Speeches Chris has made in the Australian Federal Parliament.

Bills - National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021 - Second Reading

August 23, 2021

Mr HAYES (Fowler—Chief Opposition Whip) (17:33): I also would like to make a contribution to this debate on the National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Improving Supports for At Risk Participants) Bill 2021. To make it clear from the outset, Labor welcomes the measures in this bill to the extent that they are aimed at improving support and protection for NDIS participants, including the involvement and functions of the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission.

While we do welcome those measures in the bill, we certainly have grave concerns about the lack of consultation with the people who rely on the NDIS, and their families. As you can see, Mr Deputy Speaker, that's fundamentally what is contained in the second reading amendment. It draws attention to those ultimate deficiencies. The displacement of people with disability from the decision-making process, a process that directly involves their lives, contradicts the very core of what the NDIS was all about. At the core of the NDIS was a people centred principle. To make changes without consulting those directly involved certainly has—with respect, Mr Deputy Speaker—hairs on it. We should not be taking these people for granted.

What we know about the bill is that it is a direct response to the Robertson review of the death of an Adelaide NDIS participant, Ann-Marie Smith. The review was the result of pressure from Labor's shadow minister and also from Labor's state shadow minister in South Australia to establish the independent inquiry into the death of Ms Smith.

While we congratulate the government for finally taking much-needed action on this issue, it should be noted that they took that action 11 months after former judge Alan Robertson handed down his report and some 16 months after Ann-Marie Smith passed away. Only now are they finally doing something about it. That's just simply not good enough, and it's not the appropriate care that you would expect would be made available to the most vulnerable in our community.

The bill doesn't even come close to fixing what we see as the mess that the Morrison government has made of the NDIS and the NDIS Quality and Safeguarding Framework—particularly what is in that framework to prevent abuse. This is a government—you've only got to remember back to a couple of budgets ago—that robbed $4.6 billion from the NDIS. That was not because the NDIS didn't need it; they actually did that to prop up the budget's bottom line. So, if you can make flagrant changes like that concerning the most vulnerable in our community, what else can you do?

But I've got to say that there is a bit of a common theme in that. Just look at how they approached the issue of robodebt. That found its way into the courts where it was found to be an illegal process, but they were quite happy to move on some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in the community on robodebt. Juxtapose with that how they responded to large corporations that inappropriately pocketed JobKeeper money. They didn't actually try to go and get any of that back. As a matter of fact, they said: 'It's gone to other things.' Well, yes—it went to propping up share prices and to paying executive bonuses and other things like that. Their treatment of public funds is just reprehensible. But they were prepared to take a different approach to robodebt; they tried to justify that. Then they tried to justify not restoring moneys that were paid out to companies that didn't need them, when, quite frankly, those moneys could have been used for other things, given the circumstances of this pandemic.
Let's also remember that 12,000 Australians with a disability tragically died while waiting to be funded under the NDIS on this government's watch. This is just not acceptable, particularly in a country like Australia. We are not talking about a third-world administration or a third-world country. In a country like Australia, we expect the most vulnerable in our community to be looked after. I would have thought that that should have been a common thought across this chamber.

I remind Australians that this is the same government that, through tricks and dishonesty, tried to ram through, not all that long ago, the independent assessment scheme, which was also designed to cut costs out of the NDIS. They only pulled back on that when there was a hue and cry—a national backlash—and not just from our side but from their side as well, when people started working out what this meant for families living with disabilities. I've got to say: the Liberals just can't be trusted when it comes to schemes that underpin the most vulnerable in our community.

In essence, this bill amends the provisions of the NDIS Act to support the implementation of changes in response to recommendations 1, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 of the Robertson review, all of which were aimed at improving the support and protections provided by the NDIS to NDIS participants. Recommendations 1, 5, 7, 8 and 9 are responsible for facilitating better exchange of information between the agency and the commission and also for the disclosure of information to the relevant state and territory authorities. Recommendation 6 deals with the clarification around the scope of reporting incidents. While those are certainly welcome recommendations from the Robertson review, which have been implemented in this bill, we are disappointed that report does not identify any failings in how the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission carried out its function around Ms Smith's death.

Now, remember that Ms Smith was a 54-year-old Adelaide woman. She was an NDIS participant, and she died on 6 April 2020. It was found that she died with severe septic shock, multiple organ failure, severe pressure sores, malnutrition and other issues connected with her cerebral palsy after being confined to a cane chair for 24 hours a day for more than a year. Ms Smith's NDIS package included six hours of support per day. Reports are that she only received two hours per day and had not been seen outside her house for over 12 months. This tragic death is nothing short of unbelievable neglect. If there was one positive to come out of this dreadful situation it's that it has prompted the government to come to terms with the failures of the system to identify the gaps that this bill now seeks to address.

There is certainly clearly something not working that goes to the heart of the issue—that is, the failure of the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission to ensure that its monitoring and its exercising of punitive functions are being appropriately administered. The Robertson review found that there was no legal wrongdoing when the commission, which was set up to protect NDIS participants, issued a $12½ thousand fine for failing to notify the commission of Ms Smith's death—but that was a month and a half after she had died—and placed a banning order on the provider, Integrity Care, for four months, following her death. We know that this was the only infringement that the commission had issued up to that point over two years. I guess now I know that, a year on, there have been a handful of other infringements issued.

In 2018 the inaugural NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commissioner, Graeme Head, gave a speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, and I just want to quote his words. He said:

We have comprehensive regulatory powers and functions, and real regulatory teeth.

Incidents that must be reported … include the death of a participant, serious injury, abuse or neglect and importantly also the unauthorised use of a restrictive practice in relation to a participant.

Where was any of that in relation to Ms Smith? It just was not there. So I imagine Mr Head must look back on his words in 2018 and think they haven't aged well. If those opposite think that the commission has any real regulatory power, as well as function, why aren't they ensuring that the commission is overseeing the care of participants, overseeing the care of Ann-Marie Smith? Simply, the government must address these issues and ensure the commission's power is being properly administered, to prevent the abuse and neglect in the first place, not after the event. It should be overseeing and regulating the conduct of care being given to ensure that we don't see a repeat of the issues that occurred in Adelaide with respect to Ann-Marie Smith. It's certainly not a satisfactory situation. Quite frankly, it's highly offensive and disrespectful to the many families out there who have had to endure the similar fate of being, effectively, ignored when it comes to what is actually needed and necessary for families that are living with disability.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme is a vital service, but after eight years of Liberal rule it has been slashed and mismanaged to the extent that people are now dying of neglect in their homes. Our approach must be to focus on the issues and to ensure that we never see again instances like that of Ann-Marie Smith occurring on the watch of this parliament. This is the kind of systemic failure, one that results in death by neglect, that needs to be approached head-on, with honesty and with vigour for reform—ensuring that we make a change that delivers the results that were always intended with the initial formation of the NDIS itself. The government must work beyond the measures in this bill. It owes it to all Australians living with a disability and their families to ensure that it is overseen appropriately and properly, and with the best possible system of care for some of our country's most vulnerable Australians.