MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES, BILL SHORTEN: Hi, that was, as you know, the hard-working member for Cunningham, Alison Byrne. It’s great to be here at Figtree at the opening of the new Hearing Services Australia office and facility. It had previously been in Crown Street in Wollongong on the third story, and it was just a bit inaccessible, especially finding car parking and then mobility getting up to the third floor. This is right where the people are. Parking is easy and the services are excellent. I’d like to congratulate the local Hearing Services Australia staff, their front of house team, their five audiologists. They’re also going to serve from here Dapto, twice weekly. They’re obviously going to work with our first Australians in a range of communities in the region. Essentially what this office opening means is that about 4000 people from the Illawarra and Shoalhaven region, 4000 will receive hearing services, it will be at least a thousand under the community service obligations. That’s young people up to 26. That’s Aboriginal people from 50 onwards. That’s also older people, people with complex needs will be able to get hearing aids and our hearing tests right here. Really professional world class audiologists, also commercial clients that will use this facility as well.
This is part of the Labor government’s ongoing commitment to the Illawarra and Shoalhaven region. We tend to take our hearing for granted until we don’t have it, or we discover that a family member’s hearing is deteriorating. But perhaps there’s nothing more unfamiliar than for a new family, when they get their little child, their precious bundle of joy tested, and the results come back with a non-standard result. It was a great privilege for Alison and I, to meet with Charlie and Frankie, they’re very little children, who, when they had their initial sort of post-birth screening, the results weren’t expected.
For parents, this can be a scary time. What does it mean? All of a sudden, the sort of predicted journey for the development of your precious child becomes an unusual and unfamiliar journey, at least initially. But what the parents, marvellous parents, told me today was that it was scary at first, and that’s a perfectly natural reaction. But when they get to do a Hearing Services Australia and the Shepherd centre, which are world class facilities and support, just realise, okay, the journey is the road less taken. But that doesn’t mean that Charlie and Frankie have to, their parents have to accept an outcome or for them, which means that they won’t develop and learn and develop into marvellous adults. Because of the work of Hearing Services Australia, the audiologists, because of the work of the Shepherd Centre, Charlie and Frankie’s non-standard journey to development will still be a successful outcome for them, and it just really highlights that it takes a village to raise a person with a disability. Every word that Charlie says is a victory, and I’ve got no doubt in the future because she’s a talkative little girl already, you know, the world is her oyster, and that’s because her parents love her and because Hearing Services Australia and the Shepherd Centre, they give a bit of that love which families need when things are not expected.
So, I’m really pleased that through Allison Byrne’s relentless advocacy, through the commitment of the Hearing Service Australia, the people in this region have got an accessible set of hearing services, which, frankly, when you look around the world at the moment, are as good as anything in the world. And sometimes it’s easy to forget in Australia just how lucky we are. But part of our luck is because we’ve got world class audiologists.
Thanks very much. Happy to take any questions.
JOURNALIST: Are there any more Hearing Australia centres being set up around the country?
SHORTEN: Oh yes, we’ve got many centres and we’ve got a rollout of new centres coming all around Australia. We’ve learned a lot in the last number of years about the power of early intervention. A child’s first 1000 days, their first five years are crucial. The earlier that we can detect disability in children, in this case hearing loss, then we can engineer better outcomes. For me, disability or impairment is just a fact of life, but it’s only one attribute of a fellow human being. What we’ve got to do is make sure the disability doesn’t define the person, and we’ll see the whole person. With the remarkable things that we do from a, you know, Australian cochlear implant technology to early intervention, when you have an impairment such as hearing loss, it’s a bit like you’re on a road and there’s all of a sudden, a rock in the middle of the road. We don’t let that rock stop us. We just engineer around it. We work around it; we continue on with our journey.
Children will have developmental delays. We’ve just got to make sure that we support them and their families to get through it. A big part of early intervention is not just supporting the child but supporting the family. And you know, I think Australia’s good. I think we’re really good. I think we can be better. But when you look around the world, as I said earlier, we’re doing as well as, I think, any country in the world. And when it comes to Hearing Australia, I think they are a remarkable service which is superb value for taxpayer money.
JOURNALIST: So, do you know how many more centres?
SHORTEN: Well, not at the top of my head, but I can give that to you in about 30 seconds. I know we’ve got another five centres that we are opening up, but that’s on top of the existing network. We have over 1000 staff at Hearing Australia. We have a community service obligation where they see 140,000 people and just provide them with hearing aids, do the test, hearing aids. We do a lot of work with First Nations people. I think that undetected hearing loss in First Nations kids, Aboriginal Torres Strait Island kids, is one of the reasons why they’re held back. And so, we’ve got a very significant investment to help protect and support. But I also want to make sure that hearing loss in adults receives more attention too.
JOURNALIST: So, Services Australia is going to get a $128 million injection to put on 3000 new frontline staff. Do you know how many [inaudible]?
SHORTEN: One of the big challenges with Service Australia, and that covers Centrelink, Medicare payments, childcare payments, really important work, and natural disaster payments, is that really from about 2015, it’s been run down. By that I mean the number of the population of Australia has increased, but the number of people working in Services Australia has been on a decline. So, we had the that was except during Covid. And so, what we’ve had is a blow out in waiting times for payment processing and phone calls. So, I get it’s incredibly frustrating. So, what we’ve done, is announced 3000 extra people around Australia to be brought into Services Australia with the specific purpose of reducing payment waiting time and then reducing call waiting times. So, not going to change overnight. I apologise, it’s taken years to get into this mess. It’s not going to be solved overnight, but 3000 extra staff. And in the Illawarra region itself, 42 extra staff at the smart centre. The other thing about our announcement is these are ongoing public service jobs. It’s not labour hire in a boiler room of a call centre, massive churn. We’re saying to people in this region, if you like, if you’re in the public service, this is a good option. And these jobs, if you are suitable, will be ongoing work. So, I know Alison and Stephen Jones have been very keen to offer more public sector resources into the region. These are real jobs which can help people and that’s a very rewarding career.
JOURNALIST: So, are you committed to fully funding the Disability Royal Commission’s recommendations?
SHORTEN: My colleague Amanda Rishworth, the Minister of Social Services, is pulling together the response to the Disability Royal Commission, which of course goes to some of my portfolio areas. The Disability Royal Commission, for the record, took four and a half years. It was actually me when I was leading Labor in opposition who called for it. The Morrison government eventually got around to it. But it’s gone for four and a half years and cost nearly $600 million. There’s 2500 pages. There’s nearly 200 recommendations. For those of you who can do quick maths, there’s millions of words, so we can’t just simply say overnight, Yes/No. Many of the recommendations are exclusively the realm of the states and I would not want to speak on behalf of them. Some of them are joint and some of them are just us. We’re working on a response in time for the next federal budget. But I can say that in the NDIS, which was part, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which is quite a focus of the Disability Royal Commission, we’ve started our own review upon coming to government, it’s ready now, we’ve given to the states to digest and we will announce that in early December, which will have a lot of responses, which I think will help be part of the response to the Disability Royal Commission.
JOURNALIST: So, you’re not sure at this point which recommendations will be implemented when?
SHORTEN: Again, that will be a whole of government response. But when it comes to the NDIS, we want to improve the Safeguards Commission. We’ve already practically doubled their budget and doubled their workforce. We also want to make the NDIS, when people sign up to the NDIA or the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and we want to make a more human experience. So, I’m not I can’t give you each specific recommendation. What I can say to people who are interested in the National Disability Insurance Scheme, we want to make the scheme return to its original purpose. Under Labor and hopefully under the Liberals, the scheme is here to stay. But we want to make sure that every dollar is getting through to the people for whom the scheme was designed. So, we want to make it a more human, experience a less bureaucratic experience. That’s what we’ve heard loud and clear.
We also want to make sure that some service providers aren’t taking a lend of the scheme. Most service providers are excellent, do a great job. But there are some who, in my opinion and evidence has shown in the Royal Commission and what I hear anecdotally from thousands of people, they overcharge. They just put a wedding tax. As soon as you say you’re coming with an NDIS package, up goes the price of things. I really hate that. We also want to make sure that some service providers are actually delivering the service that they’re meant to deliver, and I also want to make sure that some service providers aren’t offering up junk therapies or charging for a service unrelated to an outcome. But I must say, in the Illawarra there’s 11,000 people on the NDIS. Nearly 5000 providers. We’re both going to a forum with providers, with Stephen Jones, and I’ll also be visiting Greenacres to help celebrate their festival of 70th year birthday.
JOURNALIST: So, you mentioned cracking down on third party providers, but you’ve also tightened access for autistic clients. Can you explain why you did that?
SHORTEN: Well, we haven’t. There’s a discussion though, which has been in some of the papers. Some of the discussion about has been put in by people just venting their opinion. I want to say, first of all, autism is a legitimate diagnosis and people with ADHD deserve to be recognised and heard. I think we’re getting a lot cleverer and a lot smarter about recognising the prevalence of autism in our community. It’s on a spectrum, the condition. Some people are severely affected by it, others are very high functioning. We want to make sure that eligibility for the NDIS is based not just on your diagnosis, but how it affects you. What we don’t want to have is a system where you’re simply get a diagnosis, and then you’re in the scheme, because that’s not quite what the scheme is designed for. The NDIS was designed for the most severely and profoundly impaired.
But autism is a legitimate condition and for some people legitimately means they should be in the NDIS. So, I just want to defuse this debate, because there’s a lot of people with autism who are feeling not heard and somehow being made to be blamed. That’s not the government’s view at all.
JOURNALIST: Under the changes, will there be more scope for people with acquired brain injuries to access therapies that might improve their function rather than just maintain it?
SHORTEN: We will look at things which are reasonable and necessary to help people have fulfilling lives in the community. Part of the challenge of the NDIS is that I feel some hospital systems have cost shifted services they used to provide to someone to help with recovery and say that’s now an NDIS matter. The hospital – it takes a whole community to support people with disability. Not just one scheme. But ABI is a real condition, and it can affect people quite profoundly. And certainly, there’s a lot of people with ABI, acquired brain injury, on the NDIS receiving life changing supports. We also need to make sure that the rest of society doesn’t just say ‘that’s an NDIS matter.’
If you have a disability, it’s all of our matter, because any of us could have a disability and we need to have the overdue discussion about not just the NDIS here in Australia supporting people, but how do we actually have the community to be inclusive.
For example, hearing loss. There are measures this community can take without requiring people to be here getting their hearing tested. This is a legitimate and irreplaceable part of the safety net for hearing loss. We’ve got to have a conversation, are our classrooms, properly designed, so kids can hear? Are we doing the right thing in Australian workplaces? What are we doing to improve the hearing health of Australians? That’s not just a hearing service’s matter. It’s a whole society matter.
JOURNALIST: So, families in Illawarra say equipment approval through the NDIS can take years. If something’s being done about that?
SHORTEN: Yes. When we came to office, there were 4500 cases trapped in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. That’s where if you get a decision from the NDIS and you don’t like it, you eventually appeal externally. 4500 cases. The average waiting time for a case to be resolved was north of 31 weeks. I’m pleased to tell people, because of the innovations that we’ve adopted since coming to office, 90% of those legacy cases have now been resolved. Some of them were about equipment. We came across one case where a CPAP machine was litigated for two and a half years between the agency and an individual. It’s actually just available now.
So, we’ve seen some real legal stupidity. The legal budget was forecast to cost $78 million last financial year. Because of our initiatives, it’s down to $63 million. I think I said earlier, we want to put the human back into the NDIS. There’s a lot of great people working in the agency, and we want to use a dose of old-fashioned common sense. Why would you have a fight about something where the fight costs more than what’s being argued about? That’s the sort of approach we have. There’s been 7000 matters dealt with since we came to office, positively. The number of people going to the AAT is now reduced by about 35%. So, we’re not there yet. And sometimes the government’s got to say no. But you’ve got to treat people as human and not just as an algorithm. You’ve got to say to people, these are the reasons why we made this decision, rather than keep people guessing in the dark and being treated like mushrooms.
JOURNALIST: So, you’re visiting Greenacres. But in terms of regional and rural areas, do you have any concerns about the viability of some services there?
SHORTEN: Yeah, I think that with the NDIS, our challenge is that one size doesn’t fit all. You know, Wollongong is a pretty bustling city. It’s got plenty of services here. But you can get down further south into Shoalhaven, inland, all of a sudden you don’t have that market of services. So, we’ve got to make sure that people, if they’re given a package of support, that they’re able to utilise it rather than just being a theory, not a reality. So, we are putting in place these new ideas that are in what they call thin markets, or where there’s no other services, alternative ways of making sure that people with disabilities can have positive outcomes. Thanks, everybody. We’ve got to our next port. Thanks to Hearing Services staff for having us.