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As a royal commission begins on the disability sector, correspondence reveals NDIA chair Helen Nugent has used an email account owned by Macquarie Bank to direct the $22 billion agency. By Rick Morton.

Exclusive: Key NDIS emails held on private bank server

For more than two years as chair of the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), Helen Nugent has worked out of a private office in the Sydney headquarters of investment bank Macquarie Group Limited and conducted business relating to the $22 billion government reform from an email server belonging to the bank.

Dr Nugent, a veteran of the corporate world, was a Macquarie director for 14 years but stepped down in 2014. She was hand-selected to chair the NDIA board in 2017 by then Social Services minister Christian Porter. By that point, Nugent had no employment relationship with Macquarie Group – she still does not – but almost immediately she began to use the financial firm’s email account to speak directly with NDIA staff, The Saturday Paper can reveal.

In a week when a royal commission into disability abuse and neglect began with a promise to “uncover uncomfortable truths” in the disability sector, the revelations of Nugent’s working arrangements have raised eyebrows among people with disability and their advocates.

Concerns about a lack of transparency have stalked the rapidly growing NDIA, which is running behind schedule on original timelines to deliver the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Final budget numbers for the 2018-19 financial year, released on Thursday, show the delays are so big the Commonwealth spent $4.6 billion less on the scheme than it had predicted. For that single year, a further $1.3 billion in payments meant to go to state governments remain in federal coffers due to a breakdown in negotiations for the rollout.

The landmark reform has been dogged by computer system meltdowns and pressure on budgets due to out-of-whack modelling about the number of participants – especially children. There are added costs from outsourcing of staff to labour hire firms, contractors and consultants, which has totalled almost $1 billion in the past three years.

Earlier this month, acting NDIA chief executive Vicki Rundle was grilled by another royal commission – on aged-care quality and safety – about the agency’s desperately stalled housing policy, which was meant, in part, to help thousands of young people stranded in nursing homes move back into the community.

At the aged-care royal commission, counsel assisting Richard Knowles was blunt when he put to Vicki Rundle that a shortfall of 12,300 places for specialist disability accommodation (SDA) was identified in 2011 and yet no rules governing this policy were developed until 2017. Even then, the rules were written to prevent people receiving accommodation funding, unless they had a specific property lined up, which they couldn’t do without the funding.

“And do you agree that the rules should have included what they now do as a matter of common sense, that you don’t need to identify a particular place before you can have SDA in your plan?” Knowles asked in the hearing.

Rundle agreed that it should have been obvious “in hindsight”.

Now the agency has a new SDA Reference Group, which met for the first time in March this year, with the aim of refining policies that will direct about $6 billion in required investment to meet the housing shortfall. Its members include representatives from 15 organisations and NDIS participants.

The only bank on the list is Macquarie Group.

Documents released under freedom of information laws to The Saturday Paper reveal an exchange between Nugent and Rundle, discussing a role contracted to a person whose identity has been redacted.

“Helen, I have had the most wonderful conversation with the delightful [redacted],” Rundle, who was then deputy chief executive of the NDIA, said in an email to Nugent dated May 16, 2018.

“He and I are going to meet the afternoon before Board on 28 May in Sydney so that I can brief him and Josh. He will predominantly help us with our narrative and high end comms documents based on logical reasoning and structure.”

Rundle then added: “I thought you would be interested to know. Thanks a lot for connecting us.”

Nugent responded from her mobile phone seven minutes later: “Thanks so much Vicki. Delighted to hear.”

A spokeswoman for the agency told The Saturday Paper that “Dr Nugent did not give any instruction to hire any external party to assist with communications and any such suggestion would be factually inaccurate.”

The documents have redacted Nugent’s email address due to “personal privacy” but information at the bottom of the chair’s responses indicates they were sent from her Macquarie Group email address. One line states: “Macquarie does not guarantee the integrity of any emails or attachments.”

Crucially, the emails from Nugent were only picked up in the freedom of information request because they were forwarded by Rundle to colleagues in the agency’s media and communications team, capturing them on NDIA servers.

A previous request for all emails sent from Macquarie email addresses relating to the NDIS was rejected – because those emails are owned by Macquarie Bank, not the agency, and as such the federal government has no access to them.

The NDIA’s spokeswoman said the organisation has a “robust” conflict of interest disclosure policy – requiring all related-party transactions to be noted in the annual reports – and said “Dr Nugent has had nothing to declare in line with these requirements since becoming chairman in 2017.”

“Dr Nugent is a non-executive director. Non-executive directors typically do not have an email address linked to the organisation of which they are a director,” the spokeswoman said.

“Dr Nugent maintains a private office at Macquarie for which she personally pays a commercial rate of rent. She has had no employment relationship with Macquarie since ceasing being a director five years ago and any suggestion to the contrary is completely rejected.”

The minister for the NDIS, Stuart Robert, refused to answer detailed questions about the email arrangements, particularly how they relate to transparency at the agency and concerns over Macquarie Bank having access to potentially market-sensitive data and personal information on its email servers.

The Saturday Paper is not suggesting Nugent has breached any of her obligations, nor internal policies at the agency, but governance experts did note there are often different policies for different parts of a business.

For instance, the housing reference group that now counts Macquarie Bank as an influential member has its own conflict of interest policy for its members that notes such conflicts can be “real or apparent”.

“It can also be both financial and non-financial in nature,” the terms of reference state.

“Conflicts of roles arise when members represent two different roles, the performance of which may raise perceived or actual conflicts.”

So much in the world of disability policy is opaque. The NDIS itself is a Byzantine twist of acronyms and policies within policies that manage – some say, by design – to defeat those it was intended to serve. Especially if they happen to be poor, without formal education, a person of colour or a migrant. Is administrative impenetrability a form of abuse? It is the first abuse, disability activists say.

The calls for a royal commission on neglect, exploitation and violence against people with disability came to a head in September last year when Greens senator Jordon Steele-John read dozens of names into Hansard.

These were graphic stories: people with disability who had died before the pursuit of justice could help them. They included seven-year-old Shellay Ward, who was found dead in 2007, locked by her parents in a room with no sunlight, surrounded by faeces. Government case workers had visited the Ward home six times before Shellay’s death, without ever seeing the children they were instructed to check on.

The names were prepared by activists in the lead-up to a 2015 senate inquiry into abuse of people with disability. Rayna Lamb gave evidence at that inquiry, detailing her own abuse in New Zealand.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she tells The Saturday Paper, “and the thing that I think is going to be hard to get through to the general public is that this is not historic, this is still happening.

“There will always be names being added to the list and there will be names that will never be added to the list because they never had anyone that cared about them.

“A lot of the abuse and neglect happens or continues to happen because we have absolutely no control over the systems that control our lives.

“I mean, look at the NDIS: this is not what we fought for. It should never have had so many people from the banks involved for a start.”

 

So much of the abuse, though by no means all of it, has happened in institutions where people with disability were essentially stored because placing them in the community seemed too hard a problem to solve. If it works well, a housing reference panel such as the one created by the NDIA, on which Macquarie Bank sits, may help solve some of these problems. But there is much that can go wrong. Just ask the family of Julie Hermans, a new name to be added to Senator Steele-John’s list. Julie died in a Canberra hospital last month, having spent most of her last three years alive in a public hospital because the NDIS would not fund her housing support.

The day after I first wrote about Julie Hermans, in January last year, the NDIA made contact with her daughter, Mali, and finally arranged for Julie to move out of the public hospital ward to a group home nearer her daughter and husband. In January this year, Mali had a planning meeting with the agency.

Mali says a main goal of her mother’s NDIS plan was to be reunited with her husband – who himself is one of the thousands of people aged under 65 stuck in a nursing home – so that they could live together again. “It never happened,” says Mali.

In the end, Julie Hermans died of pneumonia after a series of concerning incidents both in her home and in hospital. At the request of her daughter, the case has been referred to the coroner and Mali is preparing a submission to the disability royal commission. “The commission talks about looking into any abuse, anywhere, in any system. And [for Mum] it happened in all of them.”

In his opening remarks at the inquiry on Monday, chair of the commissioners and former Federal Court judge Ronald Sackville hinted that this project may last even longer than the half-decade royal commission on institutional child sexual abuse.

The truth-telling has only just begun.

For the Hermans, there is still one battle left to fight: to free Mali’s father from the aged-care home where he remains to this day.

Whether that mission succeeds will have a lot to do with Macquarie Bank and the other members of the NDIA’s housing reference group. Convened in March, the panel will meet a total of eight times before the end of next year to massage the complicated matter of how the scheme’s accommodation funding – about $700 million each and every year – will work in the real world, with real people.

The group will have influence over the development of – and investment in – the market for housing, pricing assumptions and “participant experience” with the policy.

Given the first warnings about the need for development were given way back in 2011, another review is not inspiring news to people such as Mali Hermans or the 28,000 others who will need support by 2021.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 21, 2019 as "Exclusive: Key NDIS emails held on private bank server". Subscribe here.

Rick Morton
is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.