is when you see assistive technology, could be something as basic as an aluminium shower chair. I've seen ads for the identical product, and one when it's- when the word NDIS appears in front of it, the price is four times as much, but it's the same product. And you're quite right about what is the right sort of care. I think one of the things which has happened in the scheme is that we focused on paying for inputs, you know, hours of attention, hours of therapy. Whereas what I do think we need to do is have an overdue conversation. What's the outcome we want for this person? A classic example is that we have 60 to 70 per cent of people have annual plans or less. What that means is it becomes an annual merry go round to get the plan right. If we make the default plan setting longer, then all of a sudden we stop paying for reports just to reprove that someone's blind or someone's a quadriplegic.

SZEPS: Right. Mr. Shorten, I take your point that you don't want- you don't want to be beating this drum. And I take your criticism …

SHORTEN: It’s about frightening people. Yeah.

SZEPS: I take your criticism of the media as a whole, as- you know, institutionally, that there's a lot of click-baity hysteria about the cost of the NDIS and you don't want the message to be that disabled people aren't worth it or something. But if I was living with a disability, I mean, I don't want to tell you how to do your job, but if I was living with a disability …

SHORTEN: That's all right. You’ll be the first person who does it.

SZEPS: I would also want to know that the Minister was taking seriously the worries about …

SHORTEN: Oh yeah. No question.

SZEPS: … about the expansion of the of the system. I mean, I would be more worried- you know, I would want to know and be reassured that it's sustainable and that it's on an even keel and …

SHORTEN: Yes, you’re right. And people- you're spot on. People with disability- once they realise that this isn’t about butchering them and the scheme, then they’re certainly up for a reform discussion. I've seen some people say that people with disability don't care about how much the scheme is costing or if they're being overcharged. They absolutely do. They absolutely do. So you're right. I don't underestimate…

SZEPS: And you- sorry, Minister. And I would just also add that, you know, I'm not the one who's making these accusations. I'm literally…

SHORTEN: No, and you’re reflecting what you're seeing in the community. I get that.

SZEPS: Yeah. And also from experts, I mean, it was the Albanese Government's own independent review - the Chairman of that, Professor Bonyhady, who I was quoting, who…

SHORTEN: I appointed him.

SZEPS: Yeah, exactly. That's right. And he's the one who was saying that we need to find ways to get people off the NDIS as well as on it.

SHORTEN: I've said that too. I suppose- and maybe I've come across more pedantic than I've meant to because that's not what I'm trying to do. It's a bit more basic than that. Absolutely, I want to fix the scheme. I think the cost growth is too high, but what I want to do is- the reforms that we enact are about getting the best interest for the participant. It's about making sure every dollar gets through to the people who the scheme was designed for. So yeah, and maybe, perhaps some listeners will think I'm splitting hairs. Do you talk about the scheme's future first and then the cost of it, or do you talk about the cost of it then the scheme? I would rather start with the view that an Australian with profound or severe disability in their family don't have to worry if we're trying to make the scheme better in fact it's in their interests.

SZEPS: Bill Shorten is with us, the Minister for the NDIS and Government Services. It's 7:45. You’re with Josh Szeps on ABC Radio Sydney. Mr. Shorten will be giving a big speech to the NDIS conference that's taking place at Darling Harbor today, a big two-day conference on the future of the scheme. And Minister, just- let's just address, I guess, a couple of areas where you may be able to save money and tell me whether it works or not. So I flagged the one about the claim that there are under-trained NDIS practitioners not prioritising plans to transition people out of the system and into work. The other one is whether or not the NDIS is plugging gaps left by the education system. You know, we've got 10 per cent of boys between 5 and 7 on the NDIS. I know anecdotally, as the father of five year olds, that there are a lot of people- and I'm even being encouraged, oh well, you know, I mean, if you get them tested and then if you get them into the NDIS before they're seven, then, you know, they're in the system. We know that they have this condition and then they'll get benefits later on. I mean, it feels like you could get the Education Minister Jason Clare in a room with all the state and territory education ministers and say it is not the NDIS’ job to help every unruly boy do better in class by classifying them as having a disability.

SHORTEN: Josh, you're spot on. On the two points you mentioned, one about the schools. I am worried. I mean, I helped set up the scheme and then of course we had nine years in opposition. I've come back. I'm worried that in the meantime the school systems are not providing the educational support sufficiently- universally across the system for kids with developmental delays. The NDIS was not designed to be the reserve education system for people with disability. Now, of course, like every generalisation, there's a lot of schools doing good things, a lot of special needs, special-ed teachers doing great things. But the general principle you're saying is right. I speak to so many families who are made to feel like bullies when they stick up for their kid in the school system. So it does make the NDIS attractive because at least they feel they're getting the specialised support they're not getting elsewhere. But the NDIS wasn't meant to replace the school system. So that's a classic example. And you talk about, you know, when parents of kids with a developmental delay at three, four and five, have been saying get on the NDIS, at least you'll get something, that was going to that earlier point where if there's nothing else then the solution always looks like NDIS doesn't it?

SZEPS: Right.

SHORTEN: And that wasn't the intent.

SZEPS: And in fact- I mean, one of the other accusations, Minister, is that, you know, there has been an intentional withdrawal of services by state and territory governments because they know that the NDIS is there to mop up their dysfunction. I mean, should there have been a provision in the NDIS in the first place that states could not withdraw services so that the NDIS would have to fill the gap?

SHORTEN: Well, states bristle when we say these things and you've got a new Disability Minister in New South Wale who I think is going to be one of the great disability ministers across the states - Kate Washington. So it's not about her I refer, but yes, I- unarguably, I believe the states have retreated from a range of disability services over the years and said that's an NDIS matter. It's not just the states. It's other federal departments, local government, you name it. And also the states originally were contributing 50 per cent of the cost of the scheme. Their contribution is now down to the low 30 per cent. So whether or not they contribute more generally to the scheme or they provide more inclusion support outside the system, outside the NDIS- NDIS is part of the infrastructure to help people with disability have fulfilling lives, but there's plenty that the states can do from building standards to accessible transport to the schools. So yeah, I do share that hypothesis that you put to me.

SZEPS: Minister, it's great to talk to you. Good luck today. I hope it all goes well and I hope you manage to get your arms around it.

SHORTEN: Thanks for putting up with the way I structure sentences.

SZEPS: No problem. On the text line, Grant in Glebe says I've never heard Bill Shorten sound so human. It's a nice thing. So maybe you need to get stuck into me a bit more.

SHORTEN: No. Josh. It's great that you talk about disability. That's what matters.

SZEPS: Have a good one. Take care.


SZEPS: See you. That's Bill Shorten who's the Minister for NDIS and Government Services.