Former Labor leader Bill Shorten has delivered a blunt warning over the trajectory of the National Disability Insurance Scheme amid fierce debate over proposed changes to the system.
Mr Shorten, who is Labor’s spokesperson for the NDIS, fronted the National Press Club (NPC) on Wednesday, where he raised concerns about the direction of the scheme under the Morrison government.
The federal government has temporarily suspended plans to implement controversial independent assessment reforms to the NDIS following severe backlash from community groups.
Under the proposed changes, participants would undergo independent assessments to determine their eligibility for the scheme, and the level of support and funding they receive.
The federal government insists the reforms would see funding distributed more fairly.
But the measures remain a divisive issue for critics who warn they will undermine participants’ control over the support they receive.
Mr Shorten said the program was being placed at risk because of neglect and vandalism under the government's management.
“The promise of the NDIS is being betrayed - not yet fatally but certainly substantially,” he told the NPC.
“After eight years of neglect, I am sorry to say that the ongoing existence of the scheme as we dreamed it to be is at risk.”
More than 400,000 Australians are supported by the $25 billion scheme, which is jointly funded by the federal and state and territory governments.
Participants currently provide reports from their own medical specialists to be assessed for the scheme.
NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds last month signalled the government's intent to pause plans for the controversial rollout by the middle of the year.
Senator Reynolds has said she intends to examine feedback at the end of trials and a national consultation, but expressed support for the intent of the reforms.
Eight companies have already been awarded contracts worth approximately $339 million to conduct the assessments.
Mr Shorten said he is concerned the process would force Australians who have already been assessed under the NDIS to have their applications reviewed again.
“Do I think hundreds of thousands of people with disability are sick of having to prove that their kid or their family member is disabled? Yes I do,” he said.
Disability advocacy groups have warned the changes would "fundamentally alter the individualised and personalised" nature of the NDIS, with a coalition of groups raising alarm about the changes.
Melbourne Disability Institute Director Bruce Bonyhady, who helped design the NDIS, this month warned that independent assessments would "blow up" the vision of the scheme by undermining the process of accessing support.
States and territories, including the NSW Liberal government, have also warned about the pace of the planned changes and response of the disability community.
But the opinion is not universally held, with former NDIS board member Josh Walsh backing the reforms as “reasonable and necessary”, in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry.
Mr Walsh warned that spending on the NDIS would become unsustainable without the measures, reaching levels of up to $50 billion a year.
Former NDIS Minister Stuart Robert announced the proposed changes last year, saying the government believed a participants' assessments should not be determined by their postcode or how much they can pay for a report.
However, Mr Shorten on Wednesday said the process would place a disproportionate weight on assessments conducted by a "stranger".
“Do I think there is a role for assessment? Yes,” Mr Shorten said.
“Do I think a random stranger whose numbers then become I think disproportionately important in the decision is the way to go? No,” he said.
The NDIS was founded by the Labor government in 2013 - but has since been supported by the Coalition government in power.
Mr Shorten said if Labor won the next election it would return people with “lived disability experience” to the board and senior levels of the National Disability Insurance Agency.
"We will introduce greater accountability of how money is spent in the NDIA and the NDIS. But we will also bring accountability about outcomes for participants in the scheme," he said.
"The immense promise of the NDIS is still there."