Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Tackling Disadvantage in the Midst of the Boom

Location: Economic and Social Outlook Conference, University of Melbourne, Victoria

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First I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land where we meet and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

You’ve asked me to speak today about the extraordinary opportunities presented by the current mining boom and how the benefits of economic growth can be shared by all, including the most disadvantaged Australians.

Despite a story of long-term economic growth in this country, including the last mining boom, not all Australians have shared the benefits.

Whether people with a disability, the very long term unemployed, teenage parents, jobless families and people in areas where there are very, very high unemployment rates which have in some cases persisted over generations.

I have said before that one of the things that really drives me in life and in politics is to find ways to break the cycle of welfare dependence – so that children are not growing up in families where no parent has ever known work, so that accessing the disability pension isn’t a sign you won’t ever work again.

Economic growth – and the need for more workers – gives us an opportunity to break this cycle. It gives us an opportunity to open the door to work to more people. And to open the door for people who have often seen it closed.

I want to speak particularly today about Australians with disabilities.

The Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes wrote recently in The Australian:

Governments should focus on spending taxpayers’ money in ways that assist people who need that assistance to have a decent life and to participate in and contribute to the community.

As the economy strengthens, and with another resources boom imminent, opening the door to work to more Australians the help they need to participate and contribute is a national imperative. Equally important is the onus on us to help those who need it by assisting them to have a decent life.

Whatever their circumstances and whatever their needs.

Since day one this Government has driven reform and made the hard decisions to get the policy settings right to boost participation in the workforce.

This includes the thousands of Australians who receive the disability support pension but who haven’t had the support and incentives needed to work.

The reality is that for too many people the disability support pension has become a destination payment.

The average length of time someone on the disability pension has been on income support is almost 12 years and most people who move off the DSP move on to the age pension or, sadly, die.

Currently around 800 000 people receive the disability support pension. That’s around one in 20 working age Australians and the number is increasing.

Over the last decade there has been an overall increase of 31.4 per cent.

This includes a 76 per cent increase over the decade in the number of people on the disability support pension because of a mental health condition.

Over the same period the number of people of working age increased by just 17.9 per cent.

Only around 10 per cent of Australia’s disability pensioners have any employment income.

Compared with other developed nations, Australia has the fourth lowest employment rate for people with disability of the 11 countries so far examined by the OECD’s sickness, disability and work reports.

Too often, people on the disability pension want to work but are frustrated by entrenched barriers to participation, a broken disability support system and failures in the pension system.

Over the years, structural problems in the system have discouraged effort through inflexible rules and procedures.

People with disability have struggled to get the support that they need to get and keep a job. This can be as simple as getting a walking aid.

And despite progress from employers including major Australian companies, obstacles created by prejudice and discrimination have also blocked their path.

Stereotypical views of what people with disability can’t do, rather than what they can do.

Coming to government in 2007, we inherited a patchwork system of payments and support for people with disability.

Assessment processes – when people with a disability apply for the disability support pension – took a one-size-fits-all approach.

Our payments system was discouraging people from seeking employment.

There was a cap on disability employment services which meant that people with disability who wanted support had to wait in a queue to get help.

And after decades of neglect, the system of disability support services was quite simply letting people down.

Our disability support system should focus on a person’s ability and not their disability.

It should open doors to the opportunities presented by a strong national economy.

When we came to Government, I was determined to start the process of reform in the care and support of people with disability in the Commonwealth’s areas of responsibility – principally through reforms of the disability support pension.

Our reforms of the DSP have been designed to reward effort and initiative for those who can work, and to ease the pressure on the system which supports those who can’t.

First, we have streamlined assessment processes because we understand that people with a disability have different needs depending on the nature and level of their impairment.

  • We are now fast-tracking people who are clearly or manifestly eligible due to a profound disability or terminal illness – so they receive financial help quickly and aren’t bogged down by unnecessary assessments.
  • We have introduced more rigorous assessment procedures for people whose circumstances aren’t clear cut, including by making sure claims are assessed by more qualified and experienced senior staff in line with new, clearer guidelines. These Senior Job Capacity Assessors also now have access to independent medical advice within Centrelink.

Early indications are that these reforms are having some success in diverting people from the DSP. From July 2010 to May this year the rate of successful claims fell by more than six percentage points.

We are also re-writing the old and out-of-date medical tables used to rate the severity of a person’s impairment, which were last reviewed in 1993.

This includes removing glaring inconsistencies such as not including the benefit of a hearing aid in assessing the degree of hearing impairment but including the benefit of glasses when assessing visual impairment.

In April last year the Government established an independent advisory committee to provide advice on updating the tables, consisting of experts from the medical, mental health, allied health and rehabilitation sectors, along with disability stakeholders.

I expect to receive the final report of this advisory committee very shortly.

Once we receive this report, the Government will consult widely on introducing the revised tables.

From January next year the impairment tables used to assess the extent of disability will focus more on what a person can do rather than what they can’t.

Next week I will introduce legislation into the Parliament that will allow the Impairment Tables to be updated by regulation.

This will allow them to be updated regularly.

It will ensure assessments for the disability support pension reflect contemporary medical and rehabilitation practice, not that of 18 years ago.

And it will help to ensure that assessments remain relevant into the future.

Second, we are reforming the payments system to encourage and support people with a disability who are able to, to work – and not discouraging them.

Before, disability pensioners who volunteered to look for work through an employment service had their pension automatically reviewed – concerned about losing their pension, this discouraged many disability pensioners from getting help to try and work.

  • We changed the review triggers so that disability pensioners can now test themselves in the workforce without fear of losing their pension.
  • We also removed the cap on access to disability employment services.

There has been an increase of 36 per cent from December 2009 to December 2010 in the number of people using disability employment services, and over the next four years we will invest over $3 billion in these services.

  • We are also investing an extra $50 million in personal helpers and mentors to work jointly with employment services to help DSP and other income support recipients with mental illness into the workforce.
  • We are introducing compulsory interviews and participation plans for people on disability support pension who are under 35 and are able to work at least eight hours a week, so that we can support them on the path to employment.
  • And we will provide greater incentives for disability pensioners to give work a go, by allowing DSP recipients to work up to 30 hours a week without losing their pension.
  • We are also working with employers through new wage subsidy programs to create more job opportunities specifically for people with disabilities to help break down the barriers to employment.

Disability support is about more than the pension though – it is also critically about services.

And at present the service system is not delivering the kind of support people with disabilities need to live a decent life and reach their full potential.

Someone with an acquired brain injury needs rehabilitation to start as early as possible to attempt to recover their speech and their movement. They may need customised walking aids or modifications to their homes. They may need regular physio over a period of years – and an employer who is accommodating of these needs.

For someone who acquired such an injury in a car accident, third party motor vehicle insurance can assist with many of these needs. For a person who acquires a similar injury in another way such as falling off a ladder, there is no such assurance.

I have outlined the work we, as the Commonwealth, have been doing to improve access to disability employment services and incentives to work for people with disabilities.

But without the right care and support in the disability service system, we will leave people behind.

Responsibility for the disability support system is shared between the States and Territories, and the Commonwealth.

We are working with our colleagues in the States and Territories to tackle a disability services system which is fragmented and simply not providing the kind of care or support we want to see for some of our most vulnerable people.

Since coming to Government:

  • We are providing the highest ever level of growth in funding to State and Territory disability services through the National Disability Agreement. The Commonwealth is contributing $7.6 billion to the cost of State and Territory disability services from January 2009 to June 2015, more than double the amount provided by the previous Coalition Government.
  • We have increased the financial support available to disability pensioners and carers, with record pension increases. We know that more and more carers are moving onto income support, in part because people with a disability haven’t been adequately supported by the disability services system. Carers are shouldering much of the burden of unmet need in the disability service system.
  • And we have taken a lead in looking at where we start reform of the disability support system.

We asked the Productivity Commission to consider how the disability services system could be reformed including consideration of the feasibility of a national disability insurance scheme.

The Commission’s draft report has sparked intense discussion since its release in February and the final report is due next month.

I look forward to considering the Commission’s recommendations.

A national disability insurance scheme would be a fundamental change to the way that people with disability receive support.

We will need to seriously consider the Commission’s final recommendations and the implications for current services and arrangements in close consultation with state and territory governments, service providers, employers and of course people with disabilities and their families and carers.

And any change must be economically sustainable.

As with all changes of this scale and impact, this work is complex.

Reform is necessary.

Just as disability services and support are a shared responsibility between the States and the Commonwealth – so too we have a shared responsibility for reform.

Each of us with responsibilities – the Commonwealth, the States and Territories, disability service providers, employers, carers and indeed people with disabilities themselves – must consider and engage in the process of reform.

We must each play our part.

I want to bring you back to where we started – the idea that we can share the benefits, and we can help people to have a decent life, to participate and to contribute.

To achieve this we need to turn the system around, to be geared to what people can do and not what they can’t.

Because we are not in the business of giving up on people.

Or letting them give up on themselves.