Interview on ABC Radio National Breakfast

E&OE…

FRAN KELLY: The National Disability Insurance Scheme is facing a major overhaul with its future up for discussion at a meeting of state and territory leaders tomorrow. The Government is pushing for independent assessments for all NDIS participants and new applicants.

In an effort to stem the escalating cost of the scheme, which it's estimated is going to rise to $60 billion a year by 2030. But disability advocates, Labor, and the Greens - and we've heard from some of them this week here on the program - dispute those figures and are accusing the Government of running a scare campaign.

Here's the Greens Senator, Jordon Steele-John, speaking to us earlier in the week.

[Excerpt]

JORDON STEELE-JOHN: As they are becoming more desperate to make these changes - and let's make it clear, they really want to get this is a win for themselves - they are publishing more and more outlandish figures. They have not provided the transparent data that underpins these projections. And despite repeated requests from the disability community, they've not allowed that data to be independently analysed.

[End of excerpt]

FRAN KELLY: That's Senator Jordon Steele-John, the Greens Spokesperson for Disability Rights.

Well, Linda Reynolds is the Minister for the NDIS. She joins us from Perth. Minister, thank you very much for joining us so early.

LINDA REYNOLDS: Good morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: We'll come to the NDIS meeting in a moment, because that's obviously crucially important, but it's reported today in The Herald Sun the disability care workers will be forced to get the COVID-19 vaccine if they want to keep their jobs. That's apparently being recommended by the nation's medical expert panel, and will be considered at National Cabinet on Friday. Can you confirm that?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, I can't pre-empt what National Cabinet will decide today, but it is certainly an issue that we've been working with states and territories on. It is very important, I believe, that disability support workers - particularly those who work in disability accommodation - are vaccinated to protect their- those they look after. So, this will be discussed today. I'll note that nearly 40,000 disability support workers have already been vaccinated, but I would certainly like to see it become mandatory.

FRAN KELLY: Well, numbers don't tell the figure, really. Only- As I understand it's only 35 per cent of the disability workforce have received one vaccine dose, only 15 per cent of them are fully vaccinated. I've heard interview after interview of, of workers saying they're very keen to get vaccinated. Why did the- Has the Government drop the ball on this?

LINDA REYNOLDS: No, not at all. It's one of the things that I've been very focused-

FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] Well, it looks like it at those figures, doesn't it?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, it's actually 36 per cent and it is increasing very rapidly. So, since I became Minister this is something that I have had a keen interest in and focus on, and we are significantly increasing - in fact, over the last six weeks we have doubled the amount of participant- NDIA participants, and also those under what's called Phase 1A, those in residential care. So, we are rapidly increasing the numbers of NDIS participants, and also those in accommodation.

FRAN KELLY: It's still too slow, though, isn't it? If we talk, not about the workforce, but about those who are in the care facilities, the people with disabilities, the numbers aren't great either. If I'm correct it's 46 per cent have received one dose and 23 per cent are fully vaccinated.

These are people identified as vulnerable, high priority, they're in the 1A group, supposed to be done months ago. What does it say that we've got less than half of this vulnerable group vaccinated?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, it's actually now just under 50 per cent. So, it's over 48 per cent who have.

FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] Less than half. That's what I said.

LINDA REYNOLDS: Yeah. Seventy- so, 74 per cent in residential aged care and 42 per cent in disability accommodation, Fran. So, those numbers are increasing rapidly. We've now got five different methods-

FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] Well, not, not rapidly. I mean, this has been- this rollout was supposed to happen months ago.

LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Fran, it's doubled in less than six weeks, so, we are rapidly increasing the vaccination rate. Again, it is voluntary and we are now making sure that over the next few weeks that we have, we, we keep this rapid pace up and we get all of those who want to be vaccinated, vaccinated.

FRAN KELLY: So, what's the timeframe you're putting on that? What date do you think all those who are in residential care, who want to be vaccinated, will be vaccinated?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, as, as I've said, we've doubled it in the last six weeks, and we're now nearly 50 per cent. So we want to-

FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] So, what's your projection for what when it'll all be done?

LINDA REYNOLDS: In the next, in the next couple of months.

FRAN KELLY: Couple of months. Why is it so slow? What does it- I mean, I know these are, these are not big populations necessarily in a lot of these places, so, there's a lot of places to get through. But that seems terribly slow.

LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Fran, we've- I said we've doubled in the last six weeks and we- Don't forget, these are particularly in residential care for disability, there's over 6000 different facilities…

FRAN KELLY: Yeah.

LINDA REYNOLDS: … and we have to have pretty much a separate plan for every participant, because people with particular disabilities have very specific requirements of how we come to them or how they come to, to us - so, it is a tailored plan for individuals. But at the same time we are also making vaccinations available to workers in those facilities, and we're also doing to carers now. So, we are doing it methodically; we're doing it- we're ramping it up; and, I'm very confident that, you know, within a matter of weeks everybody who wants the vaccine will have the opportunity to do so.

FRAN KELLY: Now, let's go to tomorrow's meeting with the states and territories about the NDIS and the future of it. You are considering ways to, to suppress the costs because - on figures that have just been released - those costs are projected to rise to $60 billion by 2030. In the October budget last year, the cost of the NDIS was estimated to be at $25 billion, so that's a huge rise, rise in costs. Jordon Steele-John, you heard him there speaking to us earlier this week. He said that, that those costs are outlandish. Bill Shorten's called them rubbery figures.

LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, they're neither. But first of all, can I say about Senator Steele-John, I just want to thank him for his engagement with me, and I greatly enjoy working with him, and for his always very robust engagement and defence of this sector.

But can I say these are the NDIA Scheme actuarial projections which have been independently validated by the Commonwealth Actuary. And as you've said, the figures are somewhat eye watering. But even that figure that you quoted, the $60 billion, is based on conservative growth.

Now, the stark fact and the stark reality for the NDIA today, for this scheme, is that we are on an unsustainable growth trajectory. At the moment that is 12.5 per cent per annum, and even under these actuarial figures it is based on the assumption that we will be able to get that down to about 3 to 4 per cent per year. So, the main point, Fran, is that this is not about cutting expenditure into the scheme, it is about putting it on a sustainable growth trajectory so that we- this scheme will endure. And it is, it is a very-

FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] But sustainability is only about choices within a budget, isn't it? I mean, if, if the Australian Government and the Australian people support the scheme and the goals of the scheme, which are to give to people choice and adequate care, don't we just have to prioritise that rather than trying to reign in the costs first? I mean, obviously you want to get, you know, waste and fraud out of the scheme.

LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Fran, that's exactly what, that's exactly what I'm doing. So, when I became Minister three months ago, I've spent the last three months engaging extensively with the sector and I've heard many things about the scheme. The first one is that it is not just about making sure that this scheme is just financially sustainable and endures, we also need changes to the scheme to make it a fairer scheme, to make it a better experience for participants.

So, after eight years- you know, and don't forget, Fran, that this scheme is eight years old now, but it is a globally unique scheme and it says so much that is wonderful about our nation that all states and territories and the Commonwealth Government could come together, that we united across party lines to create this amazing scheme. And you mentioned the meeting tomorrow with state and territory ministers. Well, I'm going into that meeting tomorrow with a great deal of optimism and confidence that we can come together again as a federation of state and territory ministers to start discussing the changes that are needed to this scheme. Because ultimately, this is a scheme of the federation and we all have to agree on a multi-partisan basis about where we take the scheme into the future.

FRAN KELLY: One of the most contentious changes ND [audio skips] want to make is the- to- you want to bring in independent assessments because that's going to change money and save money and put it on a more sustainable footing, as you said - that's the- that's one of the reasons for it. It's a- The plan is a three-hour assessment from a government chosen health professional. A lot of people are very worried about this and ask why is that going to be enough to understand the complex needs of people in the I- NDIS? When a lot of recipients have complex health issues; their disabilities make it very difficult for some to represent themselves and their challenges fully; and, they're very scared about this. Why are you insisting on this change?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Fran, a couple of things, is all insurance schemes have eligibility assessments of some type. Some of the schemes in Australia it's through causation - so, you know, if somebody has an accident for example, or it's by a functional assessment which determines that they need some form of disability support to, to live their lives. So this is- it's not unique, and every other insurance scheme that I have looked at; like Comcare, WorkSafe Victora, Return to Work South Australia, all have eligibility assessment of some type. So-

FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] Yes. But they're not all dealing with people with severe and complex disabilities, many of them, who- you know, the notion of going to an assessor that they don't know, trying to communicate the complexity of what they're dealing with. It's a different situation, isn't it?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, no. It's- They're all insurance schemes, and…

FRAN KELLY: Sure.

LINDA REYNOLDS: … and they're for people who have had accidents or disabilities. But, Fran, this has been- so this is nothing new. The concept of having a form of independent assessment is in the original legislation from 2012, so this is, this is nothing new. But this is not about cutting- this is genuinely not about cutting costs, this is actually about making the scheme fairer. Because one of the things I've heard loud and clear over the last three months, from participants in particular, is that the scheme is unfair. Without this eligibility assessment, your socio economic circumstance, and your postcode counts. So the further you are away from a capital city, and the less ability you have to advocate for yourself, the less, lesser of an outcome you get from this scheme. And that is simply wrong.

So independent assessments are designed to help make the scheme fairer; to provide consistency in the scheme. So, I absolutely- but I absolutely acknowledge the point - and it was very clear to me on the first day of this job - that there were genuine and real concerns about this process. So that's why we've been consulting. And I have released two reports to state and territories and publicly yesterday, reports on the Independent Assessment Process. We do need more time to address these concerns and to get the process right - I absolutely acknowledge that

FRAN KELLY: Some of the states don't seem to be persuaded. The Victorian Health Minister is quoted as saying- describing it as a robo planning approach which attacks the very principles on what the- on which the NDIS was built, forcing people to reprove their disability and jump through hoops to get the support they deserve. Is this blaming recipients for cost blow-outs? When there is some evidence that providers are ripping off the system? Is that something you're concerned about? And doing anything about?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Look, if you have a look at the reports, Fran - and again, I'll go through this with the state and territory minister's tomorrow - is there are improvements that need to be made. So things like, the reports make suggestions to improve assessor experience; how we actually engage pre the assessments; how we conduct the assessments; giving participants greater choice in who does their assessments; and, the use of pre-existing information. So, these are all things that I absolutely acknowledge need to be improved. So the Independent Assessment Process that was trialled over the last few months will not be, will not be the process that we finalise. Because we do have to make changes.

FRAN KELLY: [Talks over] Minister, on another matter. Earlier this year, the story broke about your former staff member, Brittany Higgins. She alleges she was raped by another government staffer in your office. You were forced to apologise to Ms Higgins after it was revealed you held a meeting with her in the same room where she was allegedly raped. You then had to apologise again after you said in front of some of your staff that Ms Higgins was a lying cow in reference to something that was, that was published. A lot of people look on and think, do you have the interpersonal skills to manage a sensitive portfolio like the Disability Services portfolio? Are you vulnerable to that criticism?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, Fran, we all have to take responsibility for our own actions and I certainly have done that. I have willingly and genuinely apologised both publicly and privately to Brittany, and I have also financially settled with her several, several months ago on that matter. I've also made a comprehensive statement to the AFP in relation to their investigation of her allegations, and which I understand is now with the DPP in the ACT. So for me, I have. I have apologised and I've taken responsibility for, for what I said.

The real issue, I think, it now is the issues that were raised- the very real issues that exist in Parliament House. And I commend the Stephanie Foster review, and I'm very much looking forward to the Kate Jenkins review and how we actually deal with the, the real issues that have arisen from that. And it's one of the things, as a member now of the Women's Cabinet Taskforce that I am deeply engaged in, is how we, how we learn from this, and how we make very real change.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. Well, just on that - and that matter, as you referred to was a, you know, very serious allegations of sexual assault. But the Kate Jenkins review and others are looking more, more broadly at issues of sexual harassment. This week, we heard from former Liberal MP, Julia Banks. She described a sexist culture within the Liberal Party, a culture where she says an unnamed Cabinet Minister felt free to essentially touch her up in full view of others. Were you shocked and surprised by that revelation?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Yes, I was. Yes, I was.

FRAN KELLY: [Talks over] Yeah. As a-

LINDA REYNOLDS: Everybody, everybody, everybody who works in that building - whether you're a Member of Parliament, whether you're a staff member - everybody needs, and should feel safe and respected in the workplace, and not subject to that sort of behaviour. And this is one of the things, I think, with the two reviews that have been undertaken, is that there needs to be a safe place for staff and for MPs to go and report this behaviour, and where it can be escalated.

FRAN KELLY: Now that Julia Banks has reported that, in a sense, to the nation - without naming names, as a member of the Women's Cabinet Taskforce, would you like the Prime Minister or his office to be personally calling Julia Banks; finding out who it is that she says behaved like this; and, investigating it? Does it- If it's true, would that person, should that person still be in Cabinet?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Well, the, the ownership of, of issues that happen to an individual, rests with that individual. And that is the same with Julia, you know, with Julia Banks and anybody else.

FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] Rests with that individual? There- Certainly there's point for individuals to be pulled up on their behaviour?

LINDA REYNOLDS: It's- Julia has- Julia Banks has been asked that question, and she has chosen not to answer that question. So, that is her-

FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] But she might choose differently if she gets a call from the Prime Minister personally, don't you think?

LINDA REYNOLDS: But that, but that is, that is the issue, that is the issue for Julia Banks. She's been asked that question and she has made the decision not to reveal that information, and I respect her right not to.

FRAN KELLY: On another matter and just finally, Minister. we're talking about Afghanistan this week and there's, you know, demands and pleas for the Australian Government to bring home more speedily many hundreds of, of Afghans who've worked with the Australian forces. You've been a defence minister; you've been to Afghanistan; you know these people have risked their lives for us. What's your view? Should they be abandoned to almost certain death because of bureaucratic delays and technicalities? Because it seems to be what's going on at the moment,

LINDA REYNOLDS: Nothing could be further from the truth, Fran, is that for, you know, for a number of years now, including when I was minister of defence, we do, we do bring those who were found- who have been identified as providing that support to our troops, and we continue to bring them home. They have sped up the process, but nonetheless there still is a process that must be gone through. So the Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister are working very hard to make sure that we, we bring them to Australia.

FRAN KELLY: Should they all be brought home? Or brought somewhere safe quickly? I mean, there's urgency to this, isn't there?

LINDA REYNOLDS: Yes, there is urgency to it. And I can assure you and all Australians that both the Foreign Affairs Minister and also the Defence Minister are doing everything they can to bring them to Australia. But there is still a process to follow.

FRAN KELLY: [Talks over] Linda Reynolds, Linda Reynolds, thank you very much for joining us.

LINDA REYNOLDS: Thanks very much, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Linda Reynolds is the Minister for the Disability Insurance Scheme.