Minister Shorten interview on ABC RN Breakfast with Patricia Karvelas


SUBJECTS: NDIS reform; accessibility to support outside the NDIS for people with disability; Australia/New Zealand/Canada joint statement on Gaza; protests at electorate offices

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: It's no secret the National Disability Insurance Scheme is one of the fastest growing budget pressures for the federal government. Last year, the Government announced it would limit NDIS growth to 8% a year, primarily by providing assistance to neurodiverse children through state-based education. But this week in Senate estimates, the National Disability Insurance Agency refused to detail the assumptions behind that decision or how it came to the figure of $74 billion saved over a decade. Bill Shorten, of course, is the Minister for the NDIS and for Government Services, and he joins us this morning. Minister welcome back.


KARVELAS: The Government has been accused of not being transparent with the public about who will or won't be included in the NDIS over the coming years as you limit the expanding budget, can you give us a sense of some clarity, given there are so many concerns about this?

SHORTEN: Yeah. What's prompted this debate is in Parliament, they have periodically what's called estimates. That's where Liberal and other senators get to interrogate the Government about what we're doing. What Labor's done since we got elected in May of 2022 is we want to get the NDIS back on track. I listened to your opening very carefully where you said it's about restraining growth to 8% by about 2026. Actually, what I want to do with the NDIS is make sure that it's true to purpose, make sure that it's changing lives, make sure that we get rid of the shonks out of the Scheme, and make sure that it's sustainable for future generations.

One of the issues is that the Scheme's been growing faster than expected. Now, part of that's because there was unmet need with people with disability in Australia and the old state systems were just missing people. But what we also have seen is that it's a bit of a desert for kids with developmental delays or diagnoses of autism. And what I mean by desert is that if it's not NDIS support, there's nothing. Now, the NDIS was not meant to deal with all kids with developmental delays. It was just for the kids who might have more, be further along the autism spectrum and have a bigger impact, which is having a bigger impact on them. But the problem is it's become the only lifeboat in the ocean.

But where I disagree with the sort of standard Liberal attack dog rubbish of last week, sorry, of this week just passed, it’s Friday, is that we have been transparent. We've done a review where there were thousands of submissions, many hearings. Pretty much all I've done for the last two years is talk and more importantly, listen about the NDIS. We are now, for the first time ever in Australian history, getting the states and the federal government to work collaboratively to provide supports outside the scheme for kids whose needs mightn't be as intense as kids on the NDIS.

But, you know, there are 640,000 or so people on the NDIS. We've had lots of debates about how we can improve the scheme, and we've outlined a five-year plan to improve the scheme. The Scheme is a bit like a ship stuck in the Suez Canal. It's a bit hard to turn it around, but our aim is to make sure that all of Australia is accessible and inclusive for people with disability, not just for people on the NDIS.

KARVELAS: Okay. But in terms of the growth that you do want to rein in, you have clearly got an idea of where and it must be based on some assumptions. Why not share them?

SHORTEN: Oh, we do share our assumptions. We have said that what we want to do is make, the overarching thing decisions made in the best interests of participants, return it true to purpose. There's a lot of - not a lot sorry, but there's quite a large number of service providers, many of whom do a great job, but some of whom have moved into the NDIS world and are delivering substandard service and just making millions of dollars. We want to straighten out the shonky providers. We want to eliminate the crooked ones, which are a very small proportion, but nonetheless, that's still not an acceptable practice, to rip off people with disability. We've said we want to overhaul early intervention and make sure that kids are getting the right supports. We've said that we'd like to see universal screening of kids for developmental delay earlier, because all the science and evidence shows that if we can identify a child's needs earlier and start working with them, then that's a plus. We've also said that we want to make sure that the planning process is better. Some people have - plenty of people have complained to me that whilst the Scheme is changing lives, it can be an inconsistent experience that they feel they have a good meeting with a planner to, you know, go on the scheme and then when they get their plan, they feel it was for someone else. So, we want to improve the quality of decision making in the NDIS.

KARVELAS: Okay, so we mentioned the states a little earlier right, and what they should be doing. Let's talk about their role. Part of the reason the Scheme is so expensive is because they relinquished a lot of what they're meant to do. How are you going to actually get them back in, taking control over the area where you've explained, you think there's been this growth?

SHORTEN: Well, the states have actually - it's been good working with them. Last December, so only two months ago, there was a meeting of what's called the national cabinet. It's just all the Premiers and the Prime Minister. And at that meeting, the states agreed that they would up their contribution to the NDIS. It was meant to be a 50/50 deal, 50% of the Scheme is funded from the feds and 50% from the states. The state contributions become progressively smaller. So, the states have said, hey, we think the scheme is important, so they're going to increase their contribution. So that's good.

But I think even more significantly, the states and the federal government, because it's not just on the states, have said that we want to start creating a scaffolding of what we call foundational supports. That's a bit jargonistic, but what it means is it shouldn't be the NDIS or nothing. The NDIS shouldn't be the only off ramp for a family with a child who might be experiencing developmental delays or has a diagnosis of autism. What was a bit, you know, a regrettable about some of the Liberal speculation, I suppose that's their day job to throw mud, but what was regrettable about it is the implication that somehow, if it's not the NDIS, it's nothing. And that's - we understand that before we can fully implement our changes to the NDIS, we need the states, with the feds, to be providing less intensive supports for kids whose needs aren't as great but do need support as they deal with a non-standard developmental journey.

KARVELAS: You said earlier this week that you suspect NDIS funding spending was tracking up in the financial year, because people are sort of rushing to get on the scheme. How significant could that be on the budget?

SHORTEN: Well, we've always assumed that to get to an 8% targeted growth in 2026/27, that it will still be above that for the next couple of years. And it's always the case that when you say that we're going to reform the scheme, that there'll be a bit of nervousness and people might rush to try and get on the scheme before they think it shuts. I think once people realise that it's not all or nothing, then I think everyone will be less anxious. I don't begrudge a parent who wants to just get the best they can for their child. I don't begrudge that at all. But what we have seen is that the NDIS is a large response, and perhaps sometimes people don't need the large response. But if it's all or nothing, I know what I'd do as a parent.

KARVELAS: That's right. So, this is the issue, isn't it? And at some point, the nervousness comes down to people wanting to know you know, will there be some people on the autism spectrum who are no longer being able to get well?

SHORTEN: The Scheme was never designed for all. Autism is a spectrum. It was not designed for all people on the spectrum. The other thing about early intervention is that the NDIS is not assumed that a child who's getting early intervention is on the NDIS for the next 70 years, but we need to make sure that our interventions are working, that they're quality, they're having meaning. Some kids will be on the Scheme for life and that won't change. All of our changes are about years, not months or weeks. And if we're going to improve the rate of growth of the scheme, then we have to build supports outside the scheme. So, nothing happens overnight. The scheme under Labor's plans will continue to grow. There'll be more people on it and there'll be more invested in it.

KARVELAS: So, you say you have to build the other stuff, that makes sense, or people will clearly end up losing out quite significantly. And I don't think that's the consequence that any government would want on their hands. Does that mean that your timeline for reining in the growth may be delayed?

SHORTEN: No, because we've factored in that it's going to take years. Our timeline is that the Scheme will have double digit growth for the next two years anyway. This is genuinely just about the best interests of people with disability in Australia. The NDIS world leading and it's here to stay. It's changing lives. I helped create it with a lot of rank-and-file people with disability, with service providers, with advocates and through the political system, its world leading. But at the ten-year mark, the fact is that there are some problems with the Scheme, and everyone would agree. There are some service providers, frankly, who are not accountable. Are there are some intervention strategies which aren't delivering the outcomes promised. And what has happened is that because it's so big, it's like a big tree. Nothing can sort of grow underneath its shade. And we do need to build a whole system for people with disability. To some extent, perhaps policy makers, and it's not a deliberate thing, ten years ago and eight years ago said, well, we have the NDIS, so our work here is done on disability. The reality is we need a more accessible Australia, a more inclusive Australia, full stop. There's a lot of Australians with a disability who don't require being on the NDIS, but they still need to have accessible transport. We need to have support in schools. We need to make sure that our hospital system recognises that people with disability are real, and we need to make sure that we have better community interventions for people with milder forms of mental health challenge, because if we don't have that, then their mental health challenges become more severe. So, I just think this is the next stage and at all at all points, we're interested in getting it right for the participant, because I think if we get it right for people with disability, then some of the costs blowouts and excesses start to sort themselves out.

KARVELAS: Okay, just on another topic and a very important one. Yesterday, the Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada and New Zealand penned a joint letter calling for an immediate humanitarian cease fire and calling a planned military operation in Gaza catastrophic. Is it too late to convince Israel not to go ahead?

SHORTEN: Australia is not the biggest - we're not the key player in the Middle East, but I think we are a respected voice and I think Australians want us to use our voice to advocate for a pathway out of the conflict. Now we understand that this latest conflict started through Hamas’ terrible actions on October the 7th, and we've been advocating for the release of hostages. There's still well over 100 hostages who were kidnapped brutally from their own houses. And we haven't got that. We've also been advocating, though, that there's got to be humanitarian assistance for ordinary Palestinians caught up in a struggle not of their making. We want to see international law upheld. We also want to make sure that the region doesn't escalate, and Iran really needs to be more accountable for the way they're sponsoring some of this shocking terrorism from the Houthis through to Hamas. And we want to have steps towards a sustainable ceasefire, which obviously can't be one sided. So, you know, I believe, and I know that the Prime Minister and Penny, our foreign Minister, believe that the only Long Terme solution for peace, security and dignity for Israelis and Palestinians has to be through a two-state solution.

KARVELAS: Yes, but we constantly see more and more reports. For instance, today there is another story about what's happening in a hospital right now. And, you know, we're finding out more and more details. The Health Ministry in Gaza says patients and medics are enduring dire and frightening conditions at a major hospital raided by Israeli soldiers. Is that raid justified?

SHORTEN: Well, I think a lot of this most recent disaster is triggered from Hamas and their actions on October the 7th. But we, the Government, have expressed grave concerns about an impending major Israeli ground offensive in Rafah in southern Gaza. It's going to bring further devastation to more than a million civilians seeking shelter in Rafah. So, you know, we recognize fundamentally that large scale military operations in densely populated areas risk extensive civilian casualties. But I also recognise that there are hostages who Hamas won't give back, and some of them have died. And, you know, the whole situation is diabolical. And what Australia is trying to do is to do what we can to advocate for that sustainable ceasefire, which has to be all sides, not just Israel.

KARVELAS: I just want to take you just in the last minute we have together, Bill Shorten to what's happened to your Melbourne electorate office. You've been targeted a couple of times now, graffiti and other things. How would you describe the state of community and racial cohesion in our country right now?

SHORTEN: Well, it's at a very low point. I'm someone who really enjoys mixing with our constituents and getting out and about. The vast bulk of people are excellent. But there's no doubt that we've seen a rise in anti-Semitism, we've seen a rise in the sort of ugly intolerance which, to be honest, I haven't seen in my time in Parliament. And for those people who would seek to vandalise who say somehow the events elsewhere justify law breaking here, they're wrong. It doesn't help any advocacy; it just gets people's backs up. Anyway, 99% of Aussies are just excellent, so…

KARVELAS: But you say you've never seen it this bad.

SHORTEN: Yeah. I think there is a level of intensity and intolerance and a sense that if you don't mention – anyway, I think it's over the top and I think it's counterproductive. And I think a lot of Australians just say, don't bring - I think Aussies recognised people are entitled to an opinion, and I recognise that people have got strong feelings about these issues and that's fair enough. But when it crosses a line, don't tell me that's justified, because it's not. And I think a lot of Australians say you're allowed to have an opinion. That's fair enough. You're allowed to speak your mind. That's fair enough. But don't escalate your arguments here in this country. We're very lucky here, and people don't want to see a repetition of conflicts elsewhere here.

KARVELAS: Minister, thanks for joining us.

SHORTEN: Thank you.

KARVELAS: That's the Minister for the NDIS and Government Services, Bill Shorten. You're listening to breakfast.