ABC Insiders interview

E&OE TRANSCRIPT

DAVID SPEERS, HOST: Bill Shorten, welcome to the program.

BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Good morning.

SPEERS: Let's just start on this energy issue. What do you think? Should coal-fired power stations be paid at all through this new capacity mechanism to keep going?

SHORTEN: I think we need to prioritise new storage technologies, transmission, mission. The real issue about power, in my opinion, is that for ten years we've had a decade of denial and delay. What we're suffering from this winter is, in the short term, is floods of coal mines, we're seeing outages of plant, which is more than 50 years old. But the real long-term problem is that we haven't made the transition, a plan for transition to renewables, and now the chickens have come home to roost.

SPEERS: What about gas? I've got to ask you about this, because about five years ago when you were Labor leader, you backed a gas reservation policy along the lines of the West Australian policy we've been talking about. Do you still think it's   good idea?

SHORTEN: Well, to some extent the trains left the station. Since then, Malcolm Turnbull, when he was Prime Minister, introduced what was in a shorthand term called a 'trigger.' The problem is - no doubt Malcolm is going to be reading the transcript of the show today to wherever he is in the world, the trigger is as blunt as a basketball, Malcolm, it doesn't quite work. So even if we were to pull the trigger, it doesn't come into effect until next January. What Chris Bowen's done in a very short period of time is get all the Ministers around the table. We're going to work on how we give the regulator AEMO the power to build up our stocks of gas so we don't get hit by a cold snap and we've got some reserves. But we need to look at a more effective mechanism to make sure that we put downward pressure on prices as well as guarantee supply.

SPEERS: That's the mechanism but a gas reservation policy - your mates at the AWU are very keen on this, you were once as well. Is it still a good idea?

SHORTEN: Well, again, I'd say to you that the idea which we had, the Liberals have now sort of squandered that proposition. I think a reimagined trigger can have some of the same effect, because at the moment in Australia, one of the issues is supply. We want to make sure that there's adequate supply for Australians, but that's not the actual problem we're experiencing right now. What households are experiencing around Australia is spiralling prices. So that's where we've got to do a lot of work quickly to see what pressure we can do to have a more competitive price offering for Aussie families.

SPEERS: Let's turn to the NDIS. You were involved in the initial design of the scheme, of course, and now you're inheriting it as Minister. I'm just interested when you look at where it is now to what you originally envisaged, what do you see as the main strengths and weaknesses of what the NDIS has become?

SHORTEN: Well, in the first quarter of this century, I think the outstanding public policy accomplishment is having an NDIS. It now looks after 518,000 people on the scheme. Quarter of a million people are employed in disability. The problem is that it's no longer the original dream. So two words would summarise my approach - restore trust. It's a bureaucratic nightmare for people on the scheme. It's a maze of red tape. In my opinion I've seen waste, I've seen money, $40 million spent on lawyers to fight Aussies trying to get onto the scheme, and also a concern that serious organised crime is accessing these payments opportunistically.

SPEERS: Well, let's talk about some of those things. I mean, what you just mentioned there - the rorts, but also serious organised crime what can you tell us about what's going on there?

SHORTEN: I started to read disturbing reports from criminal intelligence analysts that as a government payment scheme, the same people in organised crime who were taking money out of the Family Day Care Scheme are now moving across into NDIS, obtaining people's personal information, false invoices, overpaying of bills, ghost payments. And so I absolutely want to see all options on the table to make sure we protect taxpayer money. And I think there's very few things more despicable in life than crooks taking money, which is due to go to disabled people.

SPEERS: And are there the tools there to fix that at the moment, or do you need some sort of added layer of scrutiny about how the payments are being made?

SHORTEN: I think that we need to make sure that - the crazy thing about the old government is that they basically put a padlock coming into the scheme and they'd argue with a person about their wheelchair or their white cane or their hours of speech pathology and turn that into an administrative nightmare. But they left the welcome mat at the back door. And I don't think there's been enough done to detect and apprehend and stop fraud, both in a system sense and chasing down individual crooks and syndicates.

SPEERS: There's criminal activity, that's one thing. But then there's also the overcharging that often goes on. People with a disability often raise this is a big problem, whether it's a provider charging $500 to mow the lawn or something like that. What's going to be done about that?

SHORTEN: Well, pricing is, up to now and a lot of people with disability and their advocates tell me that too much of the way prices were set was done in a black box and there was no transparency. The only way the NDIS can fulfil its potential is by involving people with disability in the co-design of the scheme. There was a ten year review of the scheme due next year. We're bringing that forward. We are starting to involve people with disability in all our forums. I think the way we tackle the pricing is we have to say to the service providers, charge what it costs, but don't have a twin rate, that if you have a package, you charge the participant more, and if you don't have a package, you get charged less.

SPEERS: How do you do that? How do you ensure that?

SHORTEN: Well, this will be part of, I guess, why we get the big bucks to do the job we do. I've only just looked under the hood, but I am putting on notice that we want to have a pricing system which makes sense to everyday people.

SPEERS: So you're going to review the pricing system?

SHORTEN: Yeah and there's a lot of work being done. I'm fortunate I don't pretend that I come in and it's a blank page. A lot of people have been trying to tackle it. But what I think is that we've got to create trust, talk to the people using the services, talk to the people delivering the services and say this scheme can't subsidise everyone in Australia. It's aimed for the most profoundly impaired and severely disabled Australians. The problem for the NDIS, in a nutshell, leave aside the waste, the incompetence, the overpayment of consultants, the fraud is that this scheme is the only lifeboat in the ocean for Australians who live with disability. So the challenge there is to sit down with our brothers and sisters in the States and say, what are you doing in the school system to provide additional support for kids with special needs? The NDIS can't replace the school system. We have to sit down with people in the community health sector and the health sector and say it can't be the case that if you have a serious mental illness, that you either get NDIS or you're in hospital and there's nothing in between.

SPEERS: So this is interesting because Bruce Bonyhady, one of the architects schemes, talked a lot about this as well. The second tier services’

SHORTEN: That's right.

SPEERS: -are inadequate. You're either in the NDIS or you're getting little to nothing.

SHORTEN: That's right.

SPEERS: So are you suggesting here there needs to be fewer participants in the NDIS and better supports at that second tier?

SHORTEN: I'm not saying there should be fewer participants, but what I am saying is that one of the contributing factors to people doing whatever they can to get into the scheme is it's a wasteland outside of it. So what we need to do is have a conference. The NDIS was never meant to be the only way which we give people disability and their care as an ordinary life. So, yes, we do need to talk to the States about what's happening when a child turns six or seven and goes to the school system. Are there enough supports in the mainstream school system, special schools well enough funded?

SPEERS: Is that entirely the States, or is the Commonwealth, you, willing to also do more about that level of services?

SHORTEN: Well, what we want to do is make sure that we have a skilled workforce. I don't see the NDIS as just a payment system. That's a very sort of small and limited vision of the NDIS. The NDIS was meant to remedy the problem, that people in Australia don't have some financial clout and don't have political voice. But what we need to do is to say to the States... Listen, hospitals right now in Australia this morning, in every major hospital in Australia, there'll be bed blocks caused by people who should be getting NDIS-sponsored accommodation that are stuck in hospital beds.

SPEERS: What do you do? I hear you this morning calling on the states to do more. Are you going to sit them down, the Ministers, and say we need to actually beef up this level of supports?

SHORTEN: Yes, but what I'm going to say to the states is all levels of government have a responsibility to make sure that all Australians, if they have an impairment, get a fair crack at things. So, yes, in some cases, ask the states to do more. But by the same token, as a federal government, we want to run the scheme better. We want to reduce the bureaucratic red tape.

SPEERS: Let's talk more about that. Because I've spoken to service providers this week, and in particular, one of the bigger registered providers. Their concern is the explosion in unregistered providers in the system. Registered providers, they are overseen by the Quality and Safety Commission. Unregistered providers are not registered. Providers have to have minimum levels of training, they're audited each year. None of that applies to the unregistered and perhaps unsurprisingly 90% of providers are now unregistered. So is this something you're going to look at? Why do we have so many unregistered providers?

SHORTEN: Yes, we will look at this question. The reality is that the NDIS gives individualised packages of support to people with disability and their families, and the person receiving the funding can make decisions. So that gives people control in their lives. But what's happened is that we've seen an explosion in the market for disability services. Some people opt to register, some don't. One of the reasons why unregistered providers enter the market is because perhaps the red tape is too much to get registered.

SPEERS: They might already have a professional registration. A lot of them don't, though.

SHORTEN: Yes, but that's right. But that's not a good enough explanation. I think if you are a worker working with a person with a disability and you're delivering personal care services, you have to be registered and have some minimum qualification.

SPEERS: Like a police check, for starters. Should that be the minimum for everybody unregistered who's providing a service in the NDIS?

SHORTEN: I think that when you provide personal care services, there has to be a minimum level of confidence, quality, and you have to be paid the proper award. You have to make sure that you are well qualified.

SPEERS: This is another issue. So they are often unregistered providers working for platforms like gig economy workers, and they're not necessarily treated like employees. They aren't paid a minimum wage or superannuation and penalty rates and leave and all those sort of things. So you're saying you want to put an end to that?

SHORTEN: No, the Internet's been invented. We're not going to put away the gig economy, but I want to make sure that when someone is employed through an Internet platform, that they're paid properly. So I don't think any of these issues are too hard. Some of them take time, but the way we intend to do it is to bring people with disability back to the table, people using the scheme. But once upon a time, I said the aim of the scheme was to remove the midnight anxiety of ageing care is who's going to be able to love and care for their adult child when they no longer can? The problem is, under the last government, the midnight anxiety was if I'm either having my package unfairly cut or I'm worried about having my package unfairly cut, we've got to restore trust.

SPEERS: Okay. But just to be clear, you are flagging now some greater checks and requirements for the unregistered providers that, as you say, have exploded in the NDIS.

SHORTEN: Depending on what services they deliver. If you're cutting someone's grass, you don't need to go through the same sort of check as if you're providing care services. But there's no doubt in my mind that if we have a payment approach which gives individuals control, taxpayers want to make sure they have a line of sight of what's promised is delivered. But of course, I've got to remove at the same time some of the red tape so that participants have control.

SPEERS: You mentioned the midnight anxiety for participants, and I've heard a lot from participants in the NDIS. One of the major concerns they have is the difficulty, firstly, accessing the NDIS, the costs involved in affording the various assessments they need for a diagnosis, the time, the effort and expense required and all of that. Is there anything you can do to ease that for them?

SHORTEN: I think we can actually. The aim of the NDIS was to give individuals control. It wasn't to become a second full time job, just accessing modest payments. The good news is, and this is what sort of absurd about politics, is there's been a lot of good work done by joint parliamentary committees, there's been some pretty big reviews. I think a lot of the solutions are there. But what we now need to do is roll up our sleeves, get everyone around the table and say, all right, let's reduce the number of cases in the administrative appeals process.

SPEERS: That's quadrupled in the last year. And the NDIS is spending more than $40 million in legal fees this year so far because it's the other pain they have. When their plans cut, they want to appeal it they end up lawyers at ten paces in the AAT, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. You flagged some sort of mediation process. What are you thinking there?

SHORTEN: Well, on Tuesday I'm meeting with most of the principal lawyers who have run the legal aid, the advocacy for people in the system. I'm going to say to them, what are the absolute stupidities you're currently seeing from the Commonwealth in the way they do their litigation? See, what happens is I think people will be appalled to know that whilst the NDIS is making decisions, it has to, some people won't be happy. What we're seeing is top end-of-town law firms being charged a lot of money to basically drag out cases so that people give up on their claims. That's not the way an empathetic scheme should be run.

SPEERS: So just finally on the NDIS we've seen the cost projections. They're extraordinary suggesting that we get to $60 billion by 2030. Personally, do you believe those? But can I also ask you about the benefits? Because this is often lost in the debate, right? There are huge individual, community and economic benefits, aren't there in the NDIS in supporting people with a disability?

SHORTEN: Massive. I think the scheme is sustainable. Some scenarios paint a very high-cost growth which we'd like to restrain the rate of growth of the cost of the scheme. I'm saying to people watching this show, one, we will run the scheme more efficiently and empathetically. Two, we'll sit down and look at some of the long-term pressure so it's not just a lifeboat in the ocean. But three, I just invite Australians, both those with people on the scheme and those who don't know anything about disability. Every dollar that gets spent in the scheme, according to one report that was commissioned recently, generates $2.25 in economic outcome. And perhaps if we just put a human face to it, every person who's got a profound disability, if they get a package of support, they can work in TV, they can work in any business in Australia. If given the opportunities, we should stop necessarily just measuring every cost of input and look at the outcome of quality of life for people. I just want us to have the world's best scheme which is consistent with taxpayer value. But even more importantly, disability could be any of us at any time. Why not give people a fair go in life by some modest support? Smart and generous.

SPEERS: Bill Shorten thanks for joining us.

SHORTEN: Thank you.