Minister Shorten interview on ABC Radio National with Patricia Karvelas




SUBJECTS: Eliminating fraud and overcharging in the NDIS; Getting The NDIS Back On Track bill; Service Australia speechwriter; violent protests at MP’s offices

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Major concerns about fraud within the National Disability Insurance Scheme have been put in the spotlight this week. Senate estimates hearings have heard cases of NDIS money being used for drugs, but it's still unclear just how deep the problems go. At the same time, the Government has introduced new legislation for the NDIS that would help to bring in more than $14 billion of savings over coming years. Bill Shorten is the Minister for the NDIS and Government Services and he is our guest. Minister, welcome.


KARVELAS: We've known fraud has been an issue in the system, but we still don't know how widespread it is. Why don't we know yet the level of this fraud?

SHORTEN: Because crooks don't self-report. That's why we don't know the full extent of it. But when I was the opposition spokesperson, I was critical of the last Government for not investing in the integrity of the back office of the Scheme, the payments integrity and scrutiny. But when I became Minister, I discovered the problem was far worse than I could have possibly imagined having. And so, I've put in place just absolutely heaps of stuff. And that's why we're talking about it today because we're seeing some of the results of the tens, hundreds of millions of dollars that we're investing.

I set up a Fraud Fusion Task Force by about October of the first year that we were in power, and I got a very clever man, I sort of encouraged him to come and work at the NDIA from the ATO, Mr. John Dardo, the man who was giving the evidence and reporting on his findings. But it's $126 million task force that for the first time, 19 different Government agencies are comparing information so that we can track the crooks and the opportunists.

KARVELAS: You've said you've created this fraud task force, and you have, right? You've increased resourcing to the commission. So, I think you thought it was about 5%. What is it, around 10%, the fraud. What do we know the figure to be?

SHORTEN: I hear different guesstimates. The best data that I can get is that we've got 20 prosecutions in the courts and over 12 ready to, you know, hop off the runway, that we've got 510 compliance investigations from the Safeguards Commission, that we've got literally hundreds of investigations where we're proving up what's happening. So, it's unacceptable and it must run, and Mr. Dardo said that it must run into billions. I mean, the Scheme is now $42 billion. I think there's been naivety and negligence in terms of the management of the Scheme by some of the previous Government, when we were in opposition, we found that they had a couple of, only two investigation teams in the National Disability Insurance Agency and they weren't even fully staffed. We've been trying to draw attention to this matter, and now we're in Government, we're actually investing $300 million in better software.

I'm going to tell you a story, which I think your listeners will, you know, practically drive off the road.

KARVELAS: I hope they don't, but yes.

SHORTEN: I hope they don't.

KARVELAS: But I get your point.

SHORTEN: That when I said, Mr. Dardo said that it has an immature payment system, he's sort of been polite what we found and we've changed this now, is that for all the claims which come in daily, you know, invoices, only 20 were being checked, 20 or 21 a day, and in fact, between 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on a given day, if you put in a claim, it was just paid. Like, there was zero checking of any claim between 5:00 pm and 6:30 p.m. because, you know, again, I guess no good deed goes unpunished. The previous Government just wanted to get money out to participants. But you've got to have some, you've got to have a 24-hour lag so you can check. We now check thousands of them a day.

KARVELAS: Okay. So, there's a lot of work going into it, I appreciate that. Um, but you say billions could be rorted, billions. This isn't the first Government Scheme where we've invested a lot of money. Why has rorting in this particular Scheme been so bad?

SHORTEN: Well, whether or not it's any worse than what was in the first ten years of Medicare, or when the colony of Victoria built train lines past politicians houses, you know, I think that ever since there's been Government money, there's been some people trying to take being opportunistic.

KARVELAS: So, you think it's about the same as what the Medicare rorting was originally?

SHORTEN: Listen, as I said at the start of this interview, you know exactly how much is being rorted as I said to you, quite seriously, crooks don't self-report. So, what we've got to do is not just do whack a mole, which is what we're doing. We've intensively increased resources at the Safeguards Commission and the NDIA while we try and catch people, detect them, increase the industrial level of our policing, so to speak.

But we've got to change the system so that structurally, people can't access the back door of the Scheme. That's where, you know, prevention is far better than detection. That's why getting the NDIA to be able to talk to the ATO, and we're going to put in laws to make sure that the smooth transfer of information can occur, the reason why that, for example, needs to be done is um, we found that a survey of 900 plan managers, these are people who manage people's plans, 350 or so of the companies had declared no income to the ATO, even though the NDIA had paid the money. So, this has happened in long day care. This has happened in childcare. It's happened in the vocational education area. I think there's, you know, problems with immigration, migration agents, some of them.

One of the things I've got to say, though, very quickly, is most service providers are doing the right thing, and absolutely most participants are doing the right thing. Some are vulnerable, may be getting manipulated. So, the problem whenever we talk about fraud is, on one hand, the sort of the right wing, you know, some of the far-right wing say, oh, you're not doing enough. It's almost like reporting the crime and catching the crooks, you get blamed for the crime. But then some perhaps, on the very sort of libertarian spectrum, say we shouldn't be talking about dodgy providers or if any participants doing the wrong thing, because somehow that's demonising them. The Scheme is changing hundreds of thousands of people's lives for the better. Most people are having a positive experience, but we but we've just got to clamp down on this, and that's what we've been doing since we got elected.

KARVELAS: So, the opposition's spokesman, Michael Sukkar, says that Dardo's comments, Mr. Dardo's comments over the inability to prosecute all criminals rorting the system were alarming. He says that the Government has essentially waved the white flag on more criminal prosecutions, have you?

SHORTEN: No, he would say that, wouldn't he? The only factor -

KARVELAS: But still, is there substance to the level of activity? Does there need to be changes to the law? Why aren't more people getting prosecuted?

SHORTEN: All right. Well, just to answer those five questions, the first thing is, with Michael Sukkar is, thank goodness I hired John Dardo and helped lure him across from the tax office, otherwise, Mr. Sukkar would have nothing to say. I mean, the very fact that we're talking about it, and we've set up a Fraud Fusion Task Force is because of one reason - Labor won the last election. You know, the F troop of former Ministers they had, they weren't interested. They just - they had a very small vision of the NDIS, which was a payment system, and just spray the money out into the environment and didn't worry where it landed. You know, that's why we're doing a whole lot of things about improving that we want to improve the quality of participant experiences, etc., but they paid no attention to this.

Having said that, we haven't waved the white flag. We've gone to war with the crooks. The reality is that our predecessors did two bits of bugger all, and that's the truth, you know. So, you know, great that Michael Sukkar says that, he's got a job to do.

KARVELAS: But do you want to accelerate the prosecutions?

SHORTEN: Yeah. That's why we've put in $300 million into our software, $126 million in our Fraud Fusion Task Force. That's why the Safeguards Commission is hiring its own barristers to take matters to court. Sure, I want every crook out of the Scheme. I loathe them. I think ripping off disabled people is just scum activity, and I can't stand them.

KARVELAS: Given how alarming some of these headlines have been. Are you worried that that contract with the public and that trust in the NDIS is dramatically eroding now? Is that a big risk to the system and the NDIS future?

Speaker3: At one level, it breaks my heart when there's a negative story about the NDIS because I want it to be the best it can be. No, I think, you know, do I wish that sometimes the media would report the hundreds of thousands of good news stories? Sure. But let's face it, that's pretty boring, when there's good news, you know, John or Betty are just having a better life because of the NDIS isn't really front-page news.

No, I think what I want here is just the truth I learned at the Beaconsfield Mine rescue, a very important fact I've carried with me the rest of my life. You know, the mining company wanted us to pretend that the trapped miners were having a, you know, everything was blue sky. And some are reporting the disaster. Wanted to say the men were going to die every second. The truth was somewhere in between. And the truth with the NDIS is it's just changing lives. It's an investment. But the other truth is that it's a Government Scheme and it's been under-loved and understaffed and underfunded. And there are some crooks out there and I want them gone, and we'll do everything we can to stop them.

KARVELAS: Okay. This bill, the getting the NDIS Back On Track bill, there's a clear issue. 87% of providers are not registered. And advocates say that's not addressed by this bill. Why isn't it?

SHORTEN: Because we've got to keep consulting with people with disability. The funny thing is, some of the disability advocates saying that are people who say that we don't consult. I've created - the 12-month root and branch review said that we should have one system of registration. At the moment in Australia, about 15,000 service providers are registered and about 150,000 every quarter who put in invoices are unregistered. That's not sustainable. Some people worry, though, that if we require one system of registration for all providers, people with disability will lose their choice and control or their ability to self-manage. They won't. But I've got Natalie Wade, who's a leading human rights lawyer, and a task force of experts to do the work, in terms of how should we create a registration system which is not too clunky.

But the fact of the matter is, I say to people who don't want to have all providers in some form of registration, should we really be paying an invoice for someone who says they drove someone to the shops when we can't even ask for their driver's license, or whether or not they have car insurance, or if they're putting an invoice for working with kids, when we can't even know if they've got a working with kids check. So, look, the NDIS has been a remarkable experiment in the unregistered world of just laissez faire. Just pay the money and don't worry about who or what's doing anything. That's not sustainable. There's a lot of great unregistered providers, don't get me wrong. But we can't have this system where some people have a driver's license to go on the road and others drive and don't have to have a driver's license.

KARVELAS: Minister, I must ask you, and I must for lots of reasons, but there are literally hundreds of text messages about this issue. Of course, there's been this controversy over the $600,000 contract for a speechwriter in your department. You've said that you had nothing to do with it, accepting that. Did your department make the wrong decision?

SHORTEN: Well, first of all, this speechwriter is the only person in Australia who gets their two years contract bundled up as if it's a one-year contract. It's not 600,000.

KARVELAS: Over two years, yeah?

SHORTEN: Yeah, over two years it is. But mind you -

KARVELAS: That's still a lot of money compared to the people who are texting in saying, you know, cost of living crisis.

SHORTEN: That's the first thing. You're a seasoned journalist. So, when we use a two-year salary for this woman, we don't do that for anyone else. Julianne Stewart has been a professional writer for more than 40 years. She's written speeches for Ministers, Attorney Generals, for Prime Ministers, ASX 200 CEOs, Vice Chancellors, and commercial television. She ran a team of writers in Prime Minister and Cabinet under Prime Ministers Abbott and Turnbull, of five speechwriters and a full-time letter writer.

What happened when I became the Minister is in a department of 5000 people, the one speechwriter that always had, had died. So, they advertised to employ someone. They didn't get anyone they thought was good enough, so they had to go to market and let a contract. Of course, I have nothing to do with any of that, but I'm advised her remuneration is equivalent to the lower end of a senior public servant, specialist speechwriting communication experts are rare, her experience and seniority -

KARVELAS: Okay, does that mean there are lots of others who are paid like this? If she's at the lower end.

SHORTEN: What it means is in the public service, there is APS ranked staff and they have certain grades, and they get paid up, under awards, to certain grades. Then you have EL2 rankings and then you have three bands of SES. She's at the lower band, SES Band 1, of that level. Like, the public service of 100,000 plus people has these gradations. She's a very experienced woman of over 40 years, does a great job -

KARVELAS: So, you think it was the right call?

SHORTEN: Well, I'm just thinking that, you know, when I became the Minister for Services Australia, we were spending $1.3 billion on contractors. We now spent half a billion. When I became Minister, 70% of the staff of Services Australia were direct employees, 30% were contractors. It's now 85% direct, 15% contractors. But what amazes me is some Senator who thinks that some public servant contractor is paid more than them, and then they turn on the outrage factory. I didn't negotiate a wage. She's a lovely, experienced person, and she turns out hundreds of products of work, not just for me, but she mentors staff. She's run training courses. And do you know, a little bit of irony. And radio national this morning, she's received more job offers and more pay rise offers on LinkedIn since this came out. But anyway, let's never let the truth get in the way of a good clickbait.

KARVELAS: Oh, look, um -

SHORTEN: And that's not you, you're asking the question.

KARVELAS: And how can I not? And there's clearly public interest in this Minister, because I'm telling you, it's coming in thick and fast.

SHORTEN: I believe that, but no one has heard what I just said till you gave me the chance to say it. So, thank you.

KARVELAS: I'm glad we’ve got to speak. I love speaking, you know that. I love talking to you. Just finally, let's talk about yesterday. Let's talk about the parliament, the Government, and the opposition joining forces to condemn Greens members involvement in pro-Palestinian protests, accusing the party of inflaming tensions of social cohesion. Did that action not also inflame tensions?

SHORTEN: So, we can't tell the truth anymore? The reality is that Greens members have attended aggressive demonstrations outside MPs offices. Like, people have got a right to protest. People have got a right to feel incredibly strongly about the tragedy in Gaza. People have got a right to talk about anti-Semitism. Like, this is just diabolical. Dreadful. The sooner that Israel can get out of Gaza, just the best for everyone, I get that.

But, what we're seeing, though, is the use of - and it's only a minority. Do I think every Green member does it? No, but there is a minority of people inciting aggro here, bringing the arguments, and it means that when staff working in electorate offices are jostled, where there's windows broken. I mean, this is intimidation of the democratic process.

KARVELAS: In Question Time, Peter Dutton equated protesters, well, some of them at least, with Holocaust deniers. Have you seen that?

SHORTEN: No, but I don't tend to go to the protests. Listen, Mr. Dutton can explain his words. Our Prime Minister was very clear and very forthright. And really, there are red lines in protests. You may believe in your cause, but that doesn't give you the right to break the law. The other thing is, no one's cause, makes them so morally superior that the rest of the laws don't apply to them. And furthermore, I mean, heaven forbid one would be pragmatic in how you persuade the majority, but yelling and screaming at people, being aggressive is counterproductive to peace, isn't it?

KARVELAS: Bill Shorten, always great to speak to you. Thanks for coming on the show.

SHORTEN: Fantastic, bye.

KARVELAS: Bye. Minister for the NDIS and Government Services, Bill Shorten.