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"It will not be easy" - Bill Shorten's coming revamp of the NDIS

A decisive Bill Shorten back in 2019 - photo courtesy ABC Nick Haggarty

NDIS Minister Bill Shorten will today announce a new reform drive that will completely "re-boot" the scheme according to early glimpses of a speech to be given at the National Press Club later today. His previewed changes will amount to the biggest alterations to the NDIS since it was originally envisaged more than a decade ago.

It's expected that Shorten will insist the original vision has been lost because of attempts by a few providers to rort the scheme, bureaucratic inefficiency and waste accompanying its introduction, and spiralling inflationary costs that have cost it support in the wider community.

"The hard truth is this: the NDIS is not what it should be. It is not delivering the outcomes Australians with disability need and the Australian public expects” - Bill Shorten

The carefully constructed speech established the need for a root-and-branch reform of the NDIS. It begins by highlighting well understood problems, including rorting uncovered by the Minister's special task-force. This has led to 38 special fraud investigations into some $300 million of disability payments.

Shorten uses this to make a case for much deeper reform of the scheme, saying “untrustworthy providers taint the reputations of quality service providers who work hard to support participants". Although he accepts most do meet their registration and compliance obligations, Shorten insists this is not good enough because of the effect on those who are exploited. "Participants who have been preyed upon by these unscrupulous types have reported feeling ‘de-humanised’, exploited as cash-cows."

The Minister then moves on to outline other areas that he asserts should be questioned, using the specific example of autism. He particularly questions the suddenly swelling number of level 2 and 3 diagnoses, posing a (rhetorical) question to wonder if this is driven more by perceived benefits than by actual need.

Shorten's critique is that the scheme is no longer performing the role originally envisaged. “To enable the NDIS to reach its potential, we need to, in essence, reboot."

“The system is too rigid. It throws up Kafkaesque barriers to access, lacks empathy, gouges on prices, is too complex, and often traumatising to deal with." - Bill Shorten

The Minister uses the speech to draw a vivid portrait of a system that no longer works as intended, saying "people with disability often feel they are caught between some predatory providers on one hand and an impersonal government agency on the other.″⁣

Perhaps most importantly, the speech prefigures a dramatic change in tone by Labor. Before the election, Shorten's critique was focussed on the Morrison government's inability to manage the scheme effectively, brusquely brushing aside questioning about underlying cost blow-outs. Today, as the government faces severe pressure to urgently find ways of reducing expenditure, this has changed.

It's understood the coming budget will not contain any drastic reforms or tightening of the NDIS; changes will be held back until after October. That's when Melbourne Disability Institute chairman Bruce Bonyhady and co-chair, former senior Australian public servant Lisa Paul, will deliver their report into the scheme, including options for reform.

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