Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Address to the Australian Network on Disability Conference – ‘On the Path to Reform’ – Sydney

Location: Hilton Hotel, Sydney



Thank you Suzanne [Colbert, CEO of Australian Network on Disability] for your kind introduction.

I want to thank you also for your leadership in this area, and for your work toward this report, The economic benefits of increasing employment for people with disability.

It makes an important contribution to our understanding of the economic participation of people with disability.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting, and to pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I would also like to acknowledge with us today the representatives of business and of government, each committed to increasing the participation in our workforce of people with disability.


Ladies and gentlemen.

We meet today at what is a very important time for people with disability, their families and carers, and for advocates of people with disability around the country.

In last week’s Budget, the Treasurer announced the most significant single funding commitment to support people with disability in our history.

The Treasurer announced that the Australian Government will deliver $1 billion over the next four years for the first stage of a National Disability Insurance Scheme.

This will directly benefit around 20,000 people with significant and permanent disability, their families and carers, in up to four locations around the country.

And it will see an NDIS get up and running in Australia.

You will have heard the Treasurer speak of this Budget as spreading the benefits of the boom – and that’s true.

The Budget delivers extra assistance to those Australians, particularly low and middle income families, who aren’t living life in the fast lane of the mining boom.

It is equally true of our work to build a National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Because too often today, disability equates to disadvantage.

But the Treasurer’s announcement last week is even more important, not just for its quantum, but for the scale of change it represents.

The case for an NDIS

The Prime Minister has described a National Disability Insurance Scheme as the biggest social reform Australia has seen since the introduction of Medicare.

For the system of disability care and support we know today, it is a tectonic shift.

The system we know today encourages crisis, metering out support only when it’s desperately needed, and with meagre and inadequate resources.

The results are devastating for people with disability, their families and carers.

People are forced into crisis. Ageing carers are left exhausted with the desperate worry of what happens to their children when they are too old to care for them.

People are forced to accept anything, for fear that they will get nothing.

Over the past few years, the disability community has come together around a call for change to this system. They have told their stories which, to those unfamiliar with a life with disability, can be harrowing.

Telling these stories has required enormous courage from people who ask only to live a life with dignity. And their stories have been incredibly important to crystallise for Australians how important change is if we are to hold our heads up as a nation.

Through the Shut Out report of the National People with Disability and Carer Council, through the more than 1,000 submissions to the Productivity Commission’s inquiry, through the media and through the Every Australian Counts campaign.

People have told their stories in the interests of building awareness and understanding – and to build an impetus for change.

In the telling of these stories though, an equally powerful economic case has been made for change.

The Shut Out report said:

“Meaningful employment is essential not only to an individual’s economic security but also to their physical and mental health, personal wellbeing and sense of identity.”

Having a job is important for our sense of belonging, and fulfilment.

The sad truth of these stories is borne out by the evidence.

The latest OECD report on Australia’s record for employing people with disability ranked us in the bottom third of OECD nations – 21st out of 29 nations.

Today, people on the Disability Support Pension have spent an average of 12 years on an income support payment.

And more often than not, people who move off the DSP move onto the age pension — it’s become a destination payment.

In the ten years to June 2011, the number of DSP recipients increased by 31.2 per cent, from 623,926 in June 2001 to 818,850 in June 2011.

Over the same period, the working age population increased by 17.9 per cent.

Increasingly, having or acquiring a disability has meant moving out of the workforce or never being able to enter it. It can be an end to participation.

And not only does this situation leave people with disability feeling shut out, our economy suffers when we exclude a demonstrably valuable group of people.

This will be even more so into the future, as population ageing puts significant pressure on the economy.

Today, there are five people working for every person aged 65 and over.

By 2050 there will be 2.7.

The workforce will become a smaller proportion of Australian society and we will experience more acute skills shortages.

So we cannot afford to overlook the economic potential of Australians who want to participate in the labour market.

And who can bring their skills to bear.

As a community we need to unlock that economic potential.

But today, each facet of the current system of crisis represents a barrier to the participation of people with disability, their families and carers in our economy – in school, in work and in our community.

Our system focuses almost exclusively on what people can’t do – and places barriers in the path of those who want to make the most of what they can do.

Too often, the system we have today lets the talents and possibilities of people with disability and their carers slip through our fingers.

Peoples’ potential remains unrealised.

As a nation, we miss out on their participation potential as a result.

And as a people, we leave those with disabilities shut out of participation in work, education and community life.

The foundations for change

Since our election, we have worked to remedy this situation – not only in employment, but through a root and branch rebuilding of the system of care and support for people with disability.

We have worked to address disadvantage, with the most significant increase to the Disability Support Pension in its history.

As a result of our reforms, the Disability Support Pension has risen by $154 a fortnight for singles on the maximum rate. It is now $755.50 a fortnight for singles. And for couples combined on the maximum rate it has risen by $156 a fortnight – up to $1139 a fortnight.

Born of understanding that things needed to change, we have put the choices and the rights of people with disability at the centre of our work.

We started work to develop the National Disability Strategy, a ten year road map to improving the access of people with disability to our whole network of social support.

The National Disability Strategy sets out the path to realise the rights set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, which Australia acceded to in 2009.

And we have worked to plug the gaps of a failing system.

Just months after our election in 2007, we negotiated the National Disability Agreement which saw the Commonwealth double its funding for disability care and support.

We have invested more than any other Commonwealth Government in our history in capital infrastructure for supported accommodation for people with disability — $160 million since we came to government – and in early intervention services and therapies for children with disability, including autism and cerebral palsy.

We have invested in education for the 164,000 students with a disability in schools across the country.

And we’ve worked to reform the area of employment for people with disability, by making sure that people who can work are helped into work where possible.

We have introduced revised Impairment Tables that have a greater focus on a person’s abilities, rather than what they cannot do, and provided additional funding for employment services to ensure people with disability get the support they need to find and keep a job.

We are investing more than $3 billion to uncap access to Disability Employment Services (DES).

Previously, the number of places in these services was capped and people had to wait up to a year to access assistance.

More than 148,000 people are now being assisted by DES providers nationally – a 43 per cent increase since the decision to uncap places

More than 97,000 people have been placed into employment through DES in the last two years.

And we have introduced new measures that will start in July this year to better support people moving from the DSP into work.

People on the DSP will be allowed more generous entitlements to try work – from July, they will be able to work up to 30 hours a week and continue to receive the DSP, subject to income and assets tests that normally apply.

And we will be providing new financial incentives to employers to take on more DSP recipients – providing an incentive to employers to give people with disability a go in the workplace.

This work has provided a critical foundation for the change we all want to see for people with disability, their families and carers.

It provides a critical foundation for a National Disability Insurance Scheme.

An NDIS is the centrepiece of a new way of thinking – and acting – to support people with disability to live good, active and productive lives.

A National Disability Insurance Scheme means focusing on what people can do, on what they can achieve.

And it means building a system that no longer responds only to what they can’t do.

The Productivity Commission recognised the potential of this approach in its ground-breaking report into disability care and support.

It suggests that there are currently around 60,000 adults who may be eligible for support and who see employment as a genuine possibility.

Most importantly, the Commission details how obstacles to work may be surmountable through the care and support provided through an NDIS. .

As the Business Council pointed out in its submission to the Commission’s inquiry, an adequate level of support will enhance participation in the workforce and the community for people with disability, their families and carers.

And this is supported by the findings of the report commissioned by the Australian Network on Disability which shows that:

  • the cost of recruiting an employee with disability is generally lower;
  • productivity is equal or greater than other workers in the vast majority of cases; and
  • most workers with disability have better attendance records and lower occupational health and safety incidents than those without a disability.

I don’t need to tell this audience about the barriers that have been placed in the way of people with disability.

They range from active and open discrimination to misconceptions and misunderstandings about people’s needs.

But I think it’s important to point out the benefits of breaking down those barriers – for all of us.

In February, I visited Northcott Community Services here in Sydney, in Parramatta, and met a young woman called Gretta Serov.

Gretta is 21 years old, and like many young Australians her age has big dreams of attending university. She finished her HSC this year, and is currently attending a pre-study course to get into university.

Gretta also has cerebral palsy, which means she needs her wheelchair and uses an iPad to communicate. Both are critical to her independence, and to her ability to participate in education – something she is driven to pursue and desperately wants.

Gretta described to me the challenges of getting to university – there isn’t an accessible taxi service in the area she lives in, which means that simply to go somewhere with her electric wheelchair is almost impossible.

She is currently able to access some community participation funding – but much of this funding is chewed up simply by attending her day program.

She’s worried that spending more of this funding in getting to university will reduce the amount of funding available for attendant care – the consequence being less independence and not more.

Gretta has previously waited more than two years for funds for crucial equipment – like her wheelchair, which she relies on for independence.

Yet despite the barriers in her way – that seem to tell Gretta to shut up shop, and live her life on the DSP – she’s a very determined and an incredibly bright young woman. She keeps working away to realise her dreams, whatever obstacles the system seems to place in her way.

And I ask you this: what employer wouldn’t want someone as bright, as determined, and as diligent on their staff?

And yet the system we know today puts up barriers between Gretta accessing education and employment – and fails to connect Gretta with future employers who would love to hire her.

An NDIS will open up options for people like Gretta to get into the workforce.

It will provide reasonable and necessary support to someone like Gretta – and would focus on her potential.

For the first time, the system will have an incentive to get her through school, through university and into work so she could be more independent.

It will see the value in investing in her early to see her realise her potential.

This would have untold benefits for Gretta – breaking down the barriers she faces today.

And for a potential employer, the courage and determination she shows could provide just what is needed.

This is evidenced by your own experience, of the Stepping Out internship program, designed to close the employment gap for university students with a disability.

The legal firm Sparke Helmore said:

Our candidate brought a really fresh way of thinking to the firm … he looked at problems from new angles and was very solution focussed. He had an excellent level of legal knowledge and understanding… we would like to offer him an ongoing role in the firm…

What a great outcome for a young student, just what all interns hope for.

Whereas graduates with disability generally have a 65 per cent chance of achieving employment in their graduate destinations, other students have a 75 per cent chance.

For those participating in the Stepping Out program there was no gap.

The success rate was the same as that achieved by other students – 75 per cent.

An NDIS will support more young people to access university, to access these opportunities – and to contribute to the work of prospective employers.

Building an NDIS

Change is never easy.

There will be many challenges as we work to build an NDIS.

We have started work with the states and territories to fundamentally reform disability care and support, including to:

  • Develop common assessment tools, so people’s eligibility for support can be assessed fairly and consistently, based on their level of need;
  • Put in place service and quality standards, so that people with disability can expect high quality support irrespective of where they live, what disability they have or how they acquired it; and
  • Build workforce capacity so they have more trained staff to support people with disabilities.

At the recent COAG meeting, all governments agreed to high level principles including that the development and implementation of the NDIS was a shared responsibility.

Governments agreed that this is a substantial and important reform.

But it will only be possible through a shared and coordinated effort. COAG has noted that the design and implementation of the NDIS is the responsibility of all governments.

It is critical that the states and territories take on their fair share of responsibility in both the design and implementation of the scheme.

The Commonwealth offer to the states in last week’s Budget represents unprecedented investment. The Australian Government’s initial investment will cover the total administration and a substantial contribution to the additional cost of care and support for the first stage of an NDIS. States and territories that host the initial locations will be required to contribute to the cost of personal care and support for people with disability.

This commitment means that we will start delivering an NDIS a year ahead of the timetable set by the Productivity Commission.

We want Australians with disability and their families and carers to benefit from this reform as quickly as possible.

I’ve already referred to the role people with disability, their families and carers have played in getting us this far.

And their role will continue – it must – because people with disability, their families and their carers must be at the centre of this reform.

But business too has a role to play.

We all share a responsibility – and each of us will share in the returns.

As the chair of ACCI’s Employment, Education and Training Committee, Peter McMullin said:

Hiring someone from outside the traditional pool of workers isn’t about taking a risk or an act of charity.

It makes sense from an economic as well as a business perspective.

Groups like the Australian Network on Disability have worked tirelessly to open employers’ eyes to the value of employing people with disability and shown outstanding leadership.

We need your voice and your continued support in our work to build an NDIS.

Because in the words of Ramp-Up’s Stella Young:

The success of the NDIS depends on looking at people with disability and seeing, not the problem, but the potential.

Thank you.