Interview with Minister Shorten on 2GB


SUBJECTS: NDIS; fraud, clearing AAT cases and improving hospital discharge rates.

PHIL WOODS, HOST: But right now, well, there's no doubt there's been fraud and rip offs inside the National Disability Insurance Scheme. It's been going on for a while, but there's even talk of criminal gangs. I mean, this is organised fleecing of apparently more than $1 million a year from a scheme that exists to help people who really need support. The new Minister is Bill Shorten. He now has the task of unravelling a lot of stuff. That's just part of it, actually, a number of cases in the appeals process. And he's been kind enough to join us now. Minister, thanks for joining us.


WOODS: Well, this sounds like it could be even tougher. You may have preferred to be prime minister in 2019 than trying to sort all this out in 2022. This is complicated.

SHORTEN: Well, the universe doesn't grant reruns. I'm pleased that Anthony and the team got elected now. But there are issues here which frankly, and I suppose whilst this will frustrate listeners, it also should be a relief to them. These issues that we've got to fix in NDIS are not a sort of traditional battle of Liberal or Labor and the ideologies. It's just competence and cracking down on the rubbish. 

So, the scheme is a great scheme. It's making a world of difference to thousands- hundreds of thousands of people and their families. But I have no doubt, and I picked this up in opposition and now I'm definitely onto it now we won the election, but there are opportunistic and organised criminals. Who, according to the criminal intelligence that I read now in government, are attracted like flies to the honeypot over a government scheme such as the NDIS. And we've got to, in particular, I'm concerned that some of the people who were ripping off the Family Day Care Scheme seem to have upped sticks and move to the NDIS. And that's what I want to get to the bottom of it.

WOODS: It is extraordinary. Whether it's inflated invoices, falsified bookings, but to find out that it's a systematic thing, that it's organised to that level. How do you, sort it out? To what level, to where? How much do we have to spend to investigate this for a start?

SHORTEN: Oh, I think whatever we spend, we're going to recover more. So, that's the good news. But no, I think initially there's two things. I've got to make sure that there are adequate fraud detection resources within the agency and that they're working with, not just the AFP because they're in charge of Commonwealth mandated crime, but state police and also the tax office. I think we've got to share some data. Because these crooks are not as clever as they think they are. They've just been getting away with it for too long. 

So, I think once we match up the data of income and get the tax office involved, as well as the police, as well as our own agency investigators. I'm confident that the message can go out that the NDIS is no longer a soft touch. But the other thing here, of course, is that some people aren't getting paid enough for doing their services in the system, but others, I think, some invoices are too high. So, we've got to make sure, not only are the crooks being warned off, but that we've got a payment system which scrutinises the value for money. I want to be at pains to say, this is not kids with autism, or their families I'm criticising. It's not people stuck- people in wheelchairs. It's some service providers potentially overcharging and not providing the taxpayer value for money that either the participant expects, but also the taxpayer.

WOODS: Well, as I said earlier, there are a number of layers to this. And first of all in terms of the organised rorting, we're just getting briefly back to that. There are really two things aren't there?


WOODS: There's the investigation of it. That- the actual criminal investigation, because that's what it is. And secondly, there's the kind of rort proofing that you might be able to do.


WOODS: And you've talked about cross checking there. That's more on the proofing side of things, isn't it? To try and shore up the system so that they just can't get through it?

SHORTEN: Yeah, it is one: catching the people currently coming in the back door, and the other one is locking the back door so that other people can't come in. It's making sure that there's proper oversight. That when an invoice comes in for the money from- what happens in the scheme is an individual participant gets a package of money. They're allowed to use, you know, services, want to make sure that the invoices which get by some service providers, that someone's eyeballing them. And making sure that they're not just able to put in an invoice unscrutinised.

WOODS: The next level of this, as you say, is service providers. And we do not wish to in any way tarnish the reputation of those people who are doing a great job and charging adequately.

SHORTEN: 99 per cent, yeah. Most people.

WOODS: This is- and look, Minister, you know as- coming pretty close to being a Prime Minister, you would know that this is across a lot of government services. It's a perennial problem, and you only have to go back to the days of yes Minister and yes, Prime Minister. It's universal. I don't know how you stop service providers, or any contractor that has a government job, from somehow rorting and getting taxpayers dollars. It's notorious, and NDIS is just one of many.

SHORTEN: The good news is that I don't have to reinvent the wheel, and successive governments have tried to get on top of this. What I need to do is make sure that- there's an amount that you can charge for a service provided. What we need to do is make sure that that amount is right. So, it's getting the initial sort of price guide right. Now, a lot of people, you know I want to emphasise here, have worked on this issue since the NDIS was created nine, 10 years ago. But, I just think the more that this transparency and how prices are set. 

The other thing is that, and maybe it's coming from a good place, but if someone turns up with- their child's got an NDIS package for therapy services it's, you know, a certain amount of dollars and if they don't have an NDIS package, it's a lesser amount. My view is that the NDIS can't subsidise the whole health system. In other words, and the conversation I want to have with the highly trained and skilled professionals, and the businesses big and small, and the not for-profits, is let's charge what it actually costs. Not let's charge what you need to run a business model to cross-subsidise other parts of the business. Does that make sense?

WOODS: Yes, it does. And well, funnily enough, before I even knew we were going to do this interview, I was reading on social media during the week. A person who's in a wheelchair who, quite logically - I won't go through the whole story - but basically they were charged $65 or something for a small part that they needed for their wheelchair that they could have bought for $6 on eBay. Now, that's an anecdote - I don't know how true it is or how accurate, but I think it's pretty typical, isn't it, of a lot of these types of problems? On a small scale anyway.

SHORTEN: What some people in the disability sector say: Bill, don't talk about this issue. And what I say back to them is: I'm a defender of the Scheme, I love the Scheme. But the community at large, you know, they talk to their friends, they- their local footy club, the school pick up, and you hear some stories of price gouging. And not addressing the question of price gouging doesn't actually make the scheme better or more credible.

I think when it comes to people with profound and severe impairment, the nation is smart enough and generous enough - and they've said so periodically in polls and commitments, they don't mind their taxes, some of their tax is being used for this. And I think that's a great thing. It's a generous thing. But, I think our obligation is to recognise the schemes an investment in people - it's not about counting every penny. But on the other hand, we've also got to make sure that it has community goodwill, and you do that by tackling the issues which are uncomfortable. But if people think they're happening, ignoring them doesn't make it a- life's not a fairy tale. You've got to deal with what people actually think and know what's happening, not what you wish was happening.

WOODS: And look, I don't wish to be unfair to the vast majority of very hard-working public servants out there, and then the bureaucracy, but is there also - apart from systemic solutions, can you- is there an attitude problem, perhaps, with bureaucrats when it comes to spending taxpayer's money? In terms of- I'm getting now to the idea of, you know, tenders and how much you're prepared to pay for contracts.

SHORTEN: Well, certainly in my area of Services Australia - you know, the Department of Human Services, Centrelink and the NDIS - the public servants I meet are incredibly dedicated. They're not- and this should reassure people, I've been very impressed by the professionalism of the people I've met so far. It's only been three weeks or four weeks, but I just want to reassure people that the public servants that I deal with, they're not highly paid. They do the job in part because of their commitment to the greater good, as well as getting remunerated, and they are very mindful this is taxpayer money. 

I think we've asked a lot of our public service in the last couple of years during COVID. They're the front line of people dealing with people who are distressed. No one goes to see the Government when you're happy, or very rarely - it's when you're unhappy. And there's been such an explosion in demand for services that, no, I think our public servants are very mindful that this is taxpayer money and I think they've been asked to do a lot on a shoestring, frankly.

WOODS: The reason I'm asking these questions, of course, is that just in the last week, the $25 million flagpole on Sydney Harbor Bridge did, for a lot of people, symbolise public spending.

SHORTEN: Yeah, that's right. I'm not- Having said that, I think that most public servants incredibly dedicated, and modestly paid, and very focussed on the greater good. Sometimes you do see decisions which you go, what? I mean the one which I still struggle with was the purchase of that land out at Leppington for the, you know, for the new airport.

WOODS: Airport.

SHORTEN: It was valued at $3 million, and somehow the taxpayer under the previous government paid 30 million. Now, maybe there's a good reason, but I think people don't like to be- people don't like to be treated as stupid.

WOODS: Got any examples of Labor excessive spending you want to mention, Minister? (laughs)

SHORTEN: We've been in for three years- three weeks.

WOODS: What about state governments, though? The flagpole is the state government?

SHORTEN: Oh, I thought Mr Perrottet - who's in charge in New South Wales?

WOODS: Yeah. I know, but I'm just saying there's other Labor State Governments there. There's bound to be an example in those states. But anyway.

SHORTEN: Sure. No, sure. And I guess all I can say is that, in my area of the NDIS and Centrelink, what I've seen is that there's not enough bodies to do the work, there's a lot more demand on them, and they are conscious. But I think sometimes what we see is ridiculous red tape. So I mean that's slightly different to your point about making sure someone's not getting a windfall deal at the expense of the taxpayer. 

But how do we- When we ask, and this is a classic one in disability businesses, we want to make sure that they're doing things safely, high quality. But I want to make sure that we're asking the businesses who we get registered to deliver services and [indistinct], to measure what really matters, not just count widgets. 

So I've certainly- that's something which I'm looking forward to working on is, if we're going to ask people to report to Government, and we're going to ask people to, you know, adhere to standards, let's make sure we're measuring the stuff that matters, not the stuff that doesn't matter. Because that really frustrates everyone and adds cost and time.

WOODS: And you said fast track. What does that mean in Government terms?

SHORTEN: Fast track which particular issue?

WOODS: Well, you're quoted as saying that you're going to try and fast track these changes to NDIS to make it more efficient.

SHORTEN: Yes. Well there's some things which- There's a lot of distrust out there with people with disability because there seem to be a lot of arbitrary cuts to plans and supports in the last couple of years. Can't fix- Rome wasn't built in the day. I picked a few of the harder issues which really go to the heart of the matter, and see if we can't get resolutions. And that'll build a bit of trust back in the system. 

There's two I've got in mind. One is this 4,500 court cases where people have had cuts to their packages, and they've had to go to court to resolve the issue. And I want to blitz that waiting list of cases, see if I can't reduce that through conciliation - kick the lawyers out of the room and see if we can't resolve it. So that'd be a good start, so people don't have to go through the trauma of court cases just to get to a wheelchair or a home modification. 

The other thing which I'd like to do pretty quickly, and it's a complicated issue but I think it shouldn't be put in the too hard basket, is there's currently people in our hospitals - in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, you name at Perth - who are eligible for NDIS accommodation. In other words, they've got a severe disability; they need 7/24 care; their, you know, their lives are complicated, some of their needs. But at the moment the system's taking so long to process them that they're occupying a hospital bed which is ten times more expensive. And I want to see if we can't get people out of hospital beds and then, arguably, aged care. You know, people under 45 and see if we can't wrangle them into proper accommodation which will save the taxpayer cost in the Health system. It will provide a better quality of life for the person who's stuck in the hospital bed. 

So there are a couple of issues I'd like to just really focus the national effort on and show people that the problems traditionally put in the too hard basket, actually with enough effort and common sense, can be moved out of it.

WOODS: Well good luck with it. We wish you all the best, Minister. Time will tell. Thanks for joining us this morning.

SHORTEN: It does sound Herculean, I agree. We'll get there.

WOODS: Well, at least you're trying.

SHORTEN: That's true.

WOODS: And as I said, it'll- you'll be measured on it at the next election, I'm sure.


WOODS: Thanks for joining us, Bill Shorten.

SHORTEN: Cheerio, bye.

WOODS: There he is, the Minister for Government Services and the NDIS.