The Australian Labor Party’s announcement of a plan to improve the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and broader community programs has given people with disability hope for positive change following the Federal Election.
If elected to Government on 21 May, Labor has promised widespread reform to the NDIS and the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) that runs it.
Shadow Minister for the NDIS Bill Shorten accused the Government of not managing the NDIS and funding in the way it should be managed during his disability support plan launch yesterday.
“This Government has a problem with the NDIS but they’ll never come out and declare it,” he says.
"...You can't move around the corridors of Parliament in Canberra without tripping over a Coalition Minister whispering the Scheme is unsustainable.
“I'm here to tell you today that is a lie.
“The Scheme is only threatened in its survival by the incompetent management of the current Government…the money is there, the problem is it’s not being spent on the right priorities.”
The Labor party has outlined six key ways in which it will achieve the NDIS reform and “return it to its original vision”, including:
- Lifting the staffing cap at the NDIA and adding a further 380 staff, reducing the amount of insecure labour hire arrangements, increasing the number of permanent staff and reviewing the NDIS’ design, operation and sustainability
- Reviewing the use of external lawyers and consultants and cracking down on criminal activity and fraud
- Streamlining the planning process to create better initial plans, as well as fixing the reviews and appeals process
- Introducing an expert review to guarantee plan funding is not cut arbitrarily
- Appointing a senior officer at the NDIA to address barriers to service delivery in regional areas
- Co-designing all changes to the Scheme with people with disability and increasing the number of people with disability on the NDIA Board
While launching the plan, Mr Shorten spoke about the importance of returning the NDIS to the model of choice and control it was designed to be, and of co-designing the Scheme to follow the motto “nothing about us, without us”.
“The trust is broken after ten years of absentee landlordism by the current Government with people with disability and their representatives - trust is broken," says Mr Shorten.
“...What we are trying to do is rebuild trust.
“The truth of the matter is that right now there is an undeclared war against people on the Scheme from the Government.”
In response to the Labor announcement, Minister for the NDIS Linda Reynolds says the Morrison Government is providing record funding for disability services.
The Government has increased funding of the NDIS, as it has grown in the number of participants, and the Federal Budget for 2022/23 outlined $33.9 billion allocated for the NDIS over the next year, part of a $157.8 billion package over the next four years.
“[This] is only possible because we have a strong economy,” says Minister Reynolds.
“The economic insecurity offered by [Opposition Leader] Anthony Albanese is a real risk to this record funding.”
Minister Reynolds says she believes Labor’s plan for “expert reviews” will introduce “an additional layer of bureaucracy” and “slow down decisions for participants”.
The other parts of Labor’s plan to improve the NDIS have also been criticised by Minister Reynolds.
“Labor’s promise for yet another review, on top of all the previous reviews, will add more uncertainty for participants and providers,” she says.
“Labor’s unfunded promise to remove the NDIA staffing cap and for another 380 NDIA staff needs to be properly accounted for in Labor’s policy costings.”
The aspects of Labor’s plan to support people with disability, that are not specific to the NDIS, include commitments to:
- Double existing disability advocacy funding - an additional $10 million over four years
- Investigate the delays to accessing appropriate housing
- Establish a Centre of Excellence for employment of people with disability
- Develop a National Autism Strategy
- Create a central coordination point for crisis management to ensure people with disability are protected in future emergencies
So far, the sitting Government has not made any Election promises around changes to the NDIS, aside from promising to fully fund it, and has not announced any new promises on top of funding outlined in the Federal Budget.
Positive response to Labor’s plan from sector
Disability peak bodies and organisations have responded positively to the Labor Election commitments.
The Australian Federation of Disability Organisations (AFDO), which has 31 member organisations and represents more than 3.8 million Australians with disability, acknowledged the Government’s commitment to fully fund the NDIS in the Federal Budget but also welcomed Labor’s policy to “optimise and strengthen” the Scheme.
The Federation says its community has “felt a growing level of distrust and disengagement due to attempts to change and redefine the NDIS away from its original vision and purpose without input sought from people with disability, their families and their representative organisations”.
AFDO has outlined a list of ways the NDIS has been damaged over the last few years, including:
- The move towards independent assessments, which was eventually dropped due to community backlash
- Unexplained cuts in plan reviews to significant numbers of participants
- The substantial increase in the number of Administrative Appeals Tribunal(AAT) cases related to the NDIS
- The increase in spending on external legal fees to fight AAT cases
- A lack of effort to address barriers for people in rural and remote areas, First Nations people, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and people with other intersectionalities
- A lack of data on the number of participant-initiated plan reviews to compare to the number of NDIA-initiated reviews
- The amount of effort required by people with disability and representatives to ensure they are involved in reviews, consultation and co-design
- NDIA staffing being capped at 3,000 people since 2013, which AFDO says has occurred despite original projections of a need for 10,000 staff
- Outsourcing NDIS work to consultants who cost more than internal staff
- High staff turnover, in addition to regular changes to the Federal Minister and Assistant Minister for the NDIS
AFDO says with all these issues that need to be fixed, it is calling on all political parties and candidates to detail their plans to support and improve the NDIS ahead of the Election.
Labor’s plan to fix the NDIS has huge benefits for many young Australians with disability, says Children and Young People with Disability Australia (CYDA) Chief Executive Officer, Mary Sayers.
Ms Sayers says she hopes all political parties will make similar commitments to Labor in the lead up to the Election as a majority of NDIS participants are under the age of 25 and need the Scheme to be improved.
“The NDIS is currently extremely difficult to navigate for children and young people with disability and their families, with many struggling to access and juggle the complexity of the scheme,” explains Ms Sayers.
“These announcements to streamline the NDIS, based on co-design, are welcome.”
The focus on employment support in the broader community is also important to young people, adds Ms Sayers.
“Young people with disability are one of the most disadvantaged cohorts in the labour market because of the barriers they face,” she says.
“We welcome commitment for a Disability Employment Centre for Excellence to build the capacity of employment services to better support young people with disability, who consistently tell us these services are not meeting their needs and letting them down.”
One promise that was missing from Labor’s plan, which Ms Sayers says is important to many students with disability, is the development of a National Plan for Inclusive Education. “Children and young people with disability are routinely excluded in their education, through suspensions, expulsions and gatekeeping where they are told they are not welcome at their local school,” explains Ms Sayers.
“We will be looking for all parties in their education announcements to commit to a National Plan for Inclusive Education.”
People With Disability Australia (PWDA) President, Samantha Connor, also sees positives in Labor’s plan but is somewhat cautious about how it will play out if the party is elected to Government.
“At first glance, this is a very good plan and responds well to what people with disability and our families have been calling for,” Ms Connor says.
“However, there’s a lot in the plan so it would be useful to know what the top priorities are and what the timeline is for delivering on these promises.”
Ms Connor says the suggested expert review of NDIS plans will be beneficial, but that plans should be fixed as much as possible before reaching the need for an appeals process.
“While we would welcome the introduction of safeguards such as the expert review mechanism which Labor is proposing, what we still need addressed is the issue of algorithms determining funding as well as the introduction of punitive operational guidelines,” explains Ms Connor.
“We want the next Federal Government to commit to is a full review of the appropriateness of using machine learning – the same system the current government used to create the RoboDebt fiasco – to decide what people’s NDIS funding outcomes will be.
“And we want a full review of the appropriateness of punitive operational guidelines that keep people trapped in hospitals or unable to get the support that they need.”
Members of the Disability Doesn’t Discriminate campaign, which aims to remove the cut off age from the NDIS eligibility criteria, are disappointed Labor’s plan to fix the NDIS doesn’t consider people with disability over the age of 65.
National Campaign Manager David Margan says, “The recent announcement by the ALP to ‘defend and fix the NDIS’ remains silent on a key issue for voters over 65 and their families.
“It’s only the Independent Members of Parliament, Zali Steggall (Warringah), Dr Helen Haines (Indi), Rebekha Sharkie (Mayo) and Andrew Wilkie (Clark) and the Australian Greens who have had the integrity to stand up and say ‘no’ to this age discrimination and [aim] to prioritise this issue in the next Parliament.”
Mr Margan says the Government has already “clearly decided to actively discriminate” against older people with disability by omitting the issue from the Federal Budget.