Minister Shorten interview on ABC Afternoon Briefing with Greg Jennett


GREG JENNETT, HOST ABC AFTERNOON BRIEFING: All right. Well, I think it's fair to say that, like all his frontbench colleagues, NDIS and Government Services Minister Bill Shorten is a stickler for party cohesion. He's also facing an uphill battle with the Senate at the moment to push through important but controversial savings in the Disability Insurance Scheme. We're keen to talk to him about both today. Bill Shorten joins us now. Welcome back to the program. Minister, why don't we start with Senator Payman. And I do promise to get to NDIS reform very shortly. You've described her suspension as a least worst option, which implies that it's still bad. The Prime Minister told caucus today, though suspension is actually virtuous. Showing restraint and compassion is a strength, not a weakness a caucus member has briefed. So, which one is it good or bad?

BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS, AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Well, there's three options, aren't there? Do nothing. Terminate the relationship or give everyone some time out to work out what's important. So, sure, I would rather that there wasn't this discord. But we are where we are. And I think the Prime Minister is handling this just right. I must say about Senator Payman, whilst I don't know her that well, but on my dealings with her on NDIS and Services Australia, she's been very diligent. She's young, she's smart, she's clearly tough. All of us as candidates, when we choose to get the privilege to run for the Labor Party, we actually signed a document which says we will stick together. She's obviously finding that very difficult on the issue of Palestine. I don't think anyone in the Labor Party is critical of her view about Palestine. I mean, it's a traumatic time. People are dying. We all want to see the Israeli tanks out. We want the hostages returned. But we also need to make sure we've got processes where the party is cohesive. So, we're just going to. I think a bit of time and distance can work these issues through.

JENNETT: Sure. And I don't think anyone is questioning her professionalism and attributes that she brings to the task as a Senator and has for two years now. How does this end, though? How long can this purgatory of her non-participation in the parliamentary party continue? Until someone makes a definitive call about it, and it might have to be the leadership?

SHORTEN: Well, I think the leadership's been clear. She's welcome. We've got some rules. When you're in a team and, you know, some people say, oh, you shouldn't have rules. All political parties have rules.

JENNETT: What if it went for two years, though? Well, at least she's not up for election at the next election. But what if it dragged on through to the next election?

SHORTEN: I think one of the questions we've got to ask is, the Greens know that their resolution can't get up. Now they've planted their flag in the sand, and they've said, this is what we think. Why do they keep want to putting this resolution up? They know it doesn't change anything. I think they're just seeking to sort of stir the pot, to be honest, and I don't think it's terribly constructive.

JENNETT: Can I ask you about the broader membership and I'll quote to you, New South Wales Upper House MLC, who's a convenor of the Labor for Palestine Group, Anthony D'Adam. He speaks to us on afternoon briefing today. He says, “I think the vast majority of the party membership think that the position she's taken is the right one on the right side of history and Labor want to be on the right side of history”. Do you recognize any validity in that point?

SHORTEN: That's his opinion. I'm not sure everyone does share that opinion. I think what we're dealing with is you've got this horrible issue right now where people are dying on all sides of the conflict. Then we've got the issue of a of a new Senator who's conscientious, but we've also got the issue that the party, we sign a contract before we join as a candidate. It's a great privilege to get elected. She's welcome, I think that what the Prime Minister and Penny Wong and the others have done is say, all right, let's get some time and distance and work it out. I think there's another issue, but it can't be sorted out in the heat of this kitchen. Is that, you know, in the future, when do you allow people not to be part of the team and vote separately? But you wouldn't use this trigger to try and sort out that bigger question now.

JENNETT: I understand that timing is everything. And thank you for taking us there, because I did want to get to rule changes, as you noted here, you noted earlier in the day that this could be something caucus solidarity rules that the party chooses to address. What have you got in mind? Because there are a few loose proposals out there that would give greater latitude around conscience or free vote. What springs to mind for you.

SHORTEN: I think I said, we're in the heat of the kitchen now. I'm not going to make the life of the Government any more difficult. Parties have national conferences. They can debate how we do our rules, but organisations need rules. You might not like them, but we have them.

JENNETT: But these are caucus rules, aren't they? They aren't directly set by National Conference. True.

SHORTEN: But one of the places you would debate it would be at conference, a National Conference and caucus is of the mind that, you know, take away everything else. The one thing we've got is each other. And a lot of people, have, there is a lot of diversity in the caucus. We debate our views. If you're lucky enough to be in the cabinet, at the cabinet, in the ministry, at the ministry, in the caucus anyway, yeah, I hope it works out. I know that Fatima is welcome. I know that people are being very mindful of how she's going. And I also know that we believe that, you know, Labor when it's united, is at its best.

JENNETT: Yeah. Sure. Now, traditionally, where free votes have been allowed in the ALP, it's been around questions of morality, personal values, I suppose in the broad. What about foreign policy or war? Would they or should they qualify?

SHORTEN: Well, again, the national executive dealt with this matter quite exhaustively. Several years ago, John Fawkner did a very good paper. If the party wants to revisit any of that, it should take its time to do that. But you wouldn't do it just because the Greens are stirring the pot.

JENNETT: All right let's move on to NDIS, as I promised I would today. Bill, you've been livid for a week now about this enforced delay by the Senate in a Bill that would overhaul the NDIS, specifically limiting the use of top up payments and the range of goods and services that can be funded on a plan. Now, I'll suggest that one reason to take a deeper look has been raised by Parliament's Human Rights Committee. There appears to be a risk that the measures could result in the total funding amounts for participants being reduced. That's amongst its observations. Why is that not a risk? Or in fact, isn't that actually your goal?

SHORTEN: It's the Human Rights Committee was, it was a series of opinions. I've spoken to the chair. They've got it wrong. First of all, what's proposed in the legislation is to make sure the participants get a better experience. One of the things which, so under the Act, you're allowed to get supports that are reasonable and necessary. And what reasonable and necessary has meant is services which aren't otherwise provided by the States or other systems. But that has led to a sort of a mission creep beyond the original purpose of the NDIS. So, people have put in claims for a range of items and the courts have upheld it. But we think that's not true to the original purpose. Some of the things which participants or indeed their nominees and sort of managers. Cryptocurrency, taxidermy. Wet & Wild tickets, trips to Japan.

JENNETT: Cannabis, sex toys. These are rorts, you call them.

SHORTEN: But actually, we can't say no. Clearly, we've got operational guidelines on it, but the courts roll us. I must say, when I go through this list, so many people on the Scheme are doing so much that is right. I hate going through this list of the problems. In a perfect world, all I could talk to you is the sunny blue sky of great outcomes. But what appals me is that the Senate's had for 12 weeks this proposal to tighten it up a bit, and no one seriously disagrees with most of that list I read out. But for some reason the Senators are saying we need another eight weeks to work out if this is okay. You don't have to be a Rhodes Scholar to work out that the NDIS was not for cryptocurrency or paying rent.

JENNETT: I think in part they question your motivation in airing those lists and maybe substantively in going down the path of trying to achieve these $14 billion savings. The scepticism is that you're highlighting them because it's the best chance you can get to garner public support for the $14 billion in savings. So your response?

SHORTEN: I'll give it just straight down the barrel. The Greens and the Liberals have left me no alternative. They know these problems are there. I don't want to air the dirty linen. I don't want to air the stupidities in the Scheme. I just want to talk about the good news. And most of the news is good. But there are people having. There are service, some service providers, not the majority who are having a lend of the Scheme, the actuary of the Scheme has made it clear and I want to show you this if I can. This is how much money is getting wasted since they proposed to have a Senate inquiry upon a Senate inquiry.

JENNETT: This is what you are calling your waste clock.

SHORTEN: It's been $115 million wasted. We just want to stop the automatic top ups with no justification. The spending of scarce NDIS money, the money which these Senators are wasting there, they're going to have two days of public hearings. They've already had three days of public hearings. They've already had 205 witness submissions. They've had 50 witnesses. They've given me no amendments. The Libs, they say privately they're going to vote for most of the ledge (legislation) in August. I just say to people, we don't have $1 billion of participant money to waste. Do you know this billion dollars will pay for 60,000 kids average package on the scheme?

JENNETT: Yeah, that's a projected cost though, isn't it?

SHORTEN: I'm sorry but if you can't accept evidence, I'm going to pick you up on that. Greg, first of all, you said in the opening controversial changes, there's nothing controversial about not wasting money. And you also said about human rights, there's no human right, which says that you should get to go on a cruise to Japan or cryptocurrency. And when they say projected costs, if we know the money's getting wasted, if we know it could be better spent on helping fund allied health therapies, better, if we know it could be better spent on making decisions more quickly so people get their wheelchairs in their homes. When did it become unreasonable to stop BSing each other?

JENNETT: So, just to be clear, you have no other power at your fingertips as Minister via instruction to the Agency or any other method to curtail these costs.

SHORTEN: The best advice I have received, is for ten years Ministers and Agencies haven't been able to specify things which shouldn't be on the scheme beyond operational guidance, to create any absence of doubt. So a well-meaning AAT member or court member says, oh well, that seems reasonable, sure, this is the best path home. I want the Scheme to be there. I helped create it. I live and breathe it to all those people who are saying somehow there'll be no reviews. That's rubbish to people who say there's no consultation. That's rubbish to people who say there's no co-design, that's rubbish. Do you know what, though? I don't want to be there if this Scheme falls over and know that there's more, I could have done to keep it alive.

JENNETT: Yeah, I think that's a point you have made. Will you revise the projected savings made at budget $14 billion over four years, in light of the $1 billion?

SHORTEN: If I can't find another way, we'll have to. But for me, people somehow think that modern politics, oh Senate has had 12 weeks. They need another eight weeks. Do you know, the Libs have said they want to think about amendments. They've never put any forward. They say we've got more questions. What are the new questions that these Senators are going to ask, which they didn't think of in the last 12 weeks?

JENNETT: We'll ask them if we get the opportunity.

SHORTEN: I'm not holding my breath.

JENNETT: About to wrap it up. Bill, one final question. We learned today that the Prime Minister is not going to the NATO summit in Washington. You represented this country at a very important Ukraine focused summit in Switzerland. Why are you being overlooked for this one?

SHORTEN: Well, because the Deputy Prime Minister is available. He's the Defence Minister. We're not actually members of NATO. The Prime Minister went to Lithuania to the last NATO conference. Liberal Prime Ministers have gone sometimes and not other times, and it was great to represent, as the head of the Australia delegation at the Ukraine Peace Summit on a weekend. But rest assured, I'm going to make sure that every dollar that we waste, or that's being wasted by this stupid Senate inquiry is accountable.

JENNETT: All right. You'll stay at home and work away at your day job. Bill Shorten, thanks so much.