top of page

Opinion | Finding meaning: Bill Shorten's political revival and the NDIS revamp

Bill Shorten's NDIS revamp has been masterful. Picture by Sitthixay Ditthavong

Sometime on the evening of 18th May, 2019, Bill Shorten's life changed forever. Earlier that week the party headquarters had begun receiving ominous polling that Labor might not achieve the victory that had been predicted for the previous eighteen months. By 8:30 that night it was obvious the swing would not be enough to carry the opposition into government.

Defeat came swiftly. So did the pay-back, because there is nobody more bereft of a future than a failed opposition leader. Alongside the personal devastation of losing the keys to the Lodge came blame and disdain from Shorten's colleagues and one-time courtiers who, just moments before, had been lauding his brilliance, style, and smarts. The certainties in Shorten's life collapsed around him. The reality - a reality known so well by so many people with disability - was that nobody had any use for him any more. Why not just admit his political life was over and lobby for nice cushy posting to Paris, London or Washington? Or, maybe, positioning himself for a lucrative business career with contacts and insider knowledge? Either path was there for the taking. Nobody could have blamed him. Many of his colleagues just wanted him to disappear. Initially, Shorten licked his wounds. He was demoted from shadow cabinet and, almost as a (bad) joke, tossed the NDIS portfolio - callously thrust back into the first junior government job he'd been given more than a decade earlier.

The way he tells his story today, it sounds as if the path was obvious. It wasn't. Shorten's transition is actually quite remarkable, simply because, eventually, he didn't choose the easy path and certainly didn't begin the way it's ended up. After the defeat he began by going through the motions - chatting, talking, and professing commitment - until the moment it all changed. It was during one of those hundreds of routine meetings; person after person, detailing their personal problems.

Shorten today remembers it vividly. He'd travelled to listen to another person explain their problems; the massive complexity that comes from engaging with the very scheme Shorten built to transform the lives of people with disability. Sitting in the living room, Shorten suddenly realised. The NDIS wasn't working. Bureaucracy had swallowed it whole.

The original ideal had turned into a confusing labyrinth for those who needed a clear path. It had also become an increasingly costly nightmare for the taxpayers who were being expected to fund the scheme. It had, as he says now, "lost its way". Perhaps most critically it had lost that central reservoir support across the country that was necessary to sustain the political will to continue funding the expensive scheme.

Despite all the words and bi-partisan support that's been expressed for the scheme it would be wrong to think ordinary voters will open their wallets forever. There are limits to political support for people with disability.

Shorten realised he could really achieve something. As Minister, he could make the scheme work. He dedicated himself to making a difference and began carefully planning the path that would finally lead to last week's announcement of a complete revamping of the scheme.

Labor's first task was to win the 2022 election. Shorten's task was reassuring stakeholders things would be different under Labor; his message simple and accurate. The scheme was a mess. Implementation was chaotic. Things would change.

But no detail - something that itself risked becoming the target of a scare campaign as costs continued to blowout.

Fortunately successive Liberal governments had failed to even attempt to grapple with the increasing problems of the scheme for years and Shorten's words provided reassurance to the advocates. Labor won. The new minister began building the support he'd require to challenge the way the system worked. His actions since that moment have provided a university-level case-study of how to build the case for change.

Immediately after he election he built on that promise, offering his personal guarantee that the scheme would be restored. But now an important caveat was added. He agreed that there were problems; there was rorting. A new way had to be found to stop runaway cost blowouts. There would be changes.

Instead of imposing edicts from above Shorten has slowly moved blocks into place piece-by-piece. Every step has been carefully explained to the people who need to be brought into the fold, from advocates demanding more services to the business lobbies who will be asked to pay for change.

There have been important and necessary personnel movements in the NDIA, and the minister now has a team he can trust in place to smoothly introduce the new model when it's finally unveiled.

But first, in October, a report by an unimpeachable team of advocates for the scheme. This will detail why it's failing and how it needs to be reformed for the better. This is the background to last week's speech at the National Press Club.

That talk, again, showed how carefully this campaign has been planned. Cut through the verbiage, all those words, looking for detail and you realise the minister didn't actually "announce" anything - but that wasn't his mission. Shorten's speech was just another of the chess pieces being deftly moved into place. There were messages for everyone.

The sceptics were reassured the minister had seen the "criminal syndicates" rorting the NDIS and the "shoddy therapies" that should never receive funding: a bone thrown to the right.

But right alongside this promised crackdown on fraud came reassuring vignettes of Shorten's own personal dedication.

"The universe does not grant re-runs, but with every precious minute in the job as NDIS Minister I do feel I've been given a remarkable second chance to serve where my passion beats ... to get it on the right track." Shorten's words hit their target with the precision of guided missiles. A smooth media campaign accompanied the speech.

Detailed analysis in The Australian Financial Review served to reassure the markets; there was a promise to stop the rorts thrown to Sky and The Daily Telegraph; interviews with informed supporters of the scheme on the ABC dousing understandable worries and concerns from those currently accessing the scheme. It's been the utter opposite of the normal way government does things.

Paul Keating loved the drama of a sudden unveiling of a huge plan to transform our way of life, and the media ate it up.

It's easy to plan coverage around a big spectacle on a certain day and politicians love the idea that they're in control of the agenda that's being outlined.

Shorten's learned - and is now putting into practice - something far more insightful. He understands that if you want real, lasting change, rather than a sudden bang, you need to bring everybody with you. All the stakeholders, from the unwilling and reluctant to the enthusiastic backers of change.

Shorten's now leveraging his position as Labor royalty to provide him with the space and support he'll need to push his package of reforms through. This speech will deflect questions about the NDIS in the coming budget. The government will be able to brush over whatever numbers it chooses to use, simply insisting change is on its way. Then the release of an Inquiry into the NDIS in October, followed by Shorten's reaction and plans before Christmas, building support all the way.

All very smooth and careful.

  • A version of this piece by Nicholas Stuart first appeared in the Canberra Times.

bottom of page