Minister Bill Shorten interview on ABC Afternoon Briefing


SUBJECTS: NDIS fraud, Robodebt Royal Commission and Scott Morrison’s self-appointed ministerial roles.

GREG JENNET, HOST: Well, let's return to one of our major stories of the day now. Fraud committed on the National Disability Insurance Scheme may have topped $1 billion, according to the Criminal Intelligence Commission's Mike Phelan. Bill Shorten is the NDIS Minister, and he's with us now in the studio. Welcome Minister.


JENNET: So, yeah. You're being encouraged, actively encouraged by Darren Chester, the opposite side of politics, and of course your own, to move right on ahead now with this crackdown much promised by you on NDIS fraud. What have you done since being sworn in?

SHORTEN: Well, I've met with our state counterparts. I've said to them I think we need to coordinate across agencies. I've certainly asked my department and my agency. I said, we're not doing enough on fraud. I tried to warn the old government when I was the opposition spokesperson. We've been in a couple of months and you'll see action in this place sooner rather than later and that'll come in several forms. I agree with Mike Phelan that we need to have different government departments and the police working a lot more closely together.

JENNET: He's talking about a multi-agency taskforce.

SHORTEN: Yeah, that's what he put forward it. I think that's a really good idea, absolutely. Other things I think we need to do, though, is straighten out the back office functioning of the payments of the NDIA. What I mean by that is that I've discovered - and I'd warned the Government when we were in Opposition - but I've certainly had it confirmed since becoming Minister. What happens is that, all too often, service providers can put in an invoice and no one checks if the service has been done. No one properly scrutinises the price. And so…

JENNET: It's just automatically paid.

SHORTEN: Automatically paid, sight unseen. And I know that the agency is beginning to take some steps. There's now a hundred people working on the back office analysis of the data analytics, but this fraud comes in many different forms. It's from the extreme criminal version to over-servicing, and all the good providers are more frustrated than anyone else because it gives the service provision a bad name.

JENNET: So as we speak, do you have any handle on the money that may have been improperly paid, fraudulently paid? Mike Phelan is putting numbers north of $1 billion, I think is his estimate. But have you made attempts to get an internal understanding?

SHORTEN: Yes, I have. I'm aware of when we've- when the agency has audited- noticed a pattern of payments. And I'll use one example: service providers claiming weekend penalty rates for services they allegedly delivered. But the services are actually delivered during the week and which has a lower cost. So this has seen $44 million recouped. I take Mike's criminal intelligence role seriously, they're a serious agency. So if he says it's north of a billion, we've got to start with that assumption. I can see how we can bring back tens of millions pretty quickly, but we're going to have to do a lot more. And…

JENNET: That'd leave you well short of a billion.

SHORTEN: Now, I'll be blunt. The old government used to talk a lot about law and order. Remember, they never saw an issue they didn't want to militarise or put national security on. And that was their call. But on this issue, asleep at the wheel. Remember - and you covered this, the ABC was very forward leaning, covering the previous government's attempts to make it harder for disabled people to get into the scheme or if you're in it, they'd cut their packages, but they just put in the too hard basket; fraud. And I'm at a loss to understand why they never focused on this, because it's a shocking abuse of the system.

JENNET: Do you need to look at the NDIS in isolation though? Because there are patterns of behaviour here, like what do they call it, Whack-A-Mole, where Family Day Care is targeted.

SHORTEN: Spot on.

JENNET: And some of that money, as far as we know, may have funded Islamic State, I think was one of the suggestions, with vast amounts of money. Then you've got the NDIS, you've got other government payment schemes as well. Why not take an approach here that brings them all together?

SHORTEN: I think you've got a great point there. There seems to be, and it happened in the last government, almost a sense of amnesia or Groundhog Day. You know, Family Day Care was rorted in 2017. Some of those characters phoenix their companies, in other words, reinvented the company, but they're the same ABNs and now they're offering services in NDIA world. 
Like, you get the impression the left hand doesn't talk to the right hand. We've seen attempts at Medicare fraud in the past. The private insurers have dealt with issues. So you're right, it is a puzzlement to me and I think to everyday Australians. Why does this keep happening, the private vocational schemes? Anyway, the good news is, in disability we're going to sharpen them up to a point where if you're currently ripping off the scheme, eventually your time's up. You'd better pack up your caravan, pack up the dogs, move on, because we want to lock up the system.

JENNET: So all of these exercises take resources and public servant time, or others. Is the department- are they adequately resourced at the moment to do…

SHORTEN: I think we're going to need more resources. But I make a point that there's currently an opportunity cost. So you can look at the cost of better compliance in isolation, and that's an extra cost. But if you look at the money saved - the money which is actually getting to whom it was intended, the participants - this is a net saving to be better at compliance.

JENNET: And you're committed to putting in, what? Do you know how many more resources?

SHORTEN: Obviously, you've got to talk to my colleagues about that. That's going to be part of the general budgetary process. But I've got no doubt that if we put in more resources, we'll get exponentially better benefits. And I love the NDIS. I helped create it, I'll defend it against the old Coalition Government and I'll defend it against the frauds and cheats who are robbing the system now. 
I want to make clear though that the problems in the NDIS are the making- are caused by people who are not disabled. And they're not caused by the conscientious disability service providers and hundreds of thousands of disability care workers. This is some people who've been operating in a wild west, a lack of scrutiny, and that's got to stop. But there's a lot of good people working their hardest every day, and they deserve the best from us to keep the faith with them.

JENNET: Fair point. Quick one on the Royal Commission into Robodebt. How are you progressing towards that?

SHORTEN: Oh, there'll be more to say about that soon as well. There's a lot of a lot of work underway, underneath the bonnet. Robodebt is - and you covered it very well - is shocking breach of public policy failure in this country. Nearly $2 billion, $2 billion, was unlawfully raised in debts against nearly half a million Australian citizens. 
The Prime Minister and I announced our Robodebt policy, Royal Commission policy, well before the last election. This doesn't have to be the longest Royal Commission in the history of royal commissions. It's a pretty tight area. But the problem is, even though we've got the money back and the debts wiped, we don't know who triggered this failure and why this failure lasted for four and a half years.

JENNET: Well, that'll make the Royal Commission worth its weight, I suppose, when you get to it. Just finally on Scott Morrison and the multi-ministry matter that's at large today, hopefully we get more details via the Prime Minister and the departmental review. But if it was found it was all done legally, but it was still a questionable use of power, would the Government consider some form of censure for Scott Morrison, perhaps, say, on the floor of the Parliament?

SHORTEN: Oh, listen, I won't get into the parliamentary tactics of how we deal with Mr Morrison. That'll be decided down the track. But just, you know, viewers might say, what's this got to do with us? We've discovered that we had a Prime Minister who was acting more from the Donald Trump playbook than the Westminster democracy playbook. The idea that a Prime Minister is accruing powers, not telling the public at large is shocking. The fact that he didn't even trust his own cabinet. When a Prime Minister and a Cabinet don't know what each other is doing, that is a fundamental breakdown in our system of government.

JENNET: Is that all that concerns you? Just the transparency and secrecy side of it?

SHORTEN: Oh, I think the dysfunction, absolutely. It's more than just- you know, if they- if it was all above board, you'd have told people, wouldn't you? But even if they felt they needed to keep it secret, this actually speaks to a pathology or a sickness which existed in that government between 2019 and 2022. Mr Morrison had his miracle election win. The problem is that their conduct since then was just shocking.

JENNET: Well, it's a fascinating insight that we're now getting. Let's see what facts are further established in the days ahead. Bill Shorten, great to see you. Thanks for joining us in the studio.

SHORTEN: Great Greg, thank you.