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25 August 2021


SUBJECTS: Disability Services Australia voluntary administration; Morrison Government’s failures on the NDIS; Doherty Institute modelling.

PAUL TURTON, HOST: And it's nine past five here with Paul Turton, good afternoon, thanks for having us on at your place today. One of the region's largest disability service providers is facing an uncertain future after entering voluntary administration. Disability Services Australia, which has operated since 1957 and provides services in our region, including at home support and employment assistance to people with a disability. They employ more than six hundred people across the state and support more than 1500 participants with a disability. Their chief executive, Lisa Hart, has told the ABC that the organisation had faced, quote, a number of financial constraints which have been compounded by the pandemic. Now, Shadow NDIS Minister, Bill Shorten, says the lack of appropriate Federal Government funding has played a part in the organisation's insolvency. And Mr Shorten joins me now. Bill Shorten, thanks for doing that.

BILL SHORTEN, MEMBER FOR MARIBYRNONG: Oh, g’day, how are you going?

TURTON: Now, the boss of DSA isn't specifically blaming the Federal Government for their woes. Why are you accusing them of pulling the rug out from under providers?

SHORTEN: Oh, no. I think it's one of the factors. You'll find in my statements today in the media I've said that there's a range of difficulties that DSA has had. They used to do aviation supplies and, of course, that’s tanked during COVID. They had a large underpayment of wages issue, which they had to sort out last year. And they've also extended into some pretty high intense needs clients. So that's been quite costly. Having said that, the Government does provide funding to these services for people. And my mail is, from within the DSA and also other big service providers, that the Government has been cutting what's called supported independent living. So, the Government has contributed to the current insolvency. It’s not the sole cause, but if the Government just pretends that, oh, it's got nothing to do with us, they're just doing what they're becoming notorious for, which is just passing the buck.

TURTON: Bill Shorten, just looking at those numbers, I don't know much about the provision of services within the disability sector, I would imagine that's incredibly wage intensive. And I certainly wouldn't deny those who are struggling for basic, you know, decencies in their life. I certainly would not want to deny them. But 1600 staff servicing 1500 clients. I need to ask the question, are we aiming for a Rolls-Royce scheme that's unrealistic?

SHORTEN: No. You'll find that a lot of these - it's a good question but let me just put your mind at ease. Not all of these staff are full time, but also when you have people who are quadriplegic or 7/24, you can't have one person with them seven days a week, 24 hours. So, it is labour intensive, caring work. For each severely, profoundly disabled person you need more than one carer, because no carer can do 24 hours a day or be there, even in group accommodation. So, no, I don't think the DSA has been running a Rolls-Royce service. But what we do have in Australia is we have some people who do require profound support. And DSA has been a provider of last resort. They've been there when no one else would look after people. And we're not a heartless nation, which throws the genuinely severely and profoundly disabled by the side of the street and leaves them with a cap and a little cardboard sign and says, just beg for your living. DSA does the sort of work which people don't always want to turn their mind to, but any of us, through what the great American poet Robert Frost called a shaft of fate, could be someone who needs DSA. What happens to the people DSA looks after, is it could be any of us in the blink of an eye driving home, and it could be in the birth of a beautiful child who are 12 months doesn't start developing in the way which the parents had planned, or it could be the onset of early ageing and all the challenges that can come with that, with a particular impairment.

TURTON: Bill Shorten, the NDIS is the brainchild of the Gillard Labor Government. Is the failure of a major provider evidence that Labor got it wrong? Or, what's gone wrong?

SHORTEN: Well, first of all, you know, no doubt the Coalition will try and say that, but we haven't been in government for eight years. So, when does the current Government get required to justify their current work? I helped set up the NDIS. I believe in it. But the problem under the current Government is that in my opinion, they've had a caretaker administration. They've had seven Ministers in eight years. It's viewed, it's not taken - within the politics of who becomes an NDIS Minister in the Government, it's normally a parking lot for disgraced Ministers or people on their way somewhere else, up or out. Um, I think that we've lost sight of what the NDIS is about, it's not a like a Newstart program, it's not a welfare program, it was a decision made by both sides of politics, that for profoundly and severely impaired people that we're going to have a generous safety net, which means that they don't live a life of crisis. And when people have got nowhere to go, that doesn't actually make it cheaper for the system. I bet right now in Newcastle, there will be beds currently occupied by people who are profoundly disabled because they can't get their NDIS package sorted. And what that is, is that's way more expensive, to keep someone in a hospital bed than in appropriate accommodation with a well-designed, calibrated, economical support.

TURTON: Bill Shorten, the Minister, the relevant Minister Linda Reynolds, says that she's confident that the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission will look after the clients of service providers such as, you know, the organisation that's in trouble at the moment. Are you confident that the system has enough backstops and safety net?

SHORTEN: I hope so. I've got no reason to not believe the Minister in the short term. But there's longer-term problems across the range of disability organisations, and it really comes down to this. The Government is not running the NDIA well, that's the agency who oversees the NDIS. What happens when you want a disability plan for the person you’re caring for, your family member or you're a participant, you've got to complete a lot of paperwork. That's fair enough. But what happens is the Government can sit on the decision. They're dreadfully slow. There's over a thousand matters that the Government is arguing with people, forcing NDIS participants to get lawyers to go to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. And at the same time as they're drowning the system in bureaucratic red tape. What I also believe to be the case is they've got an unwritten instruction to wind back people's packages, to keep reducing it by stealth.

TURTON: But there's no evidence of that, is there?

SHORTEN: Oh, there is. Just go and speak to - I'll tell you what, why don't you and I do an open mic session one day, give people lots of notice. Let's see all the people ring in who think that they've got problems and they're seeing their plans cut. I'm out in the real world. I'm talking to the real people. And I hear that there are problems. Now, the NDIS has been fantastic for a lot of people. Do not get me wrong, and I don't want the listeners to get me wrong. I love it. And it's made life changing support for people who used to be in diabolical trouble. But the Scheme is losing sight of it being about individuals. And it's becoming very cookie cutter. And there's a lot of red tape. For instance, a lot of people in the scheme will complain that the people they're dealing with don't seem to always understand the particular impairment or that because there's a high staff turnover and the Government's got a clamp on permanent jobs, that they'll deal with casuals and contractors who might not be as familiar as the person who was dealing with it. And so, I think there's a lot of design improvements can be made to the Scheme. But, you know, there are problems out there. And I'd love to do a community session where we just took calls. Let’s see if I'm making it up or not.

TURTON: Okay, let's work towards that. Bill Shorten, just in regard to being in opposition at a time of crisis, as COVID-19 clearly is. It's a political dangerfield, of course, criticising your opponent’s when they're doing the best they can in adverse circumstances is not easy. Are you happy that the Labor Party has been able to strike enough blows on the Government during this time?

SHORTEN: Yeah, I think it is a difficult time. People don't want to hear politicians fighting each other. It just makes people sick to the guts to listen to that. On the other hand, you know, I do think the Federal Government has made a couple of basic mistakes. And so, there's a very fine line between being too weak in opposition and too strong in opposition. I was Opposition Leader for six years. I guarantee you, that line is invisible to the human eye. You're either too weak or too negative. So, you know, I think we've been getting the balance right. I mean, the real issues are the Federal Government hasn't done enough on quarantine. There shouldn't be tens of thousands of Aussies stuck overseas. And the vaccine rollout, whilst it's gathering pace now, was slower than it should have been, in my opinion, and I think the opinion of a lot of people. But listen, we're getting there, too. And that's why I think Anthony Albanese tried to strike the balance between being constructive. But it would have been good if the Government, the Federal Government, had included the Opposition Leader in the National Cabinet. You know, if you want to work together, it's a two-way street. You can't just expect the opposition to sit around at their mailbox waiting for a letter from the Government to, you know, tell us what to do or what do.

TURTON: You support the Doherty Institute model and the possibility of simply living with COVID towards the end of the year.

SHORTEN: I think we have to learn to live with COVID. I've supported lockdowns. I'm currently in isolation myself, I live in Melbourne, arguably one of the most locked down cities in the world, you know, but the aim to get to COVID zero wasn't because we could stay COVID zero forever. It was to give enough time to virus proof our hospitals so that when people got sick, they wouldn't be overwhelmed by tens and tens of thousands of people. Now, I think the states – listen, I’ve got my reservations about the New South Wales Government, I think they probably should have locked down a bit earlier, but I'll go back to the big picture. COVID zero was about buying time so we could get vaccinations, people learning to live with masks, better airport testing, better quarantine facilities, better ventilation. We can't indefinitely sit on a chair in a room in a house and wait for COVID to go away. It's here. So, what we have to do is get our vaccination levels up to such a high level that when we move beyond lockdowns, our hospitals won't be overwhelmed.

TURTON: Bill Shorten, I appreciate you being available. Thank you.

SHORTEN: Yeah, lovely. Lovely to chat. Thank you.

TURTON: There's the opposition spokesperson on the NDIS, Bill Shorten on ABC Newcastle.