Minister Bill Shorten interview on ABC Radio National

SUBJECTS: NDIS fraud, Uluru Statement from the Heart and Scott Morrison.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Well, the Federal Government is promising to crack down on rorting of the National Disability Insurance Scheme which it says is partly responsible for the Scheme's soaring costs. Concerns about fraud have prompted Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission Chief, Michael Phelan, to call for a new multi-agency taskforce to tackle the problem. He's told the Sydney Morning Herald that as much as 20 per cent of the $30 billion annual cost of the NDIS might be being misused, which is, can I just say, a really staggeringly high number. 

Bill Shorten is the Minister for Government Services and the NDIS and our guest this morning. Welcome.


KARVELAS: This is an extraordinary number. Michael Phelan estimates that fraud accounts for 5 per cent of the NDIS are conservative. They could be as much as $6 billion or 20 per cent of the annual cost of the NDIS. Do you think it's that high?

SHORTEN: I think any dollar which gets ripped off between taxpayers and people on the Scheme's too high. I'd been warning the previous government for the last couple of years of the figure of around 5 per cent. Obviously we'll talk further to Michael Phelan, CEO of the Australian Crime Intelligence Commission. 
But I think there is a problem. I said it before the election and since the election I've started alerting colleagues, pushing the agency, talking to state ministers about the need for government agencies to work together to combat the scourge of fraud.

KARVELAS: What kind of fraud are we talking about here, Minister? Are these people with legitimate claims who's funding is being stolen? Or are we talking about fraudulent claims? Explain to me how it works.

SHORTEN: I think it's coming in two or three different ways, this fraud. Mike Phelan was talking about Middle Eastern organised crime gangs through coercion and other criminal tactics, accessing the accounts and putting in invoices. So that's one way. 

But I also suspect that there's ghosting, where there's false invoices and false clients may be being made up. I want to find out if that's true. 

But then there's another way. It's just the padding of bills by people who might be not connected to organised crime, but they're just robbing the Scheme. I also worry that the fraud or overpayment is occurring through a lack of scrutiny of the invoices. 

What's ironic is the former government, I think they decided chasing fraud was too hard so instead they decided to make it harder for genuine people to get onto the scheme or they would cut packages unfairly of people on the scheme. 

But for me I want to prioritise, not the front door of the scheme but the back door. Because I think the old government had the welcome mat out and we've got to- I think everyday Australians will be surprised that there's not more due diligence done on the invoices of people claiming to have provided services. 

So I think there's a range of different ways. And the other thing is, whilst it's not fraud in the sort of crime gang sense is, just people overcharging for services, full stop. And I just- you know, don't rip off a person with a disability on the Scheme just because you think it's taxpayer money. It's actually scarce services going to people who desperately need them.

KARVELAS: What level of resources is being dedicated to tackling fraud if it's as high as 20 per cent potentially? Which is just enormous. And does it require more resourcing to crack down on it?

SHORTEN: I'm not satisfied that the existing level of resources is what it should be. You know, you don't always want to hark back to the past, but over two years ago we had a whistle-blower come forward and they said there weren't even two fraud investigation teams properly staffed up. You know, we complained then and got the usual patronising; go away, we've got it all under control, response from the old government. 

So I'm meeting the agency today. I want to satisfy myself that the resources are what they should be, and if we need more resources, we're going to have to find them. Because frankly, it'll pay for itself. If we can stop some of the money being ripped off and we spend instead greater resources on fraud detection, it means that we still have a better, sustainable scheme and people with disabilities are getting those extra hours of therapy or support or home modification, which at the moment this crooks are denying them.

KARVELAS: There have been high profile cases of NDIS involving millions of dollars of misused funds, people prosecuted and people jailed. How much of that money that was stolen has been recovered?

SHORTEN: We're talking about tens of millions. We're not talking about anywhere near what Mr Phelan was talking about last night. 
It's a mystery to me why different parts of government don't talk to each other better. We saw rorters go through the private VET schemes - that's the vocational education schemes; we saw in 2017 exposure, eventually, of family day care schemes where people were basically making up false services and then padding invoices and then sending them in to get paid. Yet I'm not satisfied there's sufficient communication between the National Disability Insurance Agency and the tax office, policing. It shouldn't be this way, but it is, and I don't understand why more hasn't been done earlier.

KARVELAS: Look, just on two other issues that I think are significant this morning outside of your portfolio.


KARVELAS: Former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, described an Indigenous Voice to Parliament as a third chamber and shut down the idea of a referendum around that.

SHORTEN: I remember.

KARVELAS: Yes, I remember, we all remember - those of us engaged in this. Today in The Guardian, he's written that he'll vote yes in a referendum. Do you welcome his change of heart?

SHORTEN: I do. When the Uluru Statement from the Heart emerged in 2017 I, as Opposition Leader, and Malcolm as Prime Minister had been waiting to see what would emerge. And unfortunately, back then - and maybe it was a phenomena of Malcolm battling the Conservatives in his party - but he sort of shut the debate down, which I thought was a shame. Labor at that time took a different view. We welcomed it, the Voice proposal. 

But it's great that Malcolm's on board with this. Hopefully that signals that other people are thinking about the issue. It's not a Labor versus Liberal issue. It's a question of whether or not we want to see our First Nations people on the nation's theoretical birth certificate, the Constitution. So, hopefully this debate can be done without rancour and partisanship.

KARVELAS: Just one other issue, and we have revealed this morning that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is now seeking legal advice on what exactly happened with these reports that Scott Morrison swore himself in as the Minister for Health, Finance, and Resources, as revealed by Sam Maiden…


KARVELAS: …one of our regulars here - during the pandemic and didn't tell his colleagues. What do you make of this?

SHORTEN: It's amazing.

KARVELAS: It's a little bit odd.
SHORTEN: Oh, a little bit odd would be the most generous statement of the day about it. I often thought that Scott Morrison would ghost the Australian people with his explanations. But to find out that he was ghosting his own Cabinet ministers, goodness me, that was just- he was off on a trip. I don't know if it's some messianic complex or maybe he just thought he was the Australian version of Kanye. But this is actually a serious matter and he's just- if he didn't have the confidence in his own Cabinet, he should have told the people, alright? That's a big issue.

KARVELAS: Could there- Yeah. Could there be any justification? Because obviously, particularly with Health, we were having an unprecedented pandemic. I'm just, you know, putting the alternative - I don't have Scott Morrison on the program to explain. So, is there any grounds at which he could do such a thing? 

SHORTEN: Honestly, I've never heard of this. In World War II, I'm not aware that John Curtin swore himself in as Defence Minister even though we were fighting the Nazis and the Japanese. So I don't know what was going through his head to be honest. It's unusual. And the other thing is, if he felt the need to do it, why not tell people? Why be secretive? 

I mean, we've seen what happens in America when you see the secretive actions of ex-President Trump. This is about the Constitution; it's about our whole system of government. It's a very unorthodox manoeuvre, and if you're going to do things which are unorthodox you really need to have a very good explanation and I haven't heard one yet. 

And I mean, obviously, on the Energy Minister, he was feeling the pressure of that off shore oil development 60 kilometres off the coast of New South Wales and he obviously thought his Energy Minister was going to tick it, and he felt for other reasons it shouldn't be. But it was just- obviously, that last term, it was just the dying days of a Liberal government which was dysfunctional and a Prime Minister who didn't trust his colleagues. It's Nixonian. It's just- it's unusual.

KARVELAS: Very unusual. Bill Shorten, thanks for joining us.

SHORTEN: Thank you.

KARVELAS: Bill Shorten is the Minister for Government Services and the NDIS.