Increasing safety for NDIS Participants

I rise in support of the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021. Mr Deputy Speaker, before I get to the bill, I think it would be remiss of me if we didn’t change the tone for a moment and recognise what we are about to celebrate tomorrow.

Tomorrow in Tokyo, the 16th Summer Paralympic Games gets underway. These games will deliver a true spectacle of sport and, hopefully, a big haul of medals for Australia. However, far more than that, these games are absolutely proof positive, that, with the right supports in place, people living with a disability can achieve incredible things and make a wonderful contribution to our society in the most difficult of circumstances. Over the next two weeks, Australia’s 179 Paralympians are going to inspire us and bring us together, at a time of unfortunate division and hardship across our nation—and, hey, we might even get inspired by these Olympians to unite. For many of our Paralympians, like hundreds of thousands of other Australians with disability, it is the NDIS which is delivering the supports they need to make their unique contribution, and today we’re here to ensure that that scheme is helping to deliver the highest possible quality of care.

Earlier in August I met with an NDIS provider called AEIOU, which delivers early intervention services to children aged two to six living with severe autism. The provider’s representatives Lorna Bishop and Nicola Morgan wanted to express to me the enormous improvement that the NDIS has brought to the lives of people living with this condition. As many as 3,000 children living with severe autism across the country have been receiving substantial support from the NDIS to engage with early intervention services like those provided by AEIOU. They have calculated that, for every child supported by their organisation through the NDIS, $2 million worth of benefits are delivered to the economy through reduced ongoing costs in supporting that individual and in their capacity to make their own wonderful contribution to our society. That is not to mention the enormous difference it makes to their wellbeing and the wellbeing of thousands of young people with autism and their families.

In this place and in our communities, when we talk about disability, we often talk about the individual who lives with the disability, but we often don’t talk about the family that supports that person. Lorna and Nicola came to me to express their concerns about the ongoing funding of the NDIS for people with severe autism, and I’ve passed those concerns on to the minister. However, critically, they did so fundamentally because they know what a massive and quantifiable difference the NDIS is already making to so many thousands of lives and out of their passionate desire to see it continue to do so.

One of the privileges I have in this place is serving on the NDIS oversight committee under the fantastic leadership of the member for Menzies. He has done an absolutely sterling job in that role, and this parliament will be the poorer for his no longer being here in the next term. I think in every inquiry I have been to, sat in on, listened to or appeared at, almost every person that appears before that committee will say: ‘We support the NDIS. The NDIS has given our members, our community, our groups and the people in those groups a quality of life that they never had under the old state based system.’ Is it perfect? Of course it’s not perfect.

Those on the other side absolutely dripping in sanctimony—a position which I take great offence at, as the father of a child who lives with disabilities—come in here and continue to run down this government and everybody in it, as though we don’t give a damn about people who live with disabilities. Shame on you. I have sat and listened to these speeches. They are not speeches about a bill; they are absolutely partisan political speeches, that the other side, the Labor Party, continue to weaponise. It’s another subject that they continue to weaponise: our Australians that live with disability. Is the NDIS perfect? No, it is not. Was it designed perfectly? No, it was not. Is it being implemented perfectly? No, it is not.

Over the weekend I was watching SBS. I watched a program on an institution for people who lived with disabilities at the turn of the 1900s in Philadelphia. They were showing photographs and some video of the conditions in which these unfortunate people lived. This is not something which just happened in America; every country in the world shunned our disabled. We stuck them in institutions; we stuck them where we couldn’t see them. It was too painful for the nondisabled to look at and see the lives of these people across the world. So whilst the other side can mock what is happening with the NDIS, the NDIS—as demonstrated and said to me by every person who appears before the committee on which I have the privilege to serve—is amazing. It has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Australians. Could it be better? Yes, it could. But I am not going to stand here and listen to the rubbish that those members opposite continue to perpetrate in this place in talking about cuts.

Under the old scheme, under the old state system, around $8 billion a year was spent on disability services. Now it’s around $28 billion under the NDIS. I’m not quite sure how those opposite can talk about a cut when we look at the simple mathematics of it. So before any members opposite want to come after me and talk about how badly this government is doing and how the members of the government are heartless I want them to think about what I’m saying now, because every time they say that they are driving a knife through the heart of good members of the government who want to see the protection of our disabled—of our people living with disabilities. People in Australia who live with disabilities are not a political tool.

On average, participants in the NDIS under the old scheme are now receiving more than 50 per cent more funding under the NDIS than they were previously. Those formerly in residential aged care are being supported to move into alternative accommodation, and admissions to aged care for those under 65 are down by 68 per cent in just the last three years. No young person who lives with a disability should be living in aged care. The number of participants from remote areas, who have experienced significant challenges in getting support historically, are rising all the time. In the past two years participants from remote areas have quadrupled as a proportion of the total recipients, while there has been an increase by a third of participants from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds—and I acknowledge the minister who is in the chamber here today. The NDIS is truly changing lives.

However, as well as simply providing funding to people living with disability, the NDIS must play a role in ensuring the safety and quality of the service it supports. This government laid the foundation of delivering on that need with the national rollout of the NDIS Quality and Safety Commissioner, completed in December last year and funded with more than $92 million in the 2021 budget. In every state and territory, the NDIS Code of Conduct now applies to workers, providers are held to account in meeting the minimum practice standards required and a consistent complaints process exists to ensure that participants have the ability to raise concerns wherever they live. The government has also introduced the NDIS Worker Screening Check, with more than $16 million in funding, to ensure that potential NDIS workers employed through a registered provider are checked and that those who present an unacceptable risk to people with disability are not permitted contact with participants.

This system is already delivering strong and consistent protection for people with disability in the NDIS, but, as with the terribly sad story of Ann-Marie Smith, such a system can always be improved. The bill before the House today is the latest measure by this government to make that system as strong as it possibly can be. The independent review into the supports provided to Ms Smith, the Robertson review, recommended a number of improvements to the communication of information, which are tackled by this bill. In particular, the bill reduces the threshold test applied when deciding whether to share information between the NDIS commission and the NDIA when working to protect people with disability. At present, the test is whether disclosure is ‘necessary to prevent or lessen a serious threat to an individual’s life, health or safety’. This bill removes the qualifiers from that test. Any threat to the life, health or safety of a vulnerable Australian with disability is a serious threat. This bill amends the legislation to reflect that reality and ensures there is no ambiguity as to when we can act to protect them. Further, the bill acts to strengthen the worker screening regime I mentioned earlier by ensuring that the NDIS commission is able to disclose information to worker screening units where necessary to prevent the wrong individuals being cleared to work with the NDIS providers.

These and many other changes in the bill, and the other clarifying and technical amendments made in the bill, are modest, but they are extremely important. In the days to come, we’re going to see 179 Australians living with disability compete and inspire us on the world stage. They’re going to show us the amazing things that people with disability are capable of. We must not allow these inspiring men and women to blind us to the truth, though, that many Australians with a disability are vulnerable. They rely on their dedicated and hardworking support workers, and they rely on us to ensure that every single one of those workers is doing the right thing each and every day. This bill will make the protections we have in place stronger, more responsive and more flexible, and I commend it to the House.