Linda Reynolds' inbox started to fill soon after she was announced as the new minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme on the afternoon of March 29.
Some 7500 participants, family members and supporters, aided by the grassroots campaign which had fought for the scheme's introduction, began bombarding the WA senator with a pointed emailed message.
We don't want independent assessments.
Reynolds was at the time still on medical leave, having been hospitalised amid intensifying scrutiny of her handling of the alleged rape of her former staffer Brittany Higgins in her Parliament House office in 2019.
But the message was waiting for her when she returned to work.
Reynolds was, according to one of her Liberal colleagues, handed the portfolio just as the "bomb was about to explode".
The pressure from disability advocates, political opponents and, crucially, the states and territories, would only escalate as the former defence minister attempted to push through reforms she inherited from her predecessor Stuart Robert.
Late on the afternoon of Friday, July 9, the bomb went off.
The controversial changes, which had been hyped as the only fix for a social security scheme careering out of control and tens of billions of dollars over budget, were reduced to rubble.
Independent assessments were dead and they wouldn't be resurrected. A raft of mooted legislative changes were shelved.
Australian Community Media has this week conducted almost a dozen interviews to help piece together the key events which led to the major government backdown; from the damaging internal leaks and interventions from prominent figures, to the co-ordinated grassroots campaign to pressure state ministers in the days before this month's crunch meeting.
'I had to kill it quickly'
The alarm bells started ringing for Craig Wallace about 12 months ago, when he and other disability rights activists caught wind of a tender calling for contractors to deliver a new system for assessing the functional capacity of NDIS participants.
The use of independent assessors was envisaged by the original designers of the scheme, had been trialled in 2018, and was recommended in certain cases in David Tune's major review in 2019.
But what the government planned - what Robert announced on August 28, 2020 - would go well beyond their recommendations.
The agency intended to subject current and prospective participants to mandatory independent assessments, using the same "toolbox" of tests for each regardless of their disability. Participants would no longer have to source and pay for reports from their own doctors, creating what the government believed would be a fairer and more consistent system.
"I twigged and said, 'Oh shit'," Wallace said this week.
"This is something that could change the entire scheme from an entitlements scheme, where people get supports based on their individual goals and aspirations to a scheme where people get supports based on their condition and set personas.
"I knew I had to kill it quickly."
With the COVID-19 pandemic preventing large rallies, Wallace co-ordinated #NDIScrawl - a social media campaign in which participants posted photos and videos of themselves literally crawling on their hands and knees.
Wallace, and others, went public for the first time with stories of historic abuse at the hands people who didn't understand their condition. The activists were prepared to stop at nothing. Wallace could picture an election campaign similar to 1990, only this time with disabled people - rather than airline pilots - hijacking the prime minister's campaign stops.
"If we were prepared to crawl up ramps at NDIS offices during the plague - imagine what we would have done during an election," he said.
Leaks and revelations
As opposition from participants, supporters, academics and medical professionals started to coalesce and intensify, minister Robert and his agency - led by boss Martin Hoffman - pressed on determinedly.
A crucial decision in late February signalled the government was committed to the new regime regardless of the objections.
Just three days after public consultation on a highly complex and scheme-altering plan wrapped up, the agency announced it had appointed eight companies to deliver the independent assessments with contracts which could have netted them a combined $339 million over three years.
Not only had the agency not given itself the time to consider 700-odd submissions before appointing the panel, legislation needed to bring in the new regime hasn't been presented to parliament, let alone passed.
The second independent assessments trial was under way and wouldn't wrap up for months.
There was little indication Robert and Hoffman would relent or anything could halt their plan.
Key players in the fight believed that changed on March 26, when Nine newspapers revealed details of leaked draft legislation which hinted independent assessments were merely the tip of the iceberg.
The draft laws pointed at plans to enshrine huge powers in the hands of the federal minister at the expense of the states, and even the removal of the "reasonable and necessary" test for determining participant support - though that was quickly ruled out.
For advocates and the states, the leaked documents represented their greatest fears - a naked power grab which would fundamentally reshape the scheme, concocted without their knowledge or input.
Robert at the time dismissed the 300-page document as merely one of 70-odd drafts, never intended to see the light of day.
Early last week, after independent assessments had been dumped, the now employment minister acknowledged the damage that leak had caused.
"And that's very sad because what was leaked had nothing to do with what government was going to do," he told ABC radio.
'We're not negotiating - it's all crap'
The leaks and revelations only became more frequent after Robert was replaced by Reynolds.
There was the one about the public servants who inserted a chapter in the Tune review advocating for independent assessments, and the internal memo revealing the agency had set up a dedicated taskforce to cut costs.
The damaging headlines didn't cease after Reynolds announced a "pause" on the rollout of independents assessment to allow for more consultation. In fact, among the most telling blows was a leaked 21-page marketing plan detailing how the minister and her agency planned to overcome opposition to push through their controversial plan.
Labor's NDIS spokesman Bill Shorten seized on each leak - many of which came to him directly - to craft a narrative the Morrison government was plotting to destroy a scheme relied upon by 450,000 Australians and their families.
Holy shit. We did it!People with Disability Australia president Samantha Connor
In private discussions with disability groups, Shorten, a former opposition leader, union heavyweight and architect of the NDIS, urged advocates to stand their ground.
"We told them, we're not negotiating - it's all crap," he told The Canberra Times.
Shorten's campaign was significant, but not unexpected. He is a member of the opposition.
Less expected were the interventions of two other public figures: one a so-called "father" of the scheme and the other a mother of a participant who just so happened to be a member of the Morrison government.
'I couldn't live with myself if I didn't speak up'
Bruce Bonyhady, the inaugural chairman of the NDIS and chair of the panel which advised the Productivity Commission's work to design the scheme a decade ago, had been careful not to inject himself in the political debate.
But he felt he could no longer remain silent. He picked an appearance before parliament's NDIS committee in Melbourne on April 23 to unload.
Robo-planning, as he demanded independent assessments be called, would "blow up" the scheme.
"Robo-planning united and galvanised the sector in a way that we haven't seen since the scheme was introduced," he said last week.
"It was an outrage on so many levels."
Like Prof Bonyhady, Liberal Senator Hollie Hughes reached a point where she felt compelled to speak out. For Hughes, whose son Fred has autism, that meant publicly attacking her own government's policy to an extent rarely - if ever - seen in politics.
The tipping point was revelations the agency planned to match participants to one of 400 computer-generated "personas", which she described as "dehumanising" in an interview with The Canberra Times.
She also lobbied beyond closed doors, speaking up in party room meetings and briefing colleagues. At least one senior minister was run through the list of highly personal questions which participants would be asked in their assessment.
Reflecting on her intervention, Hughes had no regrets.
"I have a lived experience and as I said to Senator Reynolds, I am a mother first and a senator second. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't relay the messages and the fears, and the concerns that families were having."
Hughes has confidence in Reynolds' ability to address the scheme's problems. But she has serious doubts over Hoffman and his agency.
"I think the agency and senior management need to take this on board very seriously and it's up to them to decide if they are up to the task," she said.
'Nobody is putting me in a box'
The hearings at the NDIS committee's inquiry gave opponents a public platform to voice their fears and concerns. Key figures point to the hearing at Parliament House on May 20 - in particular a rousing speech from a well-known Canberra disability rights advocate - as a significant moment.
Seated in a wheelchair next to ACT Minister for Disability Emma Davidson, shaggy-haired Scotsman Dougie Herd delivered a powerful and deeply personal message.
"Very simply, nobody, nobody is putting me in a box and giving me a score," he told the committee of Liberal, Labor and Greens senators, some of whom were visibly moved by the testimony.
ICYMI— Every Australian Counts (@EveryAustralian) May 21, 2021
"Nobody is putting me in a box."
A snippet from @dougie_herd's powerful testimony at yesterday's #NDISJSC inquiry into NDIS compulsory assessments.
📣 Take action - email the #NDIS Minister. It will only take a minute https://t.co/ZO7RkBaKrG#HandsOffOurNDISpic.twitter.com/oLA0jfQ5rg
At the same hearing, Molly Marsham spoke of how she had trouble leaving the house after participating in an independent assessment.
Jeffrey Smart, who has Parkinson's disease, fought back tears as he described how he felt "offended and belittled" as his assessor ran him through questions which were not only inappropriate but irrelevant to his condition.
Smart this week told The Canberra Times the experience had left him exhausted, and asking "what was that all about"? He said he chose to front the committee for a simple reason.
"A lot of what was being discussed was hypothetical - the discussion lacked a personal dimension," he said.
Australia's disability discrimination commissioner described the process as "unsatisfactory" after personally participating in the pilot.
Even those conducting the tests had deep reservations.
Gabrielle*, an occupational therapist, described to Greens senator and disability advocate Jordon Steele-John, how the assessment she conducted on a 16-year-old autistic boy was a "total tick-and-flick" exercise.
'An unsustainable trajectory'
Originally sold as a matter of fairness, equity and consistency, the government through May and June began talking openly about another justification for the sweeping reforms: cost.
In her first public appearance as NDIS minister, Reynolds raised alarm about rising financial pressures, driven by rapid growth in participant costs and higher-than-expected numbers of people joining the scheme.
As the rhetoric ramped up so, too, did the forecast figures for the scheme's cost to taxpayers in years to come.
The May federal budget set aside almost $30 billion for the 2023-24 financial year, some $5 billion more than predictions made just seven months earlier.
The agency published a report a few weeks later showing participant costs could reach $40 billion a year within three years - without some form of intervention.
That figure grew to $60 billion by 2030, in a summarised version of the secret annual sustainability report which the government dropped six days before the crucial ministers meeting.
The release of each new - and larger - figure was met with scepticism from disability advocates and state and territory ministers. The states co-fund the scheme, but weren't being provided with crucial data - specifically the assumptions which were informing the alarming cost projections.
Reynolds wasn't naive to the challenge she faced trying to win support for the reforms - particularly in federal parliament. She conceded in a podcast in early June she didn't, at that point, have enough support in the Senate to pass legislation.
But after committing to redesigning the independent assessment model, her resolve to press on with the changes strengthened.
In her mind, there was no other option.
"Collectively, if we do nothing, I think we will have all let this nation down," she told a Senate estimates hearing on June 4.
'I felt like they were in the room with me'
In the week before the crunch meeting in which Reynolds planned to ask the states and territories to endorse her plan, Emma Davidson's inbox was inundated with more than 2560 "Help Save Our NDIS" emails.
She believes that number would have been higher had she not publicly declared early in the week her intention to strongly oppose the plan. Her counterparts in Queensland and Victoria - both Labor states - did the same.
The council and the agency also suggested major changes to the model, which Reynolds hoped would be enough to win the states' support.
It didn't work.
Just after 8.30am on the day of the meeting, Davidson emerged from the members' entrance to the ACT Legislative Assembly wearing a T-shirt branded "Hands Of Our NDIS".
Davidson said she sat in the online meeting later that afternoon with a sense the entire ACT disability community was in her corner.
"I was thinking about how distressed they had been feeling in the lead-up to that meeting, and what impact this decision was going to have on their lives," she told The Canberra Times.
News of the government backdown came first as a trickle, then a stream.
At 5.15pm, Shorten posted a video to social media declaring victory. At 6.01pm, NSW Minister for Disability Services Alistair Henskens confirmed in a press release independent assessments would not proceed.
Davidson declared the plan scrapped six minutes later.
At 6.54, Samantha Connor - the president of People with Disability Australia - posted a link to an article confirming the news to a private Facebook group for participants, family members and supporters.
"Holy shit," she posted to the group of more than 55,000.
"We did it."
'We won't stop fighting'
The Canberra Times sought an interview with Reynolds for this article, but was told she was not available all week.
Reynolds has made a number of media appearances in recent days, including an interview on the ABC in which she confirmed independent assessments were dead and wouldn't brought back to life.
The ministers agreed at the meeting to develop a new "person-centred" assessment model in consultation with the disability community, with the hope it could achieve the same original goal of bringing greater fairness and consistency to the scheme.
There was a commitment to try and better understand the factors behind the scheme's surging costs.
In a letter last week to agency staff, seen by The Canberra Times, Reynolds made clear measures to improve consistency and tackle scheme costs remained firmly on the agenda.
"Now is the time to take stock, consider learnings from the process and the consultations so far, and collectively work together with participants and their representatives to develop a path forward," she said.
El Gibbs, a spokesperson for Every Australian Counts, the grassroots campaign which helped coordinate the email barrage after Reynolds' appointment and ahead of the ministers' meeting, said the government needed to work hard to rebuild the trust it had broken with the disability community.
Advocates remain sceptical about the government's plan for the NDIS. Wallace and his allies are convinced they've only seen a "pause" on efforts to undermine the scheme.
"We know that independent assessments were just the tip of the reform iceberg - people with disability and their families are angry and anxious about the whole package. Any and all changes to the NDIS have to be done with us at every stage," Gibbs said.
"We fought for the NDIS, and we are here to fight for it in the days, months and years to come. The NDIS has to work well for every single person with disability who needs it.
"We won't stop fighting until it does."
- Gabrielle is not her real name.
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