Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services

Transcript: Sky News Live, Interview with David Speers

15 September 2019

The Hon Stuart Robert MP

Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services
E&OE

DAVID SPEERS: 

With me now is the Minister for Government Services and the NDIS, Stuart Robert. Thanks very much for your time this morning, Minister. Let’s just start with Gladys Liu. Is it clear to you how she managed to raise more than a million dollars for the Liberal Party? Does that level of fundraising raise any suspicions for you?

STUART ROBERT:           

This is a new MP, David. I think she’s been here 74 days. What matters in our democracy is that in terms of fundraising it’s all appropriately declared, and my understanding is that is the case and that Gladys is double checking all of those issues to ensure it remains the case.

DAVID SPEERS: 

But again, does that level of fundraising- it seems an extraordinary amount of money, more than a million dollars raised, clearly through Chinese community connections. Is that of concern at all?

STUART ROBERT:

Gladys’s electorate, I think, is 30 per cent Chinese, from memory. I was there a few weeks ago. The issue isn’t the quantum, the issue is the declaration. Transparency is what’s important in our democracy. Donations or raising of them is a part of how our democracy runs. What matters is community trust and we do that by declarations. So what matters is that the Victorian Liberal Party ensures it’s declared, they double check that that’s the case, and of course then we move on.

DAVID SPEERS: 

What about the fact she couldn’t recall being a member of a Chinese Communist Party-linked propaganda unit? And then, the following day, after that interview, did confirm that she had been a part of it for many years. Are you satisfied that all the questions have been answered about that?

STUART ROBERT:           

I think Gladys had a difficult interview, David. We’ve all had difficult interviews. I think you and I have had some difficult interviews. But I’m satisfied that she is going through her associations, that she’s double checking that to ensure that they are declared or that she’s removed herself from them. And of course some associations put you on their reference group without even asking. So I’m highly satisfied with what she’s done, with the statement she’s produced, and of course that she’s double checking.

DAVID SPEERS: 

And do you think questions around all of this are really a grubby smear, as the Prime Minister’s put it?

STUART ROBERT:

I was with Gladys a week or two ago opening one of the Quality and Safety Commissions down in Victoria and I heard her speak about growing up deaf in one ear,  about the shame she felt with that because she couldn’t feel that she could ask for help. So growing up with a disability and then coming to Australia, she has worked very hard. She’s everything we want in migrant communities in terms of overcoming disability, overcoming setbacks in life and stepping forward to represent in public office. She’s doing her very best, she’s had a very difficult 74 days and bad interviews don’t help, but I think she is a cracker for her community. And actually spending half a day with her in her community and with people with disability, I was proud to stand next to her, David, can I say.

DAVID SPEERS: 

I don’t think anyone’s doubting living with disabilities and being a migrant and so on have its challenges. I don’t think anyone’s criticising or questioning that. But is it legitimate to question links to a Chinese Communist Party propaganda unit and these other issued that have been questioned, I mean, is that really a grubby smear?

STUART ROBERT:

In public life you’re going to get a whole bunch of questions asked. However, what’s untidy is when the opposition ask questions they know are out of order, they know come with a whole bunch of mixed attachments to them, and yet they still ask them, not with the intent of getting an answer because they know an answer can’t be given in parliament on some of the allegations, but simply to throw mud, that is definitely a grubby smear.

DAVID SPEERS: 

The Prime Minister heads to Washington later this week. Is it clear to you what he’ll be seeking to achieve while he’s there for what is a rare state visit?

STUART ROBERT:

An extraordinarily rare state visit. I think the last time was 14 years ago with Mr Howard, and of course this is only President Trump’s second state dinner with a global leader. So it is extraordinary that Australia has that opportunity and the Prime Minister can build on what he did with the G7 and the G20 prior to that. The strength of the relationship with the US is extraordinarily strong but we need to keep it that way, we need to keep it strong and only dialogue and engagement can do that.

DAVID SPEERS: 

Do you think we need a stronger US commitment in our region?

STUART ROBERT:

No question that everyone benefits from a strong rules-based order, and a strong US committed to a rules-based order. And that’s what we’re seeking, we’re seeking for the US to remain strongly engaged in our part of the world as they are elsewhere, we’re looking for everyone to abide by their World Trade obligations when it comes to trade, and the world certainly does a lot better when everyone abides by their commitments and especially to their commitments to trade.

DAVID SPEERS: 

You have a defence background, you understand the importance of the military alliance. Would you be comfortable with an expanded US military presence here in Australia, even a Navy base?

STUART ROBERT:           

Well, we have an expanded presence. President Obama, of course, announced the pivot, so almost 50 per cent of US combat power is in the Indo-Pacific region. We of course announced stronger visits, Marine detachments in terms of their force disposition in the Northern Territory up and above 2,000. So in the last half decade you’ve seen the strengthening of the US position in this part of the world. It’s been done sensibly, openly, with full engagement with all the partners and all the nations in our region, and I think it’s a very good thing.

DAVID SPEERS: 

What I’m asking is do you think it’s time to go further with the US military presence here?

STUART ROBERT:

I think the US are still actually coming to grips with what the pivot actually looks like. Rotating half of their combat power into the Indo-Pacific is not an insubstantial task and of course we’ve seen the ramp-up of the Marine force happened over half a decade from a smaller force now to 2,000 and beyond. So I think this is a progressive thing. It’s not something you say: Hey, we need another Marine Expeditionary Unit. We just build on what we’ve already got and continue to train and engage strongly, and that’s starting to see some real benefits I think.

DAVID SPEERS: 

Let’s turn to the NDIS, your portfolio responsibility. You were given the responsibility. You were given the task by the Prime Minister of fixing the NDIS. Can I ask [indistinct] whether it’s been fixed, when it’s been fixed, what does fixed look like?

STUART ROBERT:

Yeah, it’s a good question, what does success look like. I inherited an NDIS in good shape from previous Ministers, where 80 per cent of the policy framework had been completed. Success, for the first round, looks like come 1 July next year when the last 20 per cent of policy decisions have substantially been thrashed out with the states, that’ll be good. When the full number of participants from the states have come in, into full scheme, that will be very good. And when we move on to a new normal, so rather than this fight to get everyone from the states into the NDIS, it’s now onto how we get the NDIS on a normal, natural footing. And of course you run the flag up the pole once WA is into full scheme by 2023. But of course by the middle of next year I think we’ll have ironed out most of these issues and have most of the state participants in the scheme.

DAVID SPEERS: 

There’s a few things, just to drill down on here. The e-market. The Productivity Commission said this was absolutely critical to the success of the NDIS, having an e-market that could link service providers to participants so they can easily find each other and so on. I know the Government, I think five years ago, allocated $120 million for this. Where is that up to?

STUART ROBERT:           

No question I’ve got some ICT challenges, not just in terms of a digital marketplace which can provide a whole bunch of service offerings, not just personnel but equipment, home modifications, assistive technology, as well as linking to a CRM, and of course I want to link back to the wider Services Australia direction we’re taking in terms of service delivery. It’s going to take us a while to get that into fruition. I’m not satisfied that our ICT is where it needs to be in terms of delivering that, but there is a very, very strong plan.

DAVID SPEERS: 

What does a while mean? Because this was budgeted five years ago, how long is it going to take, if this is a critical part of the NDIS?

STUART ROBERT:           

We’ll be announcing the full NDIS plan that will take us to what is the new normal, is business as usual, in the coming weeks. It’ll go through the normal processes of government in the following week and then, after that, David, we will spend some quality time and outline it all in terms of dates and times.

DAVID SPEERS: 

All right. One of the other big issues is specialist disability accommodation. We’ve heard during the past week the number of young people who are in nursing homes because of a lack of specialist disability accommodation. What’s happening on that front?

STUART ROBERT:           

We think about 28,000 people will be eligible for SDA or specialist disability accommodation. Currently 13,000 are housed. I think I need to build, or the market needs to build, circa 5,000 to 7,000 houses. That’s going to take us five or six years to get that, so we can get every participant that needs to be in specialist accommodation into that. And at the same time there are 4,000 odd younger people in residential aged care. To give that some perspective, only three are under the age of 25, 30 are under the age of 35 and 127 are under the age of 45. So most younger people in residential aged care are 45 or older. But they should all be in specialist accommodation in the community living a normal life, and my plan is to all of those younger people, to have them out by 2025, to halve the number of people coming in. That’s where I want to get to. But I’ve got to build houses first, or more importantly the private sector needs to build them first, and that is absolutely a priority.

DAVID SPEERS: 

Employment issues are another one I just wanted to ask you about. There’s, as you’d know, a big gap between the number of people with a disability who want work and the number who are actually in work. Is the government willing to do more here, particularly with something like a Disability Employment Plan to incentivise business to take on people with a disability?

STUART ROBERT:           

Absolutely, and you’ll hear more about that in the coming weeks. There are a range of people who work in disability enterprises. I want to see more of them transitioning into fulltime, or more importantly part-time work. I want to see a strong plan for young school leavers with disability and how they’re going to engage in work. And I’ve said a number of months ago, I’m looking forward to working with corporate Australia on how we encourage them to provide work for people with disability. And of course the APS has been set a target of 7 per cent of the workforce of the Australian Public Service to be people with a disability. We want to ensure that every Australian has an opportunity, regardless of disability or not. I think these are pretty key message to get that across the line and moving.

DAVID SPEERS: 

For the private sector, though, are we talking about some sort of tax incentive or other government assistance to hire someone with a disability?

STUART ROBERT:           

Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ll have some more to say when we roll out the full plan of how we’ll engage with that. But I think community has an expectation that our larger corporates lean into their social responsibility and look to employ people with disability in the same way that the APS will. Now, I’m not suggesting a target on corporate Australia by any means, albeit there is a target on the APS, but I am looking forward to corporate Australia actually leaning into their social responsibility.

DAVID SPEERS: 

One of the things you did early on with the NDIS, service providers were complaining about the amount they were able to earn, you announced an increase in prices for them, it was a temporary transition payment. Doesn’t that mean the participants, though, who are given a plan, have to pay for these services, they are, as a result, having to pay more. Do their plans need to be topped up?

STUART ROBERT:           

So we increased pricing substantially on the first of July, a $1.7 billion cost increase per annum that came aboard. We also put in place a transitional payment structure, 7.5 per cent this year, and then it decreases by 1.5 per cent thereafter year on year. And the intent being that because there was an underspend in the core supports of people, a substantial underspend, that providers could claim that extra amount on top and that would soak up that underspend. So no, the intent is not to disadvantage…

DAVID SPEERS: 

What about the participants who are already spending their full plan, aren’t they worse off if they have to pay more?

STUART ROBERT:           

Then my expectation is they would come back for a review when we would deal with that.

DAVID SPEERS: 

Okay, so your advice to them is come back, get a review, you will get more?

STUART ROBERT:           

If there’s a participant who’s using 100 per cent of their plan and the transitional payments on top of that there’s no headroom in their core supports, I’d absolutely expect them to be coming back for review in that space.

DAVID SPEERS: 

A couple of other things away from the NDIS. You’ve announced this morning that the numbers last financial year of tipoffs from the community for people who’ve allegedly been fraudulently claiming welfare, Medicare or Child Support payments. How much has been recovered through these tipoffs? Are you able to calculate?

STUART ROBERT:           

Hard, but it’s in excess of $100 million from memory. I mean, the numbers are big, 90,000 tipoffs in a given year is huge, which led to over 200 investigations and 49 matters now before the courts. So many tipoffs it’s actually hard to measure what’s recovered. Because the department speaks to people and people say, oh yes, I forgot about that, I’ll update my earned income, which of course then welfare receipts then decrease. So it’s always difficult, but that’s the sort of number we always look at. But the real headline here, David, is that the average, everyday Australian doesn’t like someone cheating on welfare. We’ve got $184 billion that rolls out each year in one of the most highly targeted welfare schemes in the world. It’s about the right amount of money to the right people at the right time, and it’s not about defrauding the government doing welfare thieving and cheating, it’s actually taking money from the next-door neighbour and the lovely lady across the street who pays tax. That’s who you’re stealing from, and 90,000 tipoffs tells me that the average Australian has had a gutful of it, they want it to stop, they want government to take a strong line on welfare fraud and welfare cheating, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.

DAVID SPEERS: 

You’ve also budgeted to recover more than you are through robo-debts as they’re known. Can I ask is the Government going to extend robo-debts to people over the age of 65?

STUART ROBERT:

Well, in terms of the Earned Income Compliance, we use that now for everyday Australians who have said they’ve earned X but their tax return says they’ve earned Y, and then of course we have a person in the chain at all times to ensure that we call people, send them information, send them letters to say please explain. Remember this process started in 2011 with the Labor Party, Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek and it’s been continued. And if people are working as well as getting one of eight income support benefits, including the Aged Pension, we will call them. But in terms of vulnerable cohorts, the Government has nothing before it in terms of looking at that.

DAVID SPEERS: 

Okay, but to be clear that doesn’t rule out extending this to over-65s.

STUART ROBERT:           

If there is someone who’s over the age of 65 and they are working and earning, they’ve got an obligation to report that income through to Centrelink to ensure they’re getting the right amount of aged pension. And if their tax return says that they’ve earned more than they’ve reported, we will do a check and update on them.

DAVID SPEERS: 

Through this robo-debt system?

STUART ROBERT:           

Through the Earned Income Compliance system, yes.

DAVID SPEERS: 

Alright, Stuart Robert, Minister for Government Services and the NDIS, appreciate your time this morning, thank you.

STUART ROBERT:           

Tremendous, thanks David.

Page last updated: 15 September 2019