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15 July 2021


SUBJECTS: NDIS, early intervention, need for more support for Tasmanians, Scott Morrison mismanagement of NDIS, autism, disability, children with disability 


ANNE URQUHART, SENATOR FOR TASMANIA: So thank you very much for coming today. I'm here with Bill Shorten and Ellie, at the St. Giles Early Learning and Therapy Service in Burnie, which is a fantastic opportunity to show Bill, I think, something that when Bill was the parliamentary secretary to Jenny Macklin, that we actually implemented funding to get those services off the ground. So it's fantastic to be able to bring him back here this morning and show him the great work that's continuing in this centre with these children. So I'll now hand over to Bill and get him to say some words.

BILL SHORTEN, MEMBER FOR MARIBYRNONG: Thanks. That was Senator Anne Urquhart, Labor's Senator in the Northwest of Tasmania. It's fantastic to be at the St. Giles Early Learning and Therapy Centre. You know, quite often I feel that Tasmanians don't get the support from the Federal Government that they need. But this is world class, this centre. What happens here is that - plus, in Devonport - perhaps thirty five, thirty six little children, many of whom get a diagnosis of developmental delay or autism, they get the value of early intervention, which means that these kids will get a better start in life than if it hadn't happened. Early intervention is scientifically proven, that if you can diagnose the child early and provide them with occupational therapy, speech pathology and trained care, these kids will do exponentially better in the school system. And I think northwest Tasmanians would be pleased to know that they are only one of five of these centres in the whole of Australia, and it's here in the northwest of Tassie. But the problem is, there should be more than five early intervention centres. The reality is there are waiting lists. The reality is that in Tasmania, kids with a diagnosis of autism need more early intervention. The National Disability Insurance Scheme needs to pull up its socks, provide more generous packages of support, because if you invest in a child whilst they're three and four and five, you'll make a big difference to the rest of their life. The country is not saving money when it doesn't fund early intervention. It just means there'll be greater costs and challenges and disappointment for these kids in their life journeys if they don't access early intervention. Labor is saying the NDIS and the State Government need to do more support for funding early intervention. If you can help a child early on in their life, we will get the dividend back for decades to come. Now, it's my pleasure to introduce Ellie King. Ellie is the far-sighted local leader of this therapy centre, and she will be able to share her views on how we're making life better for fantastic and precious kids who just deserve a go.

JOURNALIST 1: So tell us about your role here, and what you kind of do. 

ELLIE KING, SENIOR STAFF MEMBER: I'm the education care coordinator here. I'm a qualified teacher as well. I've been here for 10 years. And so basically what I do is I support the team to develop programs that suit the child and family's needs and their goals. What we do here is that we have a program here for the children to be able to functionally access the community and so basically what we do is we replicate an education and care centre or a kindergarten, and for those children to be able to transfer the skills they learn here into those community access points. We also allow the families to meet their capacity as well, so when they do exit the service, the families are feeling confident and able to continue on with those skills that the children have learnt here.

JOURNALIST 1: And so do they, after they've started their early learning here, do they transition into primary school life?  

KING: Yes. A lot of our children do transfer into the mainstream education department, or some of them do access the school here for children with additional needs.

JOURNALIST 1: How many kids do you have here and how many do you suspect are trying to get in here, that are on the waiting list? 

KING: So we have recently just reached full capacity. So we have about 36 children enrolled here and at the moment our wait list is around 10, and so families won’t be able to access our Centre until children exit, usually at the beginning of the school year.

JOURNALIST 1: How important is it to these kids? What do you see in the kids when they come in, and then after being in here for a few years, what's changed for them? 

KING: So the confidence and, you know, even a lot of children are nonverbal or don't have those communication skills or social skills to be able to communicate with their peers or adults, or even their parents. And so, you know, it's definitely the biggest thing we see is the children being able to functionally communicate with their peers and their families. And, you know, even the parents, you can see their confidence and, you know, taking ownership of that and feeling really, really, I guess really feeling achieved, I guess, in a sense that they're able to continue the journey without us. 

JOURNALIST 1: The kids on the waiting list, and trying to get in, would they just go to a different pre-school?

KING: Yeah, so the challenging thing is because we are the only Centre to do what we do in the State, there is nowhere else that they can go to get the therapy that we have. So essentially they're put on wait lists at other places or they go to a mainstream centre. They can access the ECIS - the Early Childhood Intervention Service - but that's through launching into learning programs, and the parents need to attend that as well. So there's really nowhere that parents can get the respite or get the learning the children need to get, ready to go into kinder. 

JOURNALIST 2: You also explained how this centre, and what you offer, differs from another, [inaudible]. 

KING: Yeah. So I guess we are a transdisciplinary team. So in addition to teachers and educators, we have speech pathologists and occupational therapists, we have a social worker and we have psych input as well. So they are all a part of the team to program and support the parents in achieving the goals that they set for their children. I think we're quite unique in terms that there is nowhere else that has a team like that, that's able to have a setting like we do. 

JOURNALIST 2: What extra support do you require to be able to provide those services?

KING: So our service has a 1:4 ratio, so we need educators that are skilled enough to be able to be able to deliver the program in a way that the allied health and the teachers have programmed.

JOURNALIST 2: How are you going about getting them onto the coast? I know in a lot of industries at the moment, skilled work is a question, particularly on the coast. Is there any problems from your end of things?

KING: Particularly at the moment with the childcare sector nationally, there is a shortage with educators at the moment. And so trying to, I guess, promote what we do is unique. I think we're really lucky that we have that leg on other education and care centres, and so, you know, we do a lot of in-house training and upskilling our staff and there's always that progression to be able to do a bit more than what a typical care and education and care centre does. We certainly see a lot of those milestones being ticked off, I guess a lot more quickly and a lot more obvious than you would in a typically developing child as well. Which is, you know, really accomplishing for our staff to be able to see that and be a part of that. 

JOURNALIST 2: And do you think there's a way to draw more skilled workers into childcare [inaudible], is there a way to get more skilled workers into childcare particularly here and, you know, with what you do here?

KING: I definitely think that there is a lot more advocating to do and there's a lot more work to be able to get our staff at an expertise, I guess, to be able to deliver such a service. And I certainly think there's a lack in the training with teachers and the education degrees that there is not enough of that inclusivity in those degrees, for our teachers and educators to feel confident in being able to deliver such a program.  

JOURNALIST 1: Tell us, you've been here talking with lots of the sector over the last couple of days. What have you heard are some of the biggest issues, and how bad are they? 

SHORTEN: Well I've heard some good news, and I've heard some bad news.  I just want to congratulate Ellie and her team. This St Giles Early Learning and Therapy Centre is a hope factory. It's giving parents who are dealing with the complexity of a diagnosis of autism in their precious child. It's generating hope. We use the word miracles in modern language a lot and it gets overused. Is a football game a miracle, is a particular football race a miracle? Well, the fact is that here you're probably seeing as close to miracles as you can in the modern world. What we're seeing is kids who come here are nonverbal, kids who have an inability to communicate. Through the patience, the time and dare I say, the love they receive here, the education and support for their families who may be struggling, we're seeing kids learn how to speak. We're seeing kids being able to function and prepare for school. And, you know, that is hope. And we don't have enough hope in our world. In terms of some of the bad news though, we need to start getting more skilled workers in the caring economy into Northwestern Tassie, and Tassie. We need to do something about the unacceptable waiting lists for psychology, occupational therapy, speech pathology. I think the Government, the MorrisonGovernment, shouldn't be cutting people's support packages. It should be doubling down and investing in early childhood education for kids with special needs. The more money spent in early childhood education for kids with special needs, will just save money in the long run. And even more importantly, it will mean that kids who get it can have the expectation of something approaching an ordinary life, just like their brothers and sisters and what their parents dream to have thought of. So, worker shortage, too many cuts, too many inconsistent decisions on the NDIS, not enough NDIS funding for packages for early childhood support. This is a major problem.

JOURNALIST 1: So how big are those waiting lists?

SHORTEN: We heard distressing stories yesterday about people with intellectual disabilities, people with mental health challenges, people with therapy needs waiting months and months and months. What's happening is that the Morrison Government, in my opinion, is treating Tasmanians as second class to mainlanders when it comes to some of these services and needs. The Government agency tasked with some of the funding, the NDIS, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, is taking too long to make basic decisions. It is heartbreaking to hear little kids who need a wheelchair because they're growing need to change their wheelchair, the decisions are taking too long and as a result, kids spine's, kids musculature is being impeded because of bureaucratic delay and indifference on the Morrison Government in Canberra. A child, is a child, is a child, anywhere in Australia, and there's a reasonable expectation that they will receive timely and adequate treatment wherever they are in Australia. Tasmania is not the other side of the moon and it doesn't deserve to be treated as if it is. 

JOURNALIST 1: Recruiting allied health professionals down here has been a long running problem. Why do you believe that the blame should be all on the Coalition?

SHORTEN: Well, I'm happy to blame the Gutwein Government, too. The fact of the matter is that Labor is better at health. For us it's health isn't an ultimate extra you put on the end of a story. If a person has a solid family, has a good job and has access to quality health care, then the world is their oyster. But if one of those is missing, then it becomes more difficult. Health is not the most important issue in Australia, but there is no issue any more important than access to quality, affordable health care.

JOURNALIST 1: What will happen to a lot of the people on the waiting lists if they don't have more of these centres?

SHORTEN: People deteriorate. Life doesn't stand still because you're on a waiting list. If you don't deal with a person's mental health challenges, they don't get better on their own. If you don't deal with a child's waiting list for a wheelchair, they don't start to walk in the interim. If you don't give physiotherapy, and early childhood intervention and speech pathology, and occupational therapy to a three or four-year-old, it means when they're six and seven they're further behind the eight ball than they were already.

JOURNALIST 1: So are you saying that the NDIS needs a complete overhaul, or what would Labor do to fix a lot of these problems?

SHORTEN: I would change the leadership of the NDIS, and I would change the government of Australia. The problem is that the people running the NDIS don't share the values and vision of the NDIS that 430,000 Australian participants have. Labor believes in a generous safety net, which provides individualised packages of support to people who are severely and profoundly disabled, so that they can have some hope in their lives. I don't believe in treating people on the safety net as second class, give them a bowl of soup and meagre rations and tell them to go away and just be happy with second best. That's not the Australia that people believe in. We as a country are strong enough financially that we can provide a generous safety net for the genuinely, profoundly, severely impaired Australians. That could be any of us at any time. Any Australian could have a child who doesn't develop in the way in which you hope, and you've got to change your own dreams and hope for that child. Any Australian in the blink of an eye could become a quadriplegic in a terrible car accident. Any Australian could suffer onset early-aging dementia or another condition. So when we stand up for people with disability, we're actually standing up for ourselves and all our families because these kids could be any one of our families.

JOURNALIST 1: I might just go to the Senator for a few questions. The Northwest represents quite a big, you know, of the NDIS population, is that right? 

URQUHART: That's right, it does. 

JOURNALIST 1: And what are they telling you about some of the problems here? 

URQUHART: I think some of the problems are identified by what Bill has covered, in terms of the lack of assistance for people like, you know, allied health professionals. I mean, we're a very diverse group on the northwest coast. We've got people down the West Coast who need that sort of assistance who simply can't get it. They have to travel [inaudible], which is very, very difficult with the cost of travelling and a whole range of other issues. We've got people dispersed across to King Island. Again, you know, getting access to those - just even here in Burnie, it is very difficult to get access to psychotherapists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, psychiatrists, you know, people wait for months, as Bill said, and sometimes years, just to get a single appointment to assist those people. I think, you know, the Government have been - both State and Federal - have been very missing in this space for quite some time. I mean, they talk a lot about health. They spoke about it during the recent State election. But clearly, in my view, they're not doing anything that actually attracts those sort of specialists that we need here on the northwest coast to come here and stay and be integrated within the community. That's what we need. We need people to have long term visions to come here, not a short term 12 month contract.

JOURNALIST 1: So, yeah, it's been a problem facing a lot of different governments, how do you get people here? 

URQUHART: We've got to make it attractive. So you've got to offer them a longer contract. You've got to bring their family here, and make it attractive for them. You've got to give them the support mechanisms and the opportunities. Because, I mean, when people come here to the north west coast, it's the most beautiful place and people get integrated into them, into the different communities and they become part of the community. If they are welcomed, if they are given that opportunity to integrate not only themselves but their families, their kids into the schools, those sorts of things, you've got to make that attractive. And you can't do that by just throwing a 12 month contract or a very short term contract or just flying in locals, you know, at the end of the day that just fly in, fly out and have no continuity with the people in the north west coast. One of the things that I talk to people about is that they like that continuity. They like to be able to go and see their doctor or their medical person that they can see each time when they go back, not someone that they have to then sit down with each time they go and give that full medical history and get to know that person again. That's very confronting for people, particularly if it is, you know, if they've got a mental health issue. That's very difficult for people.

JOURNALIST 1: How would you describe the NDIS system in Tasmania at the moment?

URQUHART: Well it's, I think Bill has said it's lacking. It's very short. I think it's all over the country, quite frankly. But I think here when we see the needs of people, and I get a lot of people that come through my office, with you know, "I need this for my child" or "I need to have this assistance", and it's really very hard to get that assistance for people - again, I stress, the west coast occupational therapists - to get people down there who have children that are on the NDIS and to try and get access to occupational therapists and other allied health professionals is extremely, extremely difficult.

JOURNALIST 2: I mean, some of the problems you've already touched on is that this region is very spread out. If you put someone in Queenstown, an occupational therapist and so on, and someone on the west coast might still not be able to get there. What are some of the solutions for that?

URQUHART: Take the people there. Take those professionals down there. I mean, we used to have a fantastic service here in northwest Tasmania that the government cut some years ago. I know they've started to implement it again, but it's still not at the level that it was, where we have allied health services visit the state, go down the west coast, visit people, talk to people, you know. And the government pushed a model of [inaudible] from preventative health, to a chronic health model. That's not helping anybody in our community, whether it's young people, whether it's old people, what it is. We need to make it attractive for those people to come to north west Tasmania. And, you know, if they're based in Burnie, then they can travel to the West Coast and people have that continuity with them. It's about making sure that we make people come and stay here and make it attractive for them to be here. 

JOURNALIST 1: And do you think some people and families that might have children with those acute diagnosed needs are leaving the state because there's not the -. 

URQUHART: We know that. We know that's the case. I mean, there's been important issues of families moving to Queensland, for instance. But interestingly enough, we've had families that move here as well. Ellie has outlined to us earlier, a family who's moved from another state to come here to access this Centre. I mean, this is a model that we're very proud of and we should be selling that to the rest of Australia predominately. But we can't because we don't have enough of them. We don't have enough of those services.

JOURNALIST 1: So there's still Tasmanians falling through the gaps?

URQUHART: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Every day.