Minister Shorten interview on the ABC RN Breakfast with Patricia Karvelas

FRIDAY 17 MAY 2024

SUBJECTS: Opposition budget reply; NDIS savings measures; Melbourne University building occupation; Fatima Payman statement

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, last night delivered his reply to this week's budget, vowing to slash permanent migration by 45,000 a year and to cut the public service and reaffirming his commitment to nuclear power. We invited Peter Dutton on to RN Breakfast, he declined. Meanwhile, three days on from the Tuesday budget, the government is continuing to sell its key measures, including tax cuts, the $300 in energy relief for every household and its vision to make Australia a renewable energy superpower. It's also vowed to save more than $14 billion by making the National Disability Insurance Scheme more sustainable. Bill Shorten is the Minister for the NDIS and has many hats, actually. Welcome. He's not wearing a hat right now though. Hello, welcome to the program.


KARVELAS: It's a hatless Bill Shorten, it's Friday. We're both in the studio together. Let's talk first about the alternative vision for the country. We've put the budget reply from Peter Dutton, we've received it. We've heard what he's had to say. The opposition leader declined to come on the program, but he has called for a 25% reduction in permanent migration. Is that a wise idea given we do have an acute housing crisis?

SHORTEN: Well, let's look at the problem that's trying to be solved. We need to build more houses in Australia. There's pressure on the available housing supply. Actually, both sides have talked about trying to reduce some of the pressure caused by large numbers of people coming to Australia. Mr. Dutton has offered one way, but the real criteria, I feel, is that you look at net overseas migration. That is both the number of people who become permanent Australians and many of them are actually living here already. But the real I think, sweet spot is we've had a peak after Covid in people coming to Australia. What we need to do is reduce, I think, in a structured way, the number of visas we're issuing for people to come to this country. We want to get it back to its long-term average. So, we've focused on getting better quality international student courses and reducing the number of international student visas we issue. That's already starting to prove some dividends in the first few months. So, we've reduced that by 35%. We think we're on track to halve net overseas migration between the peak last year and the end of next financial year.

KARVELAS: Okay. But he wants to get it to 140,000. Isn't, isn't that a -

SHORTEN: That's where the language is a bit tricky. He said, I want to reduce the number of permanent citizens that we issue from 180,000 to 140,000. But that isn't - a lot of these people are already here. The real issue, I think, is the number of people who come here annually by any means, be they becoming citizens or temporary visas. We're focusing on the net overseas migration numbers. So, you know, I thought it was a bit of a slogan. I thought it was - I thought last night's budget reply was lightweight. It was a collection of slogans and Band-Aids for his base. I mean, legitimate to talk about housing. I think what he didn't say is who's going to build the houses, and we're investing in more tradies. He didn't have any costings. And there was one measure which I listened to because, oh, that's novel. He said, oh, we're going to stop foreigners buying our houses. But then I went back and checked overnight. In the last two years, less than 5000 foreigners have bought houses. So that's about 2500 a year. So, he was going to stop that for two years. We're going to need more than 2500 houses a year.

KARVELAS: He also talked about knife crime and having a consistency across the country on laws. You've also talked tough on knife crime. Should the federal government be taking a bigger leadership role here?

SHORTEN: I think they're already doing it. I think - you know, I've done a number of budget reply speeches as opposition leader. I had a feeling last night that his budget reply was a collection of focus groups strung together. Oh, they want to hear about that. Let's talk about that. It's legitimate to talk about knife crime. We've just put in place measures to protect our Services Australia staff around Australia. Bondi was just shocking. I know the Attorney Generals are talking about it. I know that the Queensland and New South Wales government have got strategies. The reality is that policing is done by the states. The Commonwealth should have a role in helping pull it together. We're doing that. Sure, it's a legitimate issue, but there's already work underway.

KARVELAS: Let's turn to your portfolio, the NDIS. Tuesday's budget talks about reining in spending on the NDIS, with anticipated savings of almost $28 billion over the next four years. Won't that mean a huge cut in services for many NDIS participants?

SHORTEN: No, not at all. Because we're actually going to, we spent $42 billion this year, we're going to spend $46 billion next year. By the fourth year, we're going to invest $60 billion in the NDIS. So, when we say $14 billion, that is a large number. But when you put it in the context that we're going to invest over $200 billion, the $14 billion, whilst it's important and significant, actually is far less drastic for people on the scheme than it sounds. But I love the NDIS. I think about it when I get up in the morning to when I go to bed at night. The reality is it is growing too fast. Now, I think that - we still want the scheme to grow under our measures. This is not a cut, we still want the scheme to grow by 8% in three years, but it can't keep growing at 20%. So, we're putting in place measures to stop money being wasted.

KARVELAS: So obviously everyone would accept that rorts, for instance, need to be cracked down on. I want to talk about the other part of the savings, though. Does that mean as an individual, if you're on the NDIS, there will effectively be a cap on how much service you can get, because there's been an over servicing on individuals?

SHORTEN: The key word I said in my last answer was we want to stop the waste. That's more than just rorts. What we're seeing is plans, you get a - what happens is you get an annual NDIS plan. What we're seeing is a lot of plans being spent quicker than the 12 months, and we want some more ability to look under the bonnet of why that's happening. In some cases, that's completely legitimate. If your electric wheelchair breaks down, fine. That's got to be replaced. Maybe the initial plan didn't fully assess the needs. But this is all part of a long-term reform plan where we want to focus that the money, we invest in the scheme on participants is focused on outcomes, not just inputs. The scheme, the Labor costs in the scheme, are north of 80% of 42 billion. We just want to make sure that people aren't being over serviced or are under, you know, not getting the value they want. We'll do all of this in co-design with people with disability. But this is not about wholesale cuts to people. What it is about is saying we need to have supports outside the NDIS, so it's not the only lifeboat in the ocean.

KARVELAS: Was there adequate forecasting done on this scheme? I mean it's $14 billion blow out. Why is that happening? What’s wrong?

SHORTEN: I think that's a really legitimate point. And as Minister, you know, the NDIS is a bit like the universe. You learn something new every day. It teaches a new lesson. There's something called estimates variation. So you get a forecast for the year and then at the end of the year, oh my lord, the estimates variations come in and it's much higher now, I'm pleased to say the estimate variations under Labor, in other words, what we forecast are what's actually happening, the blow outs are getting smaller, but it is an issue. When the scheme was set up, there was a lot of unmet need. Just people weren't getting the support. This is the best scheme in the world and it's changing lives. And a lot of great service providers and workers doing things, we're seeing very positive outcomes, but it's been money sprayed into a system where I don't think there is enough accountability for outcomes, and participants deserve better. One of the things we're doing is we've worked out with the ACCC a new law which says that when you're on the NDIS and you're receiving a service, an identical service to someone who's not on it, you shouldn't be charged more because you're on the NDIS. This is what we call the wedding tax. You know that cliche that a young couple, when they're getting married, turn up to the caterer to tell them you're getting married? The price goes up. This is happening with the NDIS and it's now illegal.

KARVELAS: Until now, participants, as I say, can spend the funds in their plan and then request a top up. So, is it the top up that's going?

SHORTEN: That is part of it - it's the automatic rollover of increases is not going to be automatic, but people still have the right to request more. And if the evidence is there will absolutely happen.

KARVELAS: What will be the consequence for providers who have been doing the wrong thing?

SHORTEN: Well, there's unethical conduct and unethical conduct covers from overservicing to under-delivering to overcharging. And then there's straight illegality. A lot of service providers get frustrated when I even talk about problems in the scheme. They say we're demonising what they do. I'm not demonising what service providers do, but because I love the scheme, you've got to tell the truth. And the truth is that ten years ago it didn't exist. Now there's $42 billion, appropriately, you know, being invested in people with disability. But the job of the scheme wasn't to create NDIS millionaires, with pop up businesses treating their participants as human ATMs. So, the truth is that a lot of good things are happening. A lot of good people are working hard every day, but there is a long tail, and it's the unfortunate fact that when there's government money and government schemes, if it's not properly stewarded, some people try to have a lend of the scheme. I'm not talking about the participants, but there are service providers, some of whom are dodgy.

KARVELAS: So, participants, some, are fearing that the consequences at the moment. You have to manage that and there are some who are raising concerns that this is still the focus of the government. How are you going to get them on side?

SHORTEN: Well, it is - I can understand the anxiety of change. If you've battled you and you've finally got something, you are, you know, you are going to hang on to it. And that's fair enough. And when you talk about change, the muscle memory under the previous government was pretty brutal propositions. But what I would say to those people is that we are budgeting for the scheme to increase every year. We are forecasting there will be more people on the scheme next year than there were this year. What I would say is that not changing at all risks the scheme as much as radical, stupid change. I think there's three options. Do nothing, pretend there's not a problem, you know, hum to yourself, go la la la. And all of a sudden, we wake up one day and the scheme is just kaput. The alternative is the sort of neo-con approach to just slash it, cap it, ration it, give it back to big bureaucracies to administer in little rations for people. We want choice and control. So, the third option is sensible reform. I'm not Nostradamus. The reality is the people who know what to do are people in the scheme.

KARVELAS: But do you think $60 billion, I know you're paring it back and a lot of people understand why, but that still seems like a huge amount of money to be spending. Is it still too much?

SHORTEN: No, I don't think so. It's funny, isn't it? The critique on one hand is any change means people are getting cuts and that's terrible. And on the other hand, when you look at the amount that you say, $60 billion, everyone says that's too much. So, we've got to thread this needle. I know the scheme is changing lives. It is all about individual packages of support so people can have fulfilling lives. We're doing better than the rest of the world. I think at the ten-year stage, even taking out Coalition mismanagement, this is a conversation we were always going to have. We've now - it was a young scheme coming to maturity, now we've learned some lessons. We'll just keep working with people with disability to make it the best outcome for people with disability. And it's not one day, there's no big bang. It's a journey. But we've got to, I think, get the guide rails right. What we're doing in this first term of government is essentially putting down the train tracks if you like, the direction, because it hasn't had that sort of love and attention that I think it deserves.

KARVELAS: Just on another issue, before I let you go, because I can't help myself. I have so many things to ask you, although I should let my panel start speaking soon, there's an occupation of a building at Melbourne University in relation to Gaza. It seems that police will be brought in to break it up. Do you think that's appropriate?

SHORTEN: Well, the first thing would be best if the people left the building. Occupying -

KARVELAS: I think they're unlikely to.

SHORTEN: Yes, but the problem is, occupying the building, whatever you think of the arguments they're making, is counterproductive. It's a bit like burning books for literacy, stopping kids going to university, that's not on. I've supported protest, even if some of the protests don't like everything I say, and I don't have to agree with everything they say. I do think that's part of a democracy. But when you go out of your way to stop other kids learning, I think that's a mistake. I wouldn't - I don't want to see the police go in, but I'd like to see the people leave. But that's really in part on the people who were there. Like, make your point, but don't stop other kids learning. That, to me is a step towards the dark ages.

KARVELAS: Fatima Payman has delivered comments that were directed at the Prime Minister. She ended with ‘from the river to the sea’ as a slogan. And as you know, the Coalition says, will the Prime Minister take her off the joint standing Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee? Do you think she should be pulled off?

SHORTEN: I didn't agree - I mean, she's a passionate woman. She's got her views and she's advocating that. I agree with the Prime Minister that from the river to the sea, whilst for some people it sounds innocuous or a statement of what they think, it correlates with the rise in anti-Semitism, and it does mean that there can't be a two-state solution and it's a violent statement. Where it goes, that's a matter for the PM and for the senator. But I don't agree with the statement. And you know, I think it causes fear.

KARVELAS: Okay, but do you think she should stay on a committee like that? I mean, it's a Foreign Affairs committee.

SHORTEN: Well, I'm not the person who's going to make that decision.

KARVELAS: What do you think, though?

SHORTEN: If I was on it and I had that much disagreement, I probably would decide to make a contribution in some other way. But -

KARVELAS: So, you think maybe she should -

SHORTEN: No, that's up to her and up to the Prime Minister and the and the team. But I think what the Prime Minister has said on this is, is correct.

KARVELAS: Bill Shorten, thank you.

SHORTEN: Thank you.