Speech by Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield

Speech to the Committee for Economic Development (CEDA) Disability Employment Agenda Crown Towers Melbourne


Could I acknowledge:

  • Professor the Hon Stephen Martin, the Chief Executive of CEDA
  • Michael Camilleri, State Director of CEDA
  • Melissa Hamilton, Chief Executive of Stellar Asia Pacific
  • Donna Faulkner, Chair of Disability Employment Australia
  • Rick Kane, Chief Executive of Disability Employment Australia
  • Kerrie Langford, National Disability Services

For those who mightn’t be aware, I am one of two ministers in the Social Services portfolio along with Scott Morrison.

And the stuff that is our portfolio is really the core business of government. Providing support to people who face extra challenges for reasons beyond their control.

And as part of the creation of this portfolio, responsibility for disability employment policy and programs was transferred from the employment portfolio to my department. So that all elements of disability policy were in one portfolio and under one minister.

Current Situation

And as I talk today about disability employment, I would like to start by telling you what I do want. And what I don’t want.

What I don’t want is for people with disability to be patronised through the handing out of a token number of jobs as some form of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or worse, as a form of charity.

Nothing could be more patronising for someone with disability.

What I also don’t want is for employers to be blamed or shamed for the numbers of people with disability they do employ or don’t employ.

In this area you will hear time and again, employers getting a shellacking for not doing enough, not employing enough people with a disability.

But I want to sing the praises of employers. For there are no jobs without them.

I also don’t want people to think that government has necessarily done something for the employment of people with disability simply by virtue of passing a new law or announcing a new program.

What I want is for government to play its part in giving people with disability and employers the support that they need.

What I want is to help create an environment where people are judged not by the manifestation of their disability, but by their skills, qualifications and capacity to contribute in the workplace.

But that’s not where we are today.

In Australia:

  • you are twice as likely to be unemployed if you have a disability
  • And only 52.9% of people with disability are in the workforce

And here’s our response as a community:

  • We spend $18 billion per year on more than 830,000 people on the Disability Support Pension (DSP)
  • We spend $1 billion a year on the Disability Employment Service (DES)
  • And soon, at full roll out, we will be spending $22 billion per annum on the National Disability Insurance Scheme
  • And then there are a range of other programs to support employers such as the Employment Assistance Scheme – which funds workplace modifications and assistive technologies among other things

Clearly, if dollars are any measure, there’s no lack of commitment here.

And granted, not all the programs that I mentioned are targeted at putting people into work.

But in a few years’ time we will be spending more than $40 billion a year on both income and non-income supports for Australians with disability. And with little improvement to show in the levels of employment of people with disability.

Economic Rationale

And this at a time when the Inter-Generational Report (IGR) tells us that an ageing population means the percentage of working Australians will fall.

We need to increase the labour market. And the best place to start is with those in the working age population who aren’t in employment, but who can work and who want to work.

The latest ABS Survey of Disability and Carers found that, in 2012, there were 2.2 million – or 14.4 per cent of Australians aged 15-64 years of “prime working age” – with disability.

But only half of this working age population is in work.

We need to stop having conversations about disability and start having conversations about employment:

  • We need a change in attitude to reach a point where employment for people with disability is expected
  • And we need to move to an employment services system that invests in people with disability to deliver what employers actually need

So at a purely economic level we need to tap this talent pool. And fiscally, we need to get a better return on the existing taxpayer investment in this area.

Social Rationale

And at a social level the argument is equally strong.

Employment is the backbone of society. Our workplaces are at the heart of our community.

Work is fundamental to dignity.

We get so much of our self-worth from the job that we do.

In many ways it is the start and end of who we are. What we aspire to. How we are perceived. How we find our place in life.

It is the start of most conversations.

‘What do you do”? ‘How’s work?’ ‘Let’s catch up after work’.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of being able to answer those questions positively.

It’s about purpose. Self-worth. Self-reliance.

A job is the great poverty buster. It’s about forming relationships. Personal freedom. Being included socially.

When a person is denied employment, they’re not just missing out on earning an income. In many cases they are missing out on a connection with society.

We need an employment rate for people with disability that reflects economic conditions; not disability.

Opportunity for Change

As I mentioned earlier, as a government we spend around $1 billion each year on disability employment services.
That’s the money that goes to specialist disability employment service providers to support people with disability into work.

While the DES programme supports around 160,000 people, it only finds about one in three jobseekers employment. And it costs taxpayers around $30,000 per job for a person with disability.

And although the success rate in the DES is historically better than in the mainstream JSA, we need to do better.

Everyone is frustrated. I’m frustrated. DES providers are frustrated. People with disability are frustrated.

And employers are frustrated, because they tend to be the punching bag in the public debate on disability employment.

Unfairly, people say: “if employers only did their bit”.

While there are still attitudinal issues about people with disability. This isn’t an employer-specific issue; it’s a community issue more broadly.

And that’s why the Attorney, George Brandis, and I have given a reference to the Human Right Commission to look at what are some of the barriers for people with disability and for older Australians to getting into the workforce.

The fact is, we have to make sure the assistance for employers to recruit people with disability is straight forward and that employers see people with disability as part of the talent pool that can meet their business needs.

We’ll never make a dent if the pitch is to evoke some patronising sense of noblese oblige.

But there are some tremendous developments that mean we have the mechanism to do better.

Having the NDIS cheek-by-jowl with DES in the one portfolio provides some good opportunities.

The NDIS. While not an employment scheme as such, if people are getting the daily living supports they need in terms of aids, equipment, personal attendant care, assistive technologies, then many will be much better placed to consider work or keep work.

In other words, doubling the level of non-income supports for people with disability to $22 billion should have an impact on the capacity of people with disability to be better placed for work.

Now the heart of the NDIS is an individual’s plan. And part of that plan for the individual, for those who have the capacity, should be employment. Employment, and the supports necessary, should be a core part of that plan.

The NDIS is an individualised funding model, where a participant is assessed. They get an entitlement commensurate with their needs that they can then take to the service provider of their choice.

So we need to work out how DES can dovetail in with that individual plan.

Now partly by luck and partly by design, the current DES contracts conclude in 2018 just as the NDIS will be coming on line in 2018-19.

This opportunity and this individualised funding model should be something we look at when considering what will be in the place of DES post-2018.

In any new arrangements it is important to recognise that only about 20% of the people who are supported by the DES are people who are likely to be NDIS participants.

While we need to make sure that the NDIS and the DES work well together, we will still need a DES or DES equivalent that works on a stand alone basis for people who are not NDIS participants.

Consultation Process

To start to think about this change, last month, I asked Suzanne Colbert of the Australian Network on Disability and the Department of Social Services to host a number of business roundtables.

The focus was on the barriers businesses face in employing a person with disability. Where the current system doesn’t meet their needs.

These roundtables start a conversation with businesses about employing people with disability. How we can do better.

And what I have been told is that unless the system is built to work for business, it won’t work for people with disability.

Before we came to office, employment programs, support programs and training programs for people with disability were spread across various departments.

What now have an opportunity to do better.

We have all elements of disability employment and programs together in one portfolio. We have the DES contracts concluding in 2018. And side by side we have the NDIS rolling out nationwide by 2018-19.

We have a tremendous opportunity. What we need is a plan, a model, that will give people with disability a much greater chance to work.

We need an employment market that facilitates the needs of people with disability and employers.

Recognising that governments don’t create jobs, employers create jobs.

There needs to be less focus on the relationship between government and the employment services provider. And more focus on employers and people with disability.

So much energy and money is expended managing the contractual relationship between providers and government.

It has distracted the conversation from employment to focus on over 900 pages of regulation and rules.

The recent work by Professor Ian Harper’s Competition Policy Review gives some pointers on a better way and reinforces the model in the NDIS and the path we are starting in aged care. Greater contestability. And a greater consumer focus.

In particular, I refer you to Professor Harper’s comments on the delivery of Human and Social Services.

‘Success in the market should be driven by consumer interests not the special interests of suppliers and providers.’

Harper goes on to say;

‘They too should enjoy the benefits of choice, where this can reasonably be exercised, and service providers that respond to their needs and preferences.’

‘Each Australian government should adopt choice and competition principles in the domain of human services.’

‘User choice should be placed at the heart of service delivery.’

‘Governments should retain a stewardship function, separating the interests of policy, including funding, regulation and service delivery.’

‘Governments commissioning human services should do so with a clear focus on outcomes.’

These Principles should be applied to Disability, Aged Care and Disability Employment.

A New Way

Since coming to Government, I have worked to improve the current system – by tendering out services previously done by the old Government CRS provider.

By tendering out the 47% of DES-DMS business previously reserved for CRS we have put an additional $141 million a year in the hands of non-government providers to deliver DES services.

Forty-eight organisations won the business previously delivered by one government provider. And almost 21,000 people with disability successfully transitioned to their new DMS provider in a more competitive environment.

I have also implemented a new long term 52 week employment indicator, to provide greater incentive for providers to find long term employment for people with disability.

I have cut $14 million in red tape to ensure providers have more time helping the jobseekers and less on servicing government contracts.

But strategically the most important thing I have done is to align all Disability Employment Services contracts to finish in March 2018 in parallel with the scheduled full roll out of the NDIS by 2018-19.

And starting today, I have created a Taskforce within the Department of Social Services to develop how we evolve the current disability employment system into one that is more choice driven and employer focused. In line with Harper.

I want to make clear at the outset, this is about evolution, not revolution.

DES providers have a lot of skills that need to be preserved and harnessed.

We will, of course, honour the contracts we have with service providers.

The model for a better system won’t come from government, but from employers, service providers and job seekers.

Initially, there will be a 6 month consultation period where I encourage all stakeholders to contribute to the development of a new disability employment model.

From this consultation I will take forward recommendations as the plan for 2018.

And I promise, I won’t let design elegance get in the way of something that actually works.

From meeting with employers and people with disability, I know the answer is not one size fits all.

If we need a system with different elements, then that’s what we’ll do.

Large national employers for example like the rapid employment model, where national recruitment organisations have a pool of trained employees ready to go.

A national recruiter knows their business model and has the national network.

For smaller businesses, supports like wage subsidies and on the job training are important.

For other SMEs, they may not necessarily have a specific job, instead a number of tasks that, with the assistance of a DES provider, a person with disability could be employed to do.

And those tasks can evolve into a job over time.

I want to use the next three years to develop a new model for Disability Employment.

We need a circuit breaker. 2018 is that circuit breaker.

As the consultations begin, here are some thought starters. Some ideas. A system:

  • Where employers, people with disability and employment service providers interact with each other in a digital market place; where employers choose whether they want to deal directly with potential employees, or through intermediaries;
  • Where job seekers have access to an ’employment account’ that they can use to purchase support, such as generalised or niche employment services, training, workplace assistance and on occasion, subsidy. Where a component of support, NDIS-like, attaches to the individual to be deployed by them;
  • Where people with disability are able to purchase training that helps them into a career, not just a first job;
  • Where disability service providers specialise in particular industries or fields, like childcare, or hospitality, or business services.

The work to be done by the Taskforce is broad.

The Taskforce will take a life course approach and ask the question: what would we do differently at key points in someone’s life if employment is our aim?

We need to determine what needs to be done at critical milestones in someone’s life if people are to survive and thrive in the workforce.

This will also help us to provide information to the National Disability Insurance Agency so that it can best contribute to people’s individual plans.

This will also assist us to prosecute the case set out in the National Disability Strategy.

For those not familiar, the National Disability Strategy is a ten year plan agreed by all governments that stipulates the ongoing responsibilities in all portfolios in all jurisdictions.

And as the Chair of the COAG Disability Reform Council, I recently agreed with my state and territory colleagues that employment would be the next area of focus for the strategy.


People who have disability face extra challenges. They face extra barriers in getting employment, in keeping a job.

I should probably go back a step; they face extra challenges in getting a job interview in the first place.

We can change this.

We need to better service and support employers. We need to better meet their needs.

We need to better support people with disability, who might not currently think they could ever work in open employment.

We need to help younger people with disability to expect to work when they finish school and give them a pathway to get there.

We are now riding the wave of the consumer movement, being felt in aged care and across the disability sector.

Consumers want choice. They want to make decisions for themselves.

But you can only have true choice, if you have a greater say about how the funding to support you is spent.

The NDIS consumer payment model has changed the conversation in the disability sector. It will do the same for Disability Employment.

I want to commence, with you, the development of a new disability employment model.

With you, my intention is to change an over regulated billion dollar government program to a market for employers and employees.

The end result:

  • More diverse workplaces
  • More interesting workplaces
  • More creative workplaces
  • Workplaces with a broader range of talents

Together we can help to move closer to an environment where people are judged not by the manifestation of their disability, but by their skills, qualifications and capacity to contribute in the workplace.

Thank you.