Disability Service Consulting’s (DSC) Annual NDIS Conference took place in Sydney and online on the 1st and 2nd of June. MCed by ABC journalist Elizabeth Wright, the conference featured a strong line-up of experts and leaders from the disability sector.

BCA was represented at the conference by Jackson Reynolds-Ryan, Manager Policy and Advocacy; Peta Hogan, National Advocacy Projects Officer; and Corey Crawford, National Policy Officer. Each of these BCA staff members work on various policy and advocacy matters related to the NDIS, and so benefitted greatly from listening to subject experts.

The conference also enabled some important face-to-face networking opportunities, including with Prue Watt, BCA’s National Policy Council Chair; Graeme Innes, NDIA Board Member; Emma Bennison, BCA’s former Chief Executive Officer; and Jane Britt, BCA’s former Policy and Advocacy Team Leader.

Key speakers at the conference included NDIS Independent Review Co-Chairs Lisa Paul and Bruce Bonyhady, NDIS Minister Bill Shorten, NDIA CEO Rebecca Falkingham, NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commissioner Tracy Mackey, and Disability Discrimination Commissioner Ben Gauntlet. Greens Senator Jordan Steele-John and Independent Senator David Pocock participated in separate panel discussions.

Lisa Paul and Bruce Bonyhady, the NDIS Independent Review Co-Chairs, spoke of the extraordinary and life-changing nature of the NDIS for hundreds of thousands of Australians during its first 10 years of existence. Bruce spoke of the need to maximise lifetime outcomes and minimise lifetime costs for NDIS participants. He added that NDIS sustainability and participant experience were not opposing concepts, but rather two sides of the same coin. Lisa said much of the political discourse around the NDIS focused on costs rather than outcomes, and that this had to change.

Lisa and Bruce said the Independent Review would include recommendations on Tier 2 supports – that is, disability supports outside of the NDIS. On the basis that unaddressed disabilities would only become more severe, Bruce was adamant that a failure to provide Tier 2 supports would significantly increase the long-term costs of the NDIS. Using an analogy, Bruce said that just as motor vehicle accident compensation schemes invested in safer roads to prevent accidents, the NDIS could not be fair or sustainable without local, state, territory and federal governments providing adequate non-NDIS disability supports.

At the start of his keynote, NDIS Minister Bill Shorten said he had recently changed his language. NDIS participants should no longer strive for an ‘ordinary life’ but rather the ‘right to a fulfilling life, a life of opportunity, a life of sharing the benefits of what it means to live in this amazing country.’ He emphatically stated that ‘the NDIS is here to stay’ and that he hoped the media’s framing of the Scheme could mature beyond the current ‘crisis, doom-and-gloom’ narrative.

Minister Shorten said the first and most important question for the federal government as it considered reforming the NDIS was: ‘Is it in the best interests of participants?’ He spruiked the recent Budget’s injection of nearly $900 million of funds to improve the administration of the NDIS. He also addressed what he described as ‘uninformed remarks’ around National Cabinet’s recent announcement of an eight per cent target for annual NDIS expenditure growth from 2026.

‘I want to be very clear with you,’ Minister Shorten said, ‘as I’ve been clear with some of those in Parliament who would lead you to believe otherwise. Eight per cent is a target, not a cap. There’s nothing wrong with having targets. But it is a target, not a cap. It is a demand-driven Scheme.’

Minister Shorten suggested NDIS costs could be constrained by reforms such as a specific, for-purpose regulation to make it illegal to charge more for an NDIS-provided good or service than an equivalent non-NDIS good or service; using the federal government’s purchasing power to lower costs for assistive technology; and redoubling efforts to eliminate fraud from the Scheme.

Affirming Lisa and Bruce’s conviction, Minister Shorten said Tier 2 supports had to be strengthened to improve the sustainability of the NDIS. He also noted that the Administrative Appeals Tribunal had to operate is a less adversarial way when it came to NDIS matters. As he closed his address, Minister Shorten expressed his optimism for the future of the NDIS and his hope that more people with disability would enter politics and take up decision-making roles in the community.

In their own unique way, each of the other speakers emphasised the importance and transformative power of the NDIS. A common theme was the need for politicians, media commentators and the community at large to expand their view of the NDIS beyond the metrics of the federal Budget and to consider the value of the many lives changed for the better by the Scheme.

Other topics of discussion included how to strengthen the NDIS workforce and improve employment opportunities and housing accessibility for people with disability. Snippets of data were interspersed throughout the conference, painting an at-times sobering picture of the Scheme’s performance. One of the most disturbing statistics was that half of all NDIS providers did not make a profit in 2022. A brief demonstration of the artificial intelligence-powered ChatGPT software offered a glimpse into the future of the NDIS.

In an outstanding segment, DSC’s Todd Winther interviewed NDIA Board Chair Kurt Fearnley, during which Kurt related his unique experience as both a prominent figure in the disability sector and a person who still encounters discrimination. Other highlights included a Welcome to Country delivered by Daniel McDonald in a dazzling sequined outfit with accompanying Aboriginal flag cape and the warm reception afforded to journalist Stan Grant as he hosted a panel discussion on inclusion.

As the event ended, NDIA Board Member Graeme Innes provided an incisive recap of the conference. To the applause of the BCA staff members in attendance, Graeme kindly recommended that DSC consult BCA to make next year’s event more accessible for people who are blind or vision impaired, particularly regarding descriptions of the slideshow presentations and the printed conference program.

Going forward, Lisa Paul and Bruce Bonyhady strongly encouraged conference attendees and all people with disability to participate in the ongoing NDIS Independent Review. BCA members can do so by logging on to the following website – https://www.ndisreview.gov.au/have-your-say

BCA members can also participate in the NDIS Review consultations to be carried out by BCA in the weeks ahead.