Reforming the NDIS

by | Sep 12, 2023 | Ability News, NDIS, Politics

On 28 April 2021, Bill Shorten accused the then coalition government of betraying the hopes of the NDIS. Three years later – to the day – Anthony Albanese insisted the scheme couldn’t be a blank check telling National Cabinet he wanted “equity and fairness”. In a month’s time the scheme will be rebooted, based on the findings of the NDIS Review. It’s all the culmination of a carefully crafted political strategy, years in the making, that’s now swinging into operation to ensure the recommendations will be accepted.

Please share our articles

Nic Stuart teases out the political and financial pressures driving the reforms . . .

Ever since he became Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese had a simple list of objectives. The first step was to get elected and the second was to stay in power. A desire to change the country was relegated to third place because, as he put it, you can’t change anything if you’re not in power.

Albanese achieved his first objective on the 21st of May last year, and don’t underestimate how difficult that was.

Politics is a brutal business. Seven people – John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison, and Albanese – have won an election this century but only two of them – Howard and Morrison – finished their term. The others were unceremoniously dumped by their own party and Albanese doesn’t intend to let that happen to him.

Now Albanese’s focusing on his second objective: holding on to government. This doesn’t require dramatic reforms which frighten voters. The electorate wants, most importantly, to feel secure, and that’s why Albanese’s backing AUKUS. So far so good. But another, equally vital aspect of security is controlling expenditure.

And this is Albanese’s third requirement – to keep spending on any new initiatives under control. Which leaves a question: what’s driving the reform agenda for the NDIS? Is it a desire to improve the scheme, or simply a push to save money?

The PM with Premiers at a press conference making an announcement

“We need a sustainable growth trajectory for the NDIS”
PM Anthony Albanese at National Cabinet. 28 April 2023

When he inherited office in May last year the fiscal situation had been brought back into balance with one glaring exception. The cost of the NDIS was continuing to explode unsustainably. It was a time-bomb and Albanese knew something had to be done. He quickly handed the ticking package over to the bloke who’d originally come up with the idea, Bill Shorten. 

Bill Shorten’s Problem

This was, for Albanese, a masterstroke. He couldn’t lose. Shorten was not just the PM’s predecessor as party leader, he remains one of the few possible contenders to replace Albanese. Handing his potential rival the disability portfolio not only made sense, it took a potential opponent out of the mix by giving Shorten an almost insoluble political problem: slashing spending in a keystone project. 

Shorten had to find a way to stop the growth of the scheme – as far as Albanese was concerned this was non-negotiable. How Shorten achieved this was up to him. 

Finding cuts is easy. Trimming expenditure sustainably but retaining political support is the most difficult problem of them all. 

In 1660’s France, Louis XIV’s Finance Minister was Jean-Bapiste Colbert. He came up with the famous phrase “the art of taxation consists in plucking the goose to obtain the largest number of feathers with the least amount of hissing”. But Shorten wanted to do something more than simply snip a few dollars from the bottom line. He wanted the trifecta: an NDIS that was both economically and politically sustainable but also one that would also make a real difference to people’s lives. He set about defusing the bomb with care and precision. 

Shorten must have had some rough idea of what was necessary, but rather than wade in himself he did exactly what Albanese had done to him: hand the package to someone else. 

Who better to head a review of the NDIS than Bruce Bonahady, the very person who wears the mantle as the scheme’s founder?  

An Unimpeachable Team

Nobody could question Bonahady’s integrity or bona-fides. He obviously backed the scheme and wanted it to succeed, so he began his task tapping into a considerable reservoir of goodwill. Gathered around him was a team of people with equally impeccable credentials. 

As well as holding senior jobs in government Bonahady’s co-chair, Lisa Paul, has worked on a string of other reviews of programs in defence and education. She’s also committed to the sector, holding positions as director in a number of not-for-profits. 

But it wasn’t just his choice of co-chairs that demonstrated Shorten’s smart ability to put together a top team who would come up with an unimpeachable product. Judy Brewer has both an intimate knowledge of the way politics works and a solid understanding of autism disorders. 

Bill Shorten with 6 people including two in wheelchairs, all at Partliament House

The NDIS Review team with Bill Shorten at Parliament House
Photo credit: “Every Australian Counts”

Kevin Cocks has been a key advocate for inclusion and accessibility in Queensland, while Kirsten Deane is at the Melbourne Disability Institute who headed up the grass-roots body that originally pressed for the NDIS, Every Australian Counts. Dougie Heard helped implement the program as a leader of the NDIA, while Stephen King is a productivity commissioner and economics professor (and not the American writer of horror fiction who shares his name). 

All have lived experience of disability and share a huge commitment to the sector. Their aim is to preserve the NDIS and make it sustainable – not just to gut it in order to save money. 

Officially, the Team is still busy completing the Review and preparing for its release late next month. That, however, is not quite the way it looks in the media. Last week there was a sudden flood of articles and interviews with the Chair pointing to some likely findings. 

This isn’t the technique of a huge, sudden and dramatic unveiling of a government initiative (as Scott Morrison did with AUKUS), but it is a more intelligent way of preparing the way for a proposal that ushers in change. Both the Review team and Shorten are doing everything they can to ensure a positive reception for the review when it’s released. 

This is the key to what’s already been achieved by the process. Shorten has built a bridge to carry the NDIS into the future. 

There will be significant changes and some will lose out. The Report will represent a significant re-drawing of the original concept that everyone would have their own, individualised plan. That won’t be the case any more. Shorten’s message, however, is simple. He insists this is the only way to preserve the NDIS.  

He’s determined to make it happen. 

A Political Postscript 

There is, however, one final, political, point. Labor has a problem.

Last week, Albanese’s approval plunged to minus1, his worst ever Newspoll result since becoming Prime Minister. That’s not a worry in itself. As with most newly-elected leaders his approval ratings surged after the vote and once people saw him in office. The problem lies with the trend-line since then, because it’s been both so remarkably straight, and so remarkably down, until a sudden plunge at the beginning of September. 

That’s why a critical event like the Qantas spat hurts Labor so much. The news that the PM’s son was gifted membership of the Chairmans’ Lounge (and that Albanese saw nothing wrong with this) dealt a critical blow to the leader’s image. The days of growing-up impoverished in a council house have been left long behind. 

The coalition – and the Greens – will point out that Albanese, as a landlord, personally benefits from the shortage of housing. They will attempt to portray him as someone who received a free education but pulled the ladder up once he’d climbed it. 

The expected failure of the Voice Referendum will further puncture his image. This will have further ramifications within the party. Albanese is likely to be particularly sensitive to accusations he’s ripping money out of the hands of people with disability. This will present opportunities for focussed groups to campaign against the changes, particularly if their needs are supported by the Greens. 

Shorten’s political dexterity in managing such a huge reform will also be under the microscope. He has controlled the optics of this reform – he would say “necessary reform” – brilliantly. 

If he succeeds it will offer him an enormous boost within the party.