4BC Afternoons with Sofie Formica Interview

E&OE

SOFIE FORMICA, HOST: Now though, newly appointed Minister for Government Services and Minister for the NDIS, Bill Shorten, spoke this week at a disability conference sharing his vision for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, saying that it can deliver a huge return on investment if it's run effectively.

At the moment, we know the scheme is costing Australians $30 billion a year and that is projected to rise. It could touch $60 billion by 2030 and 2030 is not that far away. There are now 518,000 people using the NDIS in some way.

That number is projected to continue to grow. It could see almost 900,000 people needing the service by the decade's end. So we know the need is great. We also know that the need to be running this scheme well and efficiently is even greater.

Minister Shorten, welcome to Afternoons.

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

FORMICA: Well, I think we can appreciate the enormity of the task that you're undertaking. Where do you start?

SHORTEN: With people with disability, by restoring trust. At the moment, this is a scheme which is a package of individual support for 518,000 people with severe or profound disabilities. Indirectly, it generates jobs for about 270,000 people. It's about $28 billion, which is a massive number.

But we start with making sure that people with disability feel like they have a real say in what's going on and by restoring trust. For a lot of people, it's become a bureaucratic nightmare, a maze of red tape. It feels like a second job for plenty of people. And a lot of people are worried about random, arbitrary cuts to their packages. So there's a lot of anxiety out there.

FORMICA: Yeah. Minister, you've said that you want to focus on the quality and not necessarily on the dollar amount, but what does that mean? We are a nation with a debt that's approaching $1 trillion. There has to be some accountability in the spending.

SHORTEN: Of course there has to be accountability. But what I was getting at is that too often we fail to realise that if this scheme didn't exist, where do you think the 518,000 people would be? They're still alive. They don't go to another planet. It doesn't, so really what we need to do is have a safety net for people with disability. We need to make sure it focuses on outcomes.

At the moment, I am worried that there's a waste of money on consultants. There's overcharging. There could be under servicing. There could be the role of criminals who are getting people's personal identity numbers and fleecing the scheme. That's one area which we've got to crack down on.

The other issue is that this scheme can't be the only lifeboat in the ocean. What I mean by that is that the NDIS was for the most profoundly and severely impaired people. It didn't become a leave pass for everyone else not to provide services for disability. If you've got a precious little baby boy or baby girl who's diagnosed with a developmental delay, autism, at the age of six, the parents are terrified. What happens then when they go into the school system?

So we've got to lift the school system. If you've got mental illness in the family, a family member with mental illness, you either get treated at hospital or you try and get on the NDIS and it's a wasteland in between. So if we want to decrease the rate of growth of the scheme, we've got to be fair dinkum about, look, what are we doing in the rest of society to help people who at the moment have no alternative but try and get on this scheme?

FORMICA: You mentioned the waste, and we have heard many stories from our listeners of what they consider to be price gouging by providers and by carers. Is that being addressed in the short term? We know that some people with high care needs, as you said, have had plans cut without consultation. And yet, on the other hand, we hear about others who are spending money that they receive through the NDIS on what you would consider to be questionable purchases because they know that if they don't spend it, they're not going to get more money.

Just as I'm talking to you, I'm getting texts from listeners saying one's a taxi driver saying: I've picked up people on the NDIS. The kids are on the NDIS. They get money because they are suffering from bipolar. And he said: I pick them and their mates up and take them to the movies. It's a one-way trip that exceeds $100. It's blatant abuse. How do you unravel that?

SHORTEN: Well, first of all, the taxi driver, he's happy to take the fare, isn't he? So I get if people think there are problems and waste but the Quality and Safeguards Commission know. So I think we've got to have a payment system which is scrutinised, where I've been the Minister for at least for 14 days. We've got to have a system where the invoices are fair dinkum.

We've got to have a system where the workers are properly registered who are delivering the service, especially personal care services. So in fact, as I said, I hear the same stories, Sofie. I agree that, for some people, it seems to me that there's no oversight. But for others they're getting unfair cuts. So to me, it's about making sure that the service providers are properly accountable. They can't just send in invoices for any old thing. But I'd also say that I don't know about this taxi driver who got the $100 fare. But what I'd also say is that for a lot of people with disability, taxis are fundamental to how they get about.

So I think it's about proper registration, proper oversight of the systems.

But what is silly and what I feel has been silly about the previous government - I won't talk too much about them - but is that they made, they were kicking people, cutting people arbitrarily but not properly monitoring the payment system. So why should a kid who's six who needs valuable hours of therapy to help move them from being non-verbal to verbal, why should they sort of cop it in the neck? But at the same time, you've got a health service, you've got some services who ask a family when they come from an allied health service, are you on the NDIS or not? If they're not on the NDIS, they charge them less than if they are on the NDIS.

FORMICA: Yes, I've heard that too.

SHORTEN: And a part of that could be because there's too many reports being required by the NDIS but part of it just gets my hackles up. It's not the job of the NDIS to subsidise every patient or everyone coming for a service. So I think getting the pricing right is crucial.

Again, a classic example of this is that for the personal carers who are out there working on $23 an hour, I don't think they're getting paid enough. But for other businesses in the scheme and some of the property developers I think they're making double digit profits, which is not what the scheme was designed to do.

So I think it can work, but I think we've got to be really honest and we've got to be transparent and we've got to call out the rorts, and we've got to say when you need it, you should get it and you shouldn't be driven through a whole lot of red tape.

FORMICA: You mentioned the matter of fraud. Authorities are estimating that to be about 5 per cent of the scheme's budget, which turns out to be about $1.5 billion. That includes tens of millions that could be syphoned out by organised crime gains. Were you aware of how widespread the fraud was? Should we be concerned? And I guess I'm also asking you as Government Services Minister, is there potentially more broadly, across other schemes and services, the ability for people to be able to have fraudulent activity like this?

SHORTEN: Well, first of all, I'm not blaming an individual person in a wheelchair or a family seeking therapy services. What I am concerned about is that where you have government payment systems, it will attract crooks like flies to a honeypot, you know what I mean?

And that's where the scrutiny is important. I had whistle-blowers come to me as Opposition spokesperson and say that the fraud investigations, they're going for the organised crime. And I'm not saying if someone got a more expensive white cane or not, I'm talking about the real crooks.

And they felt that the fraud investigations teams were understaffed and under-resourced. We complained about it in Opposition. I've now formed a very early view talking to criminal intelligence analysts that the people who are in the family day care rorts are looking at other government payment systems like this where they can either take people's personal identity or set up a little syndicate of people who rip off the system. So we've got to have more we've got to have stronger fraud detection services than we currently have.

I'm a bit amazed that the previous government sort of put this in the too hard basket, frankly.

FORMICA: And so that's something that you are committed to doing, making sure that they're resourced?

SHORTEN: Yeah, absolutely. I'm talking to the Attorney-General and others about how do we strengthen the detection. You know, I hope that perhaps some people listening to our interview might know some people and know some people. And I just want to put the organised crime people on notice that ripping off taxpayers and disabled people is despicable. And I don't want I want these funds to get to the people who need them, not be siphoned off by people who are just engaging in fraudulent activity.

SHORTEN: I should say, the vast bulk of it isn't fraud. But, you know, people want the money to be spent properly, that's all.

FORMICA: Sure. It still amounts to a huge amount of money, though.

SHORTEN: Sure it does, yeah.

FORMICA: And I appreciate you've been in this job now for 14 days, and the implementations for these schemes and payments broadly are managed by the public service rather than the government of the day. So what else can you do as Minister, and what changes are underway within those departments to make sure that those processes and those systems are in place so that as taxpayers we know that there is transparency and accountability with where this money goes?

SHORTEN: I'm sitting down with the state ministers tomorrow. Craig Crawford's Queensland's Minister for Disability, he's very conscientious. So this scheme is partly funded by the Federal Government and its revenue and partly funded by states. So anything I do has to be done with the states, I can't do it on my own and they can't on their own either.

So we're going to sit down and talk to the states about how we get improvements. First thing I've done as Minister, though, is call together people with disability, service providers, medical experts and the government to talk about our COVID preparation. Because for people with disability, they're not out of the woods with COVID. I want to make sure they're getting their third and fourth booster shots.

The next thing I've done, is we've got 5,000 matters in court. You know it's incredible, Sofie, that- how does a government scheme allocate its packages based on you have to go to court?

Like, that's absurd. So I want to look at how we deal with the legacy cases in the court, and make sure that in the future the arguments don't get to court. The next thing I'm seeking to do is talk to the states about how we review the scheme, not for the sake of reviewing it, but rather; how do we make the initial plan, the initial contact, which sets someone up in the scheme as seamless as possible?

Because what happens is if that isn't set up right, then it just becomes an endless merry-go-round of people trying to work out what they're entitled to, how does it all work. So they're all, well, I'm getting all of those measures underway. We're headhunting a new CEO. The current one has stepped down. I thank him for his service of the Disability Agency. So you know, we're seeing some personnel, some new blood coming in there, too.

FORMICA: I'd like to ask you about a few other things before I let you get on with your day, Minister. And while we know this week the announcement came from the Fair Work Commission raising the minimum wage rate to 5.2 per cent for workers on award rates that will also go up by 4.6 per cent. What are your thoughts on that announcement?

SHORTEN: I think for people on the minimum award, that extra dollar an hour is going to make a lot of difference. We have supply side inflation in the economy.

This isn't going to see low paid workers sort of leap ahead, but what it will do is try and mean that they don't fall further behind. So I think it's part of the equation. The government announced other cost of living measures on childcare, which we'll be rolling out. People are doing it hard everywhere. I recognise that prices and there's pressure on business, but I think that it's important that the people who come into your shops have enough money to shop in your shops, and I think a dollar an hour seems to be a sensible outcome.

FORMICA: The Independent Commonwealth Remuneration Tribunal has also ordered a 2.75 per cent wage increase for our Federal MPs and public office holders from 1 July. It's the biggest pay rise in a decade. Minister, you have to admit that the optics aren't great with, as you said, so many people struggling with the cost of living pressures.

SHORTEN: The optics are never great for politicians and parliamentarians to get pay rises. I mean, for the last three years there hasn't been one. And listen, I, for some people, people aren't going to be happy until their parliamentarians are hitchhiking to Canberra and camping in a tent on the lawn. I get that the optics aren't great. That's why there's an independent process, because it's a no-win situation.

FORMICA: And finally, from the outside looking in, I don't think it's a stretch to say that the Australian energy sector looks completely broken. Today the Prime Minister has come forward and announced an emissions reduction target of 43 per cent by 2030. Can we have faith that the Albanese Government will implement the national energy policies that are really needed now to give investors, operators and industry some certainty and clarity? And can the government guarantee some fair priced reliable power for Australian consumers where we're looked after first?

SHORTEN: Yes. The problem that we've got is been ten years in the making of we know people are sick of the argy bargy over energy, over climate. I think the nation, and we're seeing it now with older coal-powered fire stations, we're seeing it now with a lack of investment in renewables, we're seeing it now in our inefficient poles and wires transmission sector that we need some long term rules, so that you can get the investment you need to replace and regenerate existing technology and introduce new technology.

It's interesting, I was in Gladstone yesterday and I had the chance to speak with the Prime Minister and he and others who were visiting the Rio Tinto operations up there. The Rio- you know, I guess it's second hand, but I think the big operators and industries are relieved now there's a government who's going to just stick to some basic future-based policies which is in accordance with where the rest of the world's going and gives certainty for investment and therefore jobs, therefore downward pressure on cost of living.

FORMICA: We look forward to those policies. Minister Shorten, thank you for your time this afternoon.

SHORTEN: Lovely to talk. Have a nice day.