ANALYSIS

NDIS reform halted: Will Reynolds act on what she hears?

New NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
New NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

It might have been a demotion in the ranks of the Morrison ministry, but Linda Reynolds' shift from the Defence portfolio to the position in charge of the $22 billion National Disability Insurance Scheme was never going to be a soft landing.

Battles of a different kind were awaiting Reynolds the moment she returned to work from medical leave, which she took as scrutiny over her handling of the alleged rape of former staffer Brittany Higgins was at its most frenzied.

The divisive Stuart Robert had left his successor a package of planned reforms which had provoked anger and fear in the disability community, concerned medical experts, infuriated the states and invited relentless and damaging attacks from the Coalition's political opponents.

The most high-profile and contentious change was the proposed introduction of independent assessments, a new system which critics feared would undermine the three-word principal which rests at the heart of the scheme - "choice and control".

Despite the furore, Robert and his agency appeared to have no intention in backing down - quite the opposite.

The act of awarding $339 million worth of contracts to providers to run the assessments, just days after consultation on the proposal had concluded, suggested a scant regard for the perspective of those who would have to live with the decisions of high-paid bureaucrats and their political masters.

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Reynolds, since starting on the role, has adopted a new approach. With her first public statement, and each of those which have followed, she had committed to consultation before action.

The new minister has much to gain personally from a conciliatory approach, so stained was her reputation by the Brittany Higgins "lying cow" affair.

The WhatsApp group of state disabilities ministers, which just weeks ago was reportedly pinging with angry messages, has - according to one source - gone quiet in recent days. Reynolds spoke with her counterparts ahead of a planned meeting on Thursday, which had the potential to descend into a tense and bitter showdown over the planned changes.

Consistent with her new approach, Reynolds announced ahead of the meeting that she would pause the rollout of independent assessments, until at least after feedback from a ongoing trial had been assessed.

Disability groups have reacted with cautious optimism.

A halt to the rollout is beyond anything they could have hoped for with Stuart Robert in charge. But nor is it what they ultimately want from the government - a commitment to "co-design" the scheme with the disability community.

Reynolds on Thursday talked up the benefits of the independent assessments, describing them as a "globally recognised ... tool to ensure consistency and fairness".

It is clear the proposal won't be dumped anytime soon. The drastic changes flagged in leaked draft legislation still remain on the table, and the agency's new cost-cutting taskforce will soon get to work.

There remains much to alarm the disability community.

But the new minister has pledged to listen.

How will she respond to what she hears?

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This story NDIS reform halted: Will Reynolds act on what she hears? first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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