NDIS minister Stuart Robert defends governance of disability agency after series of controversies

Paul Karp
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Stuart Robert has defended the governance of the National Disability Insurance Agency, but refused to sign up to more ambitious targets to get younger people out of aged care in an outing at the National Press Club on Thursday.

The minister for the NDIS and government services declared “absolute confidence” in the agency’s chief executive, Martin Hoffman, despite controversial social media posts, and revealed the global law firm Ashurst had conducted an investigation and found “no clear privacy breaches” in NDIA chair Helen Nugent’s reported use of her Macquarie Bank email for NDIS business.

On Tuesday the Australian reported that when Hoffman was a New South Wales and federal public servant he had praised Scott Morrison on Twitter, and retweeted Donald Trump and comments attacking the militant construction union. Hoffman has denied being an “anti-union Trump supporter” and deleted his account.

Robert said Hoffman had posted the material before he became chief executive and “he enjoys the freedom of speech that everyone else here enjoys”.

“I absolutely and utterly reject any assertion that he is not a public servant of the highest calibre,” Robert said. “He enjoys my absolute confidence.”

Related: Stuart Robert grilled about whether Centrelink robodebts are illegal – politics live

Robert appeared at the press club to launch the latest NDIS quarterly report, but was grilled on topics ranging from the extensive redactions of NDIS data from freedom of information responses to the legality of the robodebt program.

The report paints a picture of an improving system, with 114,000 participants added to the scheme and a total of 310,000 now receiving support.

Robert told reporters the disability workforce would have to add an extra 90,000 workers to cope with projected increased demand. He foreshadowed future reforms including the national rollout of independent functional assessment, greater flexibility of funded support and greater data-sharing with disability and research groups.

Robert said between March 2017 and June 2019 the number of younger people in residential aged care had decreased by 11%, from 6,287 to 5,606.

“The number of younger people entering residential aged care has also decreased by 22%, from 536 new entries in the June quarter of 2017 to 416 in the June quarter of 2019,” he said.

The aged care royal commission’s interim report recommended the government commit that no more younger people should enter aged care by 2022 and all younger people in care should be out by 2025, subject to limited exemptions.

Robert said “I want to do a lot more” but he was still considering if it was “appropriate and possible to do more”.

“It requires a huge number of houses to be built, providers to be identified and to be able to provide the support so lots of things have to work together … but we are absolutely committed to looking at it.”

In response to a question about the Saturday Paper’s report that for two years Nugent conducted business relating to the $22bn NDIS from an email server belonging to Macquarie Bank, Robert revealed that he had asked for an independent review.

The Ashurst review found “no clear breaches of privacy” but recommended that the disability agency demonstrate that no further emails would be sent to personal addresses.

Robert said board minutes had been sent to the personal emails of nonexecutive directors “since the inception of the scheme” under Labor in July 2013.

“I’m not satisfied with [the practice] … [and] to ensure the highest level of probity concerning NDIS emails, the [departmental] secretary will get to me by mid-November to assure me those actions have been undertaken.”

Asked about extensive redactions from an ABC freedom of information request about waiting times for NDIS plans, Robert responded by claiming material from his incoming ministerial brief had been excluded by the terms of the reporter’s own request.

Robert then produced a printed copy of the quarterly report, claiming it has “every bit of data you could possibly want”.

Robert was asked about former senior administrative appeals tribunal member Terry Carney’s contention that robodebts are unlawful, and two-high profile cases in May and September when Centrelink waived the debt rather then drop the case.

At first, Robert refused to answer because the question did not relate to the NDIS, but then defended the legality of robodebt by arguing the system of “averaging as the basis to say to a citizen ‘there may be a debt, please engage with us’ was entirely appropriate”.

“As Australians engage with us and provide information to us, many times they can actually prove that they haven’t earned too much, and in fact in 19.9% of cases, Australians when they engage with us actually demonstrate through their bank account records or salary payslips that they don’t have a debt.”