National Disability Insurance Scheme Joint Committee

December 03, 2020

I am very pleased to speak on the report by the Joint Standing Committee on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and I commend the work that they're doing in a bipartisan way to address the significant issues that people are facing with the scheme. When it's working, the NDIS is working really well. When it's not, it is taking an horrific toll on people—participants and carers alike. I do note that a bit over a decade ago we wouldn't have been having these sorts of discussions, because the NDIS didn't exist. Its existence does give us hope that we can make things better, not just for some people with a disability but for every person with a disability.

I want to preface my remarks on the report today by acknowledging that it is the International Day of People With Disability, and that is really a day about 20 per cent of the population, because one in five Australians identify as having a disability. The theme of this year's Day of People with Disability is 'build back better'. Having just come from the morning tea in Parliament House organised by the shadow disability minister, Bill Shorten, and by the chair of the committee on whose report we are speaking today, Kevin Andrews, it was really terrific to be able to acknowledge the contribution that people with a disability and their carers make, the role they have, the respect they deserve and the dignity that they should be receiving. I think this report does go to that ensuring that people are treated with dignity as we, hopefully, build back better from what we have seen in 2020.

At the event, the point was made that things did get tougher for people with disabilities and their carers during COVID, but Canberra disability advocate Dougie Herd actually voiced thoughts in the room when he said that the restrictions that we had experienced during COVID were something that many people with a disability routinely experience—the separation, the restriction of lifestyle—which is why it is so important that we do heed the words of the theme of this year's International Day of People With Disability and do strive to build back better. What the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability raised about the serious failure of the government to consult with the disability community during COVID-19 and their response to it gives us even more reason to address those concerns.

The commission found that there was a lack of consideration for people with a disability, including the absence of a plan for testing and the availability and delivery of personal protective equipment to them and their support staff. They recognised how much extreme stress that, among a whole lot of other issues, caused people. It's very clear: people with a disability don't want things to go back to where they were pre-COVID. They want and they deserve things to be better, and that's what this report is about. It's about looking at where the NDIS has come from, where it is now, the problems that it has, the things that are broken within it—the things that are simply not working for far too many people.

The evidence given to the inquiry matches much of what I hear in my own electorate of Macquarie. I'm told that my office continues to be one of the most active in raising issues with the National Disability Insurance Agency. That's because not only do I have a deep commitment to making sure the NDIS works; my team has that commitment. Kim in particular in my office is the person that people speak to first about the problems they're facing, and she hears firsthand the distress and the experiences that they're going through. We don't want to get those phone calls. We want to make sure that everybody is experiencing the NDIS the way it was intended—as a just and fair process, where they're treated with respect and dignity.

The key theme of this report is around planning, and I have to say that that is one of the biggest issues that is raised with us. In a survey that I've commenced to identify what people are finding are the biggest issues right now, to which I've had dozens and dozens of responses, planning is right up there. I'm seeing people at breaking point. In the lead-up to their plans or their child's plan being redetermined, they are beside themselves trying to get together the paperwork and the documentation. Then they're asked for more documentation. This matches the evidence that this inquiry heard, and it matches some of the recommendations that have been made. I welcome the 42 recommendations in this report, plus the 14 from the interim report. The number of recommendations from a bipartisan committee shows that there are serious things to be addressed.

One of the other things that is touched on—and I know there will be more work for the committee to do on this—is independent assessments. My survey certainly shows that that is one of the greatest fears for the future that people have. There's been very poor consultation about it, and people have genuine concerns that the whole purpose of independent assessments is to reduce the amount of funding that they receive as a participant or that their child receives as a participant. They think it's going to be about taking away supports, and nothing they have been told has reassured them otherwise. They wonder how a conversation of between one and maybe four hours with one person they've never met before is going to paint the full picture of what they or their child needs and why the reports that they have been used to getting aren't sufficient evidence to show what their needs are.

I want to come to some of the recommendations. This inquiry and the report of the committee touched on so many issues. There's the inconsistency of plans. You only need to have two mums talking together about their children, each with different but not dissimilar needs, to see that there is massive inconsistency. What worries me the most, in some ways, is not the conversations I'm having with mums; it's the mums who aren't talking to me, the mums who have just walked away from the National Disability Insurance Scheme because it's too hard to navigate. I hope that the government will consider implementing some of these recommendations—in fact all of them—so that that doesn't occur.

Planner errors come up time and time again—simple things like the form having the wrong disability articulated on it. I get that planners have huge workloads. The workforce issue is another key area to be looked at, and I note that the committee is aware of that. Planners who go above and beyond are delivering terrific plans to children and adult participants in the scheme. But one of the things we've seen, for instance during COVID, is the concern that because money couldn't be spent during COVID that unspent money is going to be taken away. It really doesn't matter how often governments say that won't happen. When your review date comes up, when your plan is up for review, you don't have any transparency about why the decisions are being made. You don't always get reasons why a particular decision on a previous support is being taken away, even when it's been recommended.

It's clear that planners don't all understand every disability. How could they? How could planners understand every single disability? One of the recommendations is around having planners who are specialised in a number of ways around specific disabilities, but also specialised to help participants who have been hospitalised who are being transitioned out. That requires a different level of knowledge and understanding.

One of the things that I think will be really welcomed, and I urge the government to adopt this recommendation, is that where planners are rejecting the advice of a medical professional, and when the plan doesn't reflect that expert advice developed specifically for that participant, that the NDIA is required to provide written reasons for this decision at least one week prior to any joint planning meeting. That gives the participant and their advocates and supporters time to digest and get their head around it. I have constituents who talk to me about feeling they were smashed in their planning meeting because they were just blindsided by some of the decisions that were made. The recommendation No. 1 that participants and their nominees receive a draft plan at least one week prior to their meeting—how can that not be happening already? It's just a disgrace.

I really welcome these recommendations, but it is up to the government to implement them. That's the key. We need to see a government that doesn't just talk about its commitment to the NDIS, but demonstrates it. This provides a way for them to show they do actually care.