Speech by Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield

Address to the National Press Club, Canberra, 20 November 2013

Location: Canberra


Firstly can I thank the National Press Club for the leadership it has provided in giving a platform for social policy, and in particular, for disability. And can I thank Yooralla for the important work it does not only in Victoria, but through auspicing today’s media awards.

I should mention at the outset that as the Assistant Minister for Social Services I am not only the minister for disabilities and carers, but also the minister for ageing.

The other hat I wear in my spare time is that of Manager of Government Business in the Senate which, I guess, makes me the Senate’s answer to Christopher Pyne.

The first thing I want to make clear here today is that being the disabilities minister is where I want to be.

I was first appointed with responsibility for disability in the Coalition by Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull in 2009.

After the 2010 election I indicated to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott that I wanted to retain that responsibility. He agreed.

And upon election to Government, I again said, this time to Prime Minister Abbott, that I was keen to stay in the role. Again he agreed.

I made that request for a couple of reasons.

You see I was typical of people who assume front bench responsibility for disability in not having had much of an exposure to Australians with disability. I didn’t at that time have a close friend or family member with a disability.

I had assumed, like so many, that people pay their taxes and that if you had a disability you got what you needed. I was wrong.

The experience in this area is that no sooner have people with disability trained up a disability frontbencher, but they are moved to another portfolio and the task of educating a minister or a shadow starts all over again.

So I thought one of the contributions I could make, and that the Coalition could make on assuming office, was to offer continuity in terms of portfolio holder. So that I could put to use what I had learnt.

Recently disability advocate, Dr George Taleporos, kindly wrote in an article on the ABC website, Ramp Up, that I was “job ready” to be Minister. But the extent to which I may be ready is thanks to many people with disability who have taken the time to educate me.

I believe this role is probably the most significant I will hold in public life. I can’t think of another area that has the potential to improve the quality of life of so many Australians.

The profile of Disability

Disability has made up a lot of ground over recent years. Disability is no longer seen as a marginal policy area. This is thanks to Australians with disability who came together with carers and the organisations that support them to say loudly and with one voice, in the words of Peter Finch in Network, “we’re as mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore”.

That message was heard by the nation’s parliaments, and was given effect jointly by the nation’s governments. The NDIS is a shared endeavour of the Commonwealth, state and territory governments.

And although our last Federal Parliament was rather inelegant, there was one unequivocally good thing to come out of it – and that was a cross party commitment to deliver the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

And since we last gathered here to celebrate these awards, some hundreds of Australians with disability living in NDIS launch sites have started to receive the better deal they deserve.

But in AFL parlance we’re still very much pre-season. We’re in launch phase.

We all still have a long, long way to go to get to 460,000 NDIS participants.

As minister, this is a responsibility that I could not take more seriously. As the Prime Minister said to me about the NDIS in his speech in this place at the launch of Carers’ Week a month or so ago:

“It’s a big job, Mitch, but I know you’re up for it and I also know that millions of Australians will be relying on you and us to get it as right as we humanly can. Don’t feel daunted, Mitch, please.”

I do confess to feeling daunted and excited in equal measure.

As well as acknowledging the common voice that has got us this far, I did want to acknowledge the thought leadership of Bruce Bonyhady and John Walsh.

I also want to acknowledge Bill Shorten who did much to raise the profile of disability as Parliamentary Secretary and Kevin Rudd who, as Prime Minister, referred the concept to the Productivity Commission.

The Coalition and the NDIS

But I also want to acknowledge Tony Abbott and, before him, Malcolm Turnbull, who as Leaders were unstinting in their support of the NDIS and who never thought, for a moment, to make it a matter of partisanship.

Which is why the Coalition in opposition without hesitation supported the work of the Productivity Commission, supported the legislation, supported the Medicare levy increase, supported the launch sites and supported the announced spending.

In the words of the Prime Minister, ‘the NDIS is an idea whose time has come’.

I am not going to re-litigate the case for the NDIS today. Everyone here knows that the system of support for Australians with disability is broken.

But I would like to take a moment to put my own party’s support for the NDIS in philosophical context.

Yes, it’s true my party sees itself as the party of smaller government, but we are not the party of no government.

And yes, as a political movement we believe in hard work and reward for effort, but we also believe in helping people who face extra challenges for reasons beyond their control.

And the design at the heart of the NDIS – the individual at the centre and in control being able to choose the supports of their choice – could not rest more easily with the philosophy of my party.

And at a more human level, the Prime Minister has demonstrated his own personal commitment to Australians with disability by raising over $1.2 million through the 2012 and 2013 Pollie Pedal charity bike rides for Carers Australia. Each year along the 1,000 kilometre routes, the Prime Minister has met with people with disability, carers and disability organisations.

The next Pollie Pedal will also be in partnership with and raise funds for Carers Australia. So the Prime Minister’s own commitment isn’t just professional. It’s personal.

But at a more corporate level, my view – and that of the Government – is that assisting people who face extra challenges for reasons beyond their control should be the core business of government.

And part of what we want to do as a Government is get back to focusing on those things that should be core business.

The more government spends time on things that aren’t core business, the more its attention is distracted and diverted from the fundamental to the merely desirable. And the more its resources are expended on the non-core.

For me, this explains why for decades disability was neglected. Because government was too busy in areas that were less important. The attention of government had been diverted.

This is why our Commission of Audit, for instance, has as one of its principles that,

“government should do for people what they cannot do, or cannot do efficiently, for themselves, but no more”.

The more that government does for people those things that they can do for themselves, the less capacity government has to do for people the things that they can’t do for themselves.

For me and for this Government and for our Prime Minister, the NDIS is core government business. It is a priority.

Let me be clear. We will make the National Disability Insurance Scheme a reality.

It is a vast undertaking. But we will continue the rollout of the NDIS in line with the Productivity Commission’s vision as detailed by the inter-governmental agreements with the States and Territories.


In opposition I was always at pains to elevate disability and the NDIS beyond partisanship.

People with disability and their families quite rightly have very little time for petty partisan point scoring. They just want the system fixed.

During our time in Opposition, all comments, questions and suggestions by the Coalition in relation to the NDIS were offered in a constructive spirit in an endeavour to help make the NDIS the best that it could be.

Now bipartisanship at its worst is invoked by one side as an excuse to escape scrutiny from the other side. But bipartisanship at its best can help achieve important national outcomes. This is the type of bipartisanship that the nation and Australians with disability deserve when it comes to the NDIS.

To this end, the Government will be re-establishing a Joint Parliamentary Committee on the NDIS. This was a proposal which the Coalition put forward for more than a year before it was belatedly embraced by the previous government towards the end of its term.

The committee will serve as a non-partisan oversight committee. It is not uncommon in areas of non-contested policy for parliamentary oversight committees to operate in a non-partisan fashion. This is the case with Commonwealth law enforcement and defence agencies. Why should it be any different with a social policy agency that is universally embraced?

The committee will serve as a symbol of unity and also provide a forum where questions of design and implementation can be posed in a way that is not seen to be partisan.

We envisage the parliamentary oversight committee playing an important role in examining the experience in the NDIS launch sites and ensuring the blueprint of the Productivity Commission is realised.

The NDIS is a major venture and that there will be changes along the way.

As a new Government, the Coalition brings an open mind to looking at the issues that emerge from the launch sites.

We want to learn from the experiences of people with disability in the Barwon, the Hunter, Tasmania and South Australia.

To get this right will require a very high level of consultation and attention to detail not just now, not just in the launch sites, but from now until full implementation.

The parliamentary oversight committee, I hope, will lock in cross party support over the three parliaments that it will take to fully implement the NDIS.


One thing I need to do as minister is to address the issue of expectations.

With the NDIS, no one is served by hype, exaggeration or glossy advertising materials that convey little information. Explanation of the NDIS should be characterised by facts.

The starting point should be what the NDIS is and what the NDIS is not.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme is not designed to provide direct support for all Australians with a disability. On some measures there are over four million Australians with some form of disability.

The NDIS will aim to provide an entitlement for aids, equipment, personal attendant care and other non-income supports to around 460,000 Australians with significant non-age related disabilities.

The objective of the NDIS is to address the chronic unmet need of a group of people who have been under-supported for decades.

A few examples include children waiting for wheelchairs, adults with mobility impairment only able to bathe a few times each week and adults with intellectual impairment unable to get supported accommodation, which understandably causes great concern to their ageing parents.

It’s my very strong view that there can be, and must be, no repeat of the multi-million dollar nation-wide NDIS television advertising campaign we witnessed in the weeks before the last election was called. That did a great disservice to Australians with disability.

There was certainly a need to communicate to potential NDIS participants in the launch sites that commenced on 1 July in the Barwon, the Hunter Valley, Tasmania and South Australia.

But twenty two million dollars on a national campaign for a Scheme that won’t be national until 2019/20 was excessive. The television advertising contained no details about eligibility. The ads gave the impression that the Scheme was already in place and that everyone was covered. This should never happen again. It’s an object lesson for all governments.

Scheme Name

The twenty two million dollars spent on NDIS advertising was also used to rebrand the NDIS as DisabilityCare Australia – a name that was disliked and seen as patronising by many people with disability. Australians with disability don’t want to be objects of care. They want the support they need to be independent and in control of their lives.

The new name was at odds with the NDIS vision of choice and independence. That is why I have directed the Agency to revert to the name NDIS.

The return to NDIS as the name for the Scheme has two purposes. The first is to leave behind a name that was disliked and didn’t reflect the intent of the Scheme.

The second purpose was to reinforce and underline the insurance principles of the Scheme by having this reflected in the name. The Scheme is about value for money, support on a needs basis, a strong actuarial focus and minimising costs over time through early intervention.

The NDIS Agency has been instructed to take a low cost and no frills approach to reverting to the NDIS name.

Advertising should have been targeted at launch sites and detailed eligibility rather than followed the pattern of so many government ads which is to simply contain a slogan and a reference to a website.

Advertisements for the NDIS need to ensure Scheme expectations are realistically addressed. Any material should be factual and unadorned.

No-one should be under any illusions that the NDIS can do it all.

In line with the National Disability Strategy, not to be confused with the NDIS, our expectation is that all Australian governments, non-government organisations, business and the wider community will have a role to play.

To quote from the intergovernmental agreement for the NDIS,

‘All governments have agreed that our vision is for an inclusive Australian society that enables people with disability to fulfil their potential as equal citizens’.

What this means in the context of the NDIS is that there is no excuse for other systems failing to provide the same standard of support for people with disability as for other Australians.

The Scheme will not be replacing the health system. It will not be replacing state transport networks. The NDIS cannot do everything.

All governments need to maintain efforts outside the NDIS for people with disability.

Beyond Politics

I need to sound a warning today. And that is to highlight the danger of politics as usual in relation to the NDIS. I will limit myself to one case study.

During the election campaign Labor released a series of “phantom” NDIS roll out schedules in marginal seats. These were, I will be blunt, stunts designed to mislead.

The previous minister, Jenny Macklin, during the election, in the caretaker period and without the knowledge, consent or agreement of partner state governments, went from key seat to key seat announcing that each area was going to be next to benefit from the NDIS roll out.

And since the election Ms Macklin has been going from area to area stating that the Coalition was not going to honour these roll out agreements. Let me provide a few facts.

Fact: No government, whether in or out of an election period, can unilaterally declare a rollout program.

Fact: The NDIS is a joint venture of Commonwealth, State and Territory governments. The detail of the roll out schedule beyond the launch sites will be determined cooperatively by all governments.

Fact: The Coalition is honouring the agreements between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories. This was always our intention.

But for the previous minister to try and pass off campaign press releases as duly negotiated commonwealth-state bilateral agreements and then, post-election, to accuse the Coalition of reneging on agreements that never existed is, quite frankly, appalling.

And recently Ms Macklin has even gone so far as to say the Coalition was no longer committed to the full roll out of the NDIS.

My message for the Opposition is ‘come on, don’t do this. Don’t play politics with the fears and apprehensions of people with disability.’

Can’t there be one area where we don’t play these games? I hope it was an aberration.

Scheme Update

No address about the NDIS is complete without talking about funding.

The NDIS is a significant venture for government to undertake. It is among the most serious and complex reforms undertaken by Australian governments.

The NDIS will, in full rollout, have a gross cost of $22 billion per annum and require, in complete form, an additional contribution from the Federal Government of more than $8 billion each year from 2019-20.

These are large numbers, even for an economy as robust as ours. But the numbers are what the numbers are. They reflect unmet need and decades of neglect.

And I want to again underline the strength of the Coalition’s commitment to the NDIS. You will remember that we didn’t propose the increase in the Medicare Levy. You will remember that we thought the levy increase would not have been necessary had the previous government prioritised differently.

But we voted for it. We did so because we didn’t think that Australians with disability should miss out on the better deal they deserve due to what we saw as poor decisions by the previous government. That wouldn’t have passed the fair go test. We wanted the NDIS to become a reality.

But I want to make this broader point. And that is that economic policy and social policy are not alternatives. They are not in competition. A good economic policy is necessary to support a good social policy. They are two sides of the same coin.

Without careful economic management, no government can make provision for good social policy.

Put very simply, prudent fiscal management is not the enemy of the NDIS. And the NDIS is not the enemy of prudent fiscal management. We as a government are for both.

Emerging Trends

As I’ve said, the NDIS launch in the four sites across Australia provides an important opportunity to learn from the experiences of people with disability as they participate in the Scheme.

The purpose of the launch sites is to learn. For design features to be tested and changed if needed. The launches provide an opportunity to check our assumptions and to revise implementation practices.

As much as Australians support the NDIS, they also expect it to be implemented efficiently and well.

Issues will emerge during launch. They need not cause alarm. But they do need to be addressed.

One process is the joint parliamentary oversight committee we will establish. This will play a key role in assessing launch experience.

The Coalition also saw a role for such a committee in Scheme design. A cross party committee that would own the design. If the previous government had agreed to establish the committee earlier, the Coalition would have had the opportunity to partner in the design of the Scheme.

Today’s Press Club address also provides an opportunity for me to present an update on the Scheme and some of the emerging trends.

Could I firstly commend the independent board of the National Disability Insurance Agency, who are stewarding this great venture.

And can I acknowledge the great strides that have been made by dedicated Agency staff working to incredibly compressed time frames. You might recall the Productivity Commission recommended the NDIS launch in mid-2014.

The previous government decided launch should happen a year earlier, in July 2013. A certain event in September may have been in mind.

But the staff have truly worked wonders. They are demonstrating the best attributes of the Australian Public Service.

So where we are at. So far four launch sites have commenced, 8 offices have opened, 500 staff have been engaged and there are people who were on waiting lists who are now receiving the supports they need.

I have met Scheme participants whose lives have, in their own words, been transformed.

Confidence in the NDIS will be built on transparency. So today I want to start that process.

I want to share with you what I know. I want the NDIS to be an open book.

As of 30 September 2013, the First Quarter of NDIS operations, there were 921 people in the Scheme with completed plans. Although there are a substantial number of plans in progress, the bilateral agreements with the States had a target of 2,208 for that period. So the number of participants is under half of what was anticipated at this stage.

I can also report that the number of people registering interest in participating in the Scheme across the launch sites is 3,222- that’s almost 50 per cent more than the expected number of participants for the period 1 July to 30 September 2013.

In addition, plan costs are exceeding modelled average costs by around 30 per cent. What this means in dollar terms is that instead of coming out at the expected average package cost of $34,969, as based on the work of the Productivity Commission, they are currently costing $46,290 for the first quarter.

To summarise, completing plans is taking longer than anticipated. Demand, so far, is greater than expected and package costs are higher.

Now I emphasise these are early trends and the Scheme is still in launch. And the Agency is undertaking detailed work to see if there are unique launch reasons for these early trends.

I emphasise again, this is the first quarter in a process that won’t be complete until 2019/2020.

But it’s important to be upfront about the state of play, and the Commonwealth, with the Agency and our state and territory partners, will work issues through.

I am determined to ensure the NDIS is a success. First and foremost for the more than 460,000 Australians who are relying on us to see the Scheme delivered.

But there is another group of people that I don’t want to let down. And they are the staff of the National Disability Insurance Agency.

I have met and spoken with many of the staff here in Canberra and in Geelong and will shortly do the same in the other launch sites as well. They all have one thing in common. They, like me, are where they want to be.

They have been working incredible hours, creating a Scheme from scratch. They have a passion. They know they are taking part in what will be one of the most important things they do in their professional lives.

They, like me, are determined to deliver for Australians with disability.

We need to make sure that the NDIS is here to stay. That its foundations are strong.

We must not leave Australians with disability wondering about whether reform of the magnitude of the NDIS will be able to stand the test of time. We need to give them certainty that the services provided to them under the NDIS will be here to stay. That is what everything I do in relation to the NDIS is about.

The Government believes that the full implementation of the NDIS across Australia will be nothing short of a new deal for people with disabilities and their carers.

We have to get this right.

Let the NDIS be above politics. Let the NDIS be an open book. Let’s learn lessons as we go.

There will be challenges. But we can achieve this together.