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Running the NDIS

Sep 25, 2019 • 16m24s

As a royal commission into disability care begins, it emerges that key emails relating to the NDIS are held on a private bank server and cannot be accessed.

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Running the NDIS

87 • Sep 25, 2019

Running the NDIS

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

As a Royal Commission into disability care begins hearings, it emerges that key emails relating to the NDIS are held on a private bank server and cannot be accessed. Rick Morton on governance, transparency and a failing system.

[Theme music ends]

ELIZABETH:

Rick, I didn't realise this but the National Disability Insurance Agency, which is the body responsible for the rollout of the NDIS; it's run by a lot of people recruited from banks.

RICK:

Yeah and that's a more recent development. So in 2017, when the then Social Services Minister Christian Porter came into the role, he was quite alarmed at the lack of, what he thought, was rigour and oversight from people who knew a lot about finance and insurance schemes, which is what this is.

ELIZABETH:

Rick Morton is a senior reporter at The Saturday Paper.

RICK:

And so he appointed two people, one of whom was Rob DeLuca, and he came from BankWest. And then when he started not long after, he started bringing in a deputy CEO, two general managers, another direct report to him and they were all of his former colleagues from Bankwest.

Archival tape -- Unidentified man 1:

“What we’re going to have here in Geelong is $120 million worth of brand spanking new and wonderful infrastructure, it will be the national headquarters for the National Disability Insurance Agency.”

Archival tape -- Unidentified woman 2:

“Chief executive of the agency that runs the scheme, David Bowen, resigned and was replaced by former bank west CEO Rob De Luca.”

Archival tape -- Unidentified man 2:

“Whenever you’re ready, Mr. De Luca.”

Archival tape --Rob De Luca:

“Thank you Senator. Good Morning Senators. I remain absolutely committed to building an NDIS that empowers people with Disability to choose and achieve their goals in inclusive communities and work practices.”

RICK:

But it was around April or May this year Rob DeLuca resigned quite suddenly, because he had taken a role within it as healthcare.

ELIZABETH:

And then there's the current chair of the agency, because she also came from a banking background.

RICK:

Correct. So I mean Helen Nugent has a huge and long career on boards and chairing agencies. I mean, she used to be at Westpac once upon a time. She was the chair of Veda, the credit agency. She was a non-executive director of Macquarie Group Ltd for 14 years. So huge varied career. And she was the one that Christian Porter brought in.

ELIZABETH:

You wouldn't question Nugent's skills to chair an agency like this, but why is her Macquarie Bank experience significant in this story?

RICK:

Dr Nugent was, you know, she's got a very formidable CV. And so when she started I was quite fascinated by her and it took me a while. I mean, I eventually got a tip off and on into 2017 that she had been using a Macquarie Group email address, which struck me as odd. And so I kind of just kept an eye on it for a while and it turns out this is the Macquarie Group email address. So even though she finished with them in 2014 as a director, it's five years later and she still got access, so she's almost living in these two different worlds, while conducting business for the NDIA.

ELIZABETH:

Because her emails remain on this Macquarie Group server, you try to inquire into them through Freedom of Information requests and your essentially not able to see them because, despite the fact that they relate to government work, there's kind of a firewall between a server for a public organisation and a server for a private organisation that hosts her email address.

RICK:

Well, I mean, in terms of public interest reporting they may as well not exist. There is no way to get access to the emails that she sends from that Macquarie Group email address, even if they're sent to public servants in the course of managing a 22 billion dollar reform. That is the largest reform since Medicare. There is no way to access them, not even under Freedom of Information. And I tried, because I didn't think that far ahead. You know, I requested through FOI, through the agency, copies of all emails sent from a Macquarie Group or similar email address and I was rejected because they don't own that email server. It's not a government email server, it's a private bank.

ELIZABETH:

So they're saying to you, even if we wanted to give them to you we couldn't because they exist on a private server to which we have no access.

RICK:

They don't even have them. They can't discover them. That's kind of the term they use. And they don't want to give them to me, don't get me wrong, but even if they did, no way. No way on earth can they actually get access to it. I mean, Macquarie is not about to bend over backwards and let the government into its own server.

ELIZABETH:

But had she been on a government email address, you would've been able to put in an FOI request and see them?

RICK:

Yes. And I have many times received emails from agency staff emails in other Freedom of Information requests.

ELIZABETH:

So do you have any sense of what kinds of things are being directed from that address that Dr. Nugent uses with Macquarie Group?

RICK:

Yeah. So we got lucky, I guess, with one request because when I first got knocked back by the government saying that they can't access Macquarie's bank email servers, I then changed tack and I put in a request asking for emails responding to a Macquarie Group email address from the agency. Then I got one document back and what that shows me is that there had been a conversation between Dr Nugent and Vicki Randall as the acting CEO about a person whose name has been redacted doing some work for the agency. And so Vicki is essentially following up that conversation that she had with Dr. Nugent. There is this one point where she says, you know, I had the most wonderful conversation with the delightful redacted, the dreaded blacking for personal privacy. She said that they were going to meet whoever this person is before the board meeting in Sydney on the 28th of May 2018 and Helen responds; Thank you so much Vicki. Delighted to hear.

ELIZABETH:

What are the complications and issues with arrangements like this?

RICK:

So I want to be perfectly clear, I'm not suggesting that Helen Nugent has done anything wrong. There's certainly no suggestion she's done anything to breach the Corporations Act or even internal policies at the agency. They're saying that's fine. And it may well be, but we don't have access to the emails. We don't know what kind of relationship exists there. We physically can't get them, and they're telling us that this is all par for the course.

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Mm. This is also about security information and government transparency, isn't it? Because we do have a right to know.

RICK:

Well we do. I mean, that's the whole purpose of the Freedom of Information legislation. And I put questions to the Minister for the NDIS, Stuart Robert, who is a good friend of Scott Morrison's, and he fobbed me off. He just said, refer you to the response from the agency. Now the reason why I put questions to him as well as the agency was because he has different questions to answer. So I asked him specifically; Are you okay, as the minister in charge of the oversight of this scheme and the governance, with the idea that there is a layer of email correspondence that nobody has access to not, even you, Stuart Robert. And then I also asked; Is it a concern to the government that potentially sensitive information and data and maybe even personal information relating to the core business of the NDIS is held on a private bank’s server that they have security access to.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Rick, what's the state of the NDIS rollout as it currently stands?

RICK:

So the NDIS is in a lot of trouble. You know, it's way behind schedule. It's been hit with kind of crisis after crisis. Its I.T. system melted down in 2016, which meant that they couldn't pay providers. They've got the modelling wrong on how many children, for example, need to be in the scheme, and they've been way above what they expected. People are not getting consistent support packages across the country to the point where people with the same conditions and the same age and the same backgrounds but in different locations will get wildly different amounts of funding. And so we've got a system that is not coping with the huge transition to full rollout. And I think we're now starting to see that in terms of outcomes for people with disabilities, but also the way that the agency has started trying to manage some of these crises that have cropped up.

Archival tape -- Unidentified man 1:

“I welcome everybody present today in this hall for the first public sitting of the Royal Commission into violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability.”

ELIZABETH:

Rick, last week, a Royal Commission into disability abuse and neglect in the sector began. What is that commission likely to hear?

RICK:

I think this is the one big sleeper in terms of outrage and horror in Australia. I mean, we had the Royal Commission into institutional child sex abuse that went for five years and I had a friend who covered that every day and that was horrific and I think the nation was ashamed of itself. The fact that this stuff happened apparently under, you know, watchful eyes. This commission will blow that out of the water, I think, because I've spoken to these disabled people throughout my entire seven years covering the NDIS and the thing they've always said to me and the thing that I now notice is that people almost don't think that they're human. The amount of cases where families have, under a great deal of stress, have killed a kid with autism or one cerebral palsy because it's fractured the family and they couldn't support them well enough. And then, you see these comments on Facebook of other people going, yes, well it must have been hard. And, you know, the people I speak to are like, hang on we're human beings, you know. Just because we're difficult to look after doesn't mean we deserve to be killed.

And so we're looking at the group in society that is most marginalised, most maligned, most feared because people are afraid of being disabled and they look at them and they don't want to be reminded that that's a possibility. And the activists that I've spoken to like Raina Lam, Sam Connor, of my years are doing this reporting, they have been jumping up and down trying to get people to listen. You know, we've got stories of people who were found dead in their room covered in their own faeces, people strapped in their wheelchairs to the back of a ute to get taken to a courthouse in regional Australia because they didn't have any proper facilities and people who died alone screaming in agony for days in an institution in Perth. Peta Doig was her name, and she had no family. So her obituary became the coroner's report. The coroner was the only person that recognised her existence, she may as well not have existed, and they’re three cases. And we're gonna get thousands and thousands and thousands of them. And so when people look at the way institutions are run and the system that are meant to serve them are run and say that we have problems and concerns about propriety and transparency and whether the right decisions have been made. Their fear is not a theoretical one. You know, this is their life, that's what Raina said to me. She said I think a lot of the abuse comes from people who run systems that control our lives who are not us and do not understand us.

ELIZABETH:

It could be a decade before the Royal Commission concludes and makes its final recommendations. What happens in the meantime?

RICK:

So I mean, I think the best way to kind of describe how this system affects real people is to is to take one who I met in the course of my reporting, and it's Mali Hermans and her mother, Julie.

Archival tape -- Mali Hermans:

“This agency where I was like, okay this is like, actually really fucked up. He didn’t even care to take notes…”

RICK:

Julie Hermans suffered a horrible illness in her 40s and became a quadriplegic, essentially, overnight. Now Julie Hermans has a history of sexual trauma. She was abused as a child. She's got comorbid psychosocial disabilities and then she's suddenly become a quadriplegic. And she spent a few weeks in hospital where she did need to be there and then she became what they call subacute. And she’s left there for 18 months because there is no housing disability specialist accommodation. And so she's got NDIS support at this point, but the NDIS will not give her access to housing because she hasn't identified a have to move into. And so we've got this really perverse rule that said you cannot get the money from the NDIS until you've got a housing provider place locked in, but you can't get a place locked in until you've got the money because they ask you to pay.

At one point while I was talking to Mali, the public hospital system then threatened to start charging her money to stay there because she couldn't find anywhere else to live.

Archival tape -- Rick Morton:

“What was she saying?”

Archival tape -- Mali Hermans:

“When she was in hospital, she was always like, I’m scared I’m going to die in hospital, when she was in a group home, she was like, I’m scared I’m going to die in this group home.”

RICK:

The day after I wrote that story and the NDIA calls Marli and they eventually move Julie Hermans into a group home to Canberra, where her daughter is studying and where her husband, as if this story couldn't get any more harsh or tragic, is one of the young people stuck in a nursing home, because he's got his own physical disabilities as well.
And so the one thing that Julie Hermann wanted was to live in a house with her husband and the one thing her husband wanted was to get out of a nursing home and to live in a house with his wife. And so they had a planning meeting with the agency, the NDIS Agency, in January this year. When they got that plan back, there was no mention of that. And one of the planners that was involved in the process had left the agency and had taken no notes and so they had to start the process again. And then while that this was happening, Julie Hermans contracted a series of infections and she died last month in Canberra Hospital before she was ever able to move into a house with her husband.

Archival tape -- Mali Hermans:

“So the coroner was like, we’re not disputing her cause of death, she very clearly died of pneumonia, we want to determine the manner in which she died and what were the steps leading up to it. And so, we also have the opportunity to put in a submission to ask for a hearing and all that kind of shit, so that’s where we are at at the moment.”

ELIZABETH:

And while we wait on these recommendations in the Royal Commission, what happens in cases like this, what happens to people who find themselves in situations like this? Will there be changes?

RICK:

Well, it's quite interesting actually. So we kind of come full circle on this story now, because there is a group that's been put together by the NDIS to try and catalyse, I guess, housing development and to kind of work through the rules and so they've got this reference panel and one of the key groups key members is Macquarie Bank, and they'll be working with the agency to sort out housing policy and how they might go about getting involved, so to speak. So they've got quite an influential role as an investment adviser to the agency, and that's kind of the only hope at the moment. And who knows what they're going to come up with.

ELIZABETH:

Rick, thank you so much.

RICK:

Thank you for having me again.

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[Theme music starts]

ERIK:

Elsewhere in the news, Scott Morrison has used a speech to business leaders in Chicago to say China is no longer an emerging economy - and that it should face new trade obligations. Anthony Albanese questioned the decision to reclassify China as a developed economy and said the fact the speech was made in the United States could raise doubts over whose interests were being advanced.

And in New York, the climate activist Greta Thunberg has delivered a strong speech at the UN climate summit, criticising governments for failing to set more ambitious targets. She said, quote: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. The eyes of all future generations are upon you.” Thunberg is one of 14 children to lodge a formal complaint under the UN convention on the rights of the child, saying failure to act on climate change violates the convention.

This is 7am, see you Thursday.

[Theme music ends]

As a royal commission into disability care begins, it emerges that key emails relating to the NDIS are held on a private bank server and cannot be accessed. Rick Morton on governance, transparency and a failing system.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

Exclusive: Key NDIS emails held on private bank server in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow with Michelle Macklem. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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87: Running the NDIS