Press Club President Laura Tingle with Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the National Press Club yesterday. Photograph courtesy Sky News
Just a couple of hours before yesterday’s Parliamentary Committee hearing into the NDIS, Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressed the National Press Club in Canberra.
After a lovely, if rushed, main course at these events the guest speaker is invited up to the lectern and is expected to talk for their supper. Then a few journalists get to pose one question each – however, and critically, they don’t get the chance to follow up anything that’s left hanging. It’s a deliberate format, chosen precisely because it presents the speaker with a huge advantage. A single question without any further interrogation is never enough to probe an issue properly unless the guest wants to reveal something. That’s why framing is critical.
If the journalist bowls up a question that’s too loose, the speaker will simply dismiss the inquiry by hitting it to the boundary. Too narrow and detailed, and the speaker will play a defensive shot, sending the answer dribbling slowly down the pitch and sending the crowd to sleep.
Getting the focus of the question right is a hard ask, and that’s why it’s very hard to skewer any experienced politician – let alone somebody as accomplished at framing issues as this PM.
That’s why, as Morrison stood at the lectern after his speech, Club President Laura Tingle tried something unusual. Rather than simply asking the PM if he’d made some wrong decisions – a question asking for a dismissive and speedy rebuttal – Tingle carefully bowled a spinner. Instead of concentrating on any specific mistake, she asked the PM if he was prepared to apologise. She then detailed four issues where things were going badly wrong: his handling of the pandemic; holiday to Hawaii during the bushfires; not having enough rapid antigen tests; and, finally for failing to live up to his pledge to make sure the NDIS was “fully funded, uncapped, and demand-driven”.
She sat, politely and demurely, looking down at her notes as he stood at the lectern beside her. Then she added a sting in the tail.
“And will you apologise to the hundreds of people who’ve had their funding arbitrarily cut under the scheme?”
The PM gave his trademark reply, not hesitating so much as pausing for effect before responding. It was almost as if he was carefully considering each allegation and weighing it up against the evidence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he rapidly found they were all based on false assumptions and began hitting each one to the boundary. But there was some interesting nuance in the way he answered the disability section.
“We are fully funding the NDIS” he insisted. “It’s one of my great passions, as people know in this place. I will never let people down if I can help it.” But then he paused. “It’s a huge program. It’s a program that is well expanded beyond what the Productivity Commission said it would . . . well beyond.”
“It’s going to be a big challenge in the years ahead, the NDIS, but people know I’m totally committed to it.”
So that was his answer. He is completely dedicated to the program, utterly; however the cost is soaring. No indication that an axe is hanging over the spending, of course, but with absolutely no indication of what’s coming next either. Just a reminder of how much the NDIS is costing that was left hanging in the air.
The implication is clear.
This government isn’t stupid. It won’t say it out loud – and neither will Labor – but both parties are extremely aware that the cost of the program as it’s currently being implemented is zooming way ahead of the original estimates. It’s almost as if the tactics have suddenly changed. Instead of being told spending is on track the message has suddenly changed to one of enormous blow-outs.
Critically, and framed in this way, it’s easy to see the productivity gains necessary to pay for the NDIS just aren’t there and something will have to give. At some point a decision will need to be made. Either taxes will have to go up; spending elsewhere will have to be cut; or the NDIS will have to be slashed.
The stage was set for a hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on the NDIS soon after. This heard there’s been no let-up to the blow-out. In fact the most recent review, by data analytics and actuarial consultancy Taylor Fry, has found the cost to the budget will just grow and grow.
Back in 2020, budget projections suggested the cost would remain relatively constant at something like around $25 billion a year. Last year a revision saw them soaring to more than $30 billion. The Taylor Fry report is an examination of the NDIA’s official actuarial projections and puts the total bill (for financial year 2024/25) at $41 billion – more than the cost of the entire defence force. And growth doesn’t stop there. According to its estimates by financial year 2029/30 Taylor Fry says the NDIA predicts it will need to spend $59 billion on the NDIS.
This would exceed the amount currently devoted to tertiary education.
It’s almost as if the actuaries had been told to confirm the biggest figure they possibly could to reveal the coming bills will cost the government way more than originally expected.
This is not to cast doubt on the figures but simply to suggest there has been a mood switch in the government. Normally shy about suggesting it has a problem, it has switched tack and is clearly attempting to demonstrate the program, as currently framed, is unsustainable. What it isn’t prepared to do, however, is say how it intends to fix it.
What’s interesting from this perspective is the way savings have been treated. Normally, nominal amounts can be ripped off other government spending programs to fund expenditure elsewhere. Savings on hospital costs, for example, are used to justify money spent on better roads. That’s not the case here.
None of this will surprise those in the sector who assert a dysfunctional approach has been taken to the implementation of the NDIS. But equally it doesn’t mean the implications of this dramatic shift in messaging can be ignored, either. What’s occurring is a potentially radical re-writing of the messaging surrounding the entire disability sector.
This sets the stage for a political revisiting of the whole project.