Speech by Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield

Opening Address to the National Disability Services’ Disability at Work Conference, Sofitel Hotel, Sydney

Location: Sofitel Hotel, Sydney


Good morning and thank you so much Vicki, good to see you. Good to see Ken Baker and Patrick Maher.

As I look around the room I see so many faces that I know. I have now been either the shadow or the minister for disabilities for five years. And I’ve got to say it’s been five of the best years of my life. So it’s great to be with you this morning.

I’ve just returned from ten days on the road travelling through Western New South Wales on an initiative you may have heard of called Pollie Pedal. Which was founded by Tony Abbott about seventeen years ago. And every year, he has ventured forth with some of his colleagues on bike, in lycra, riding for a thousand kilometres to raise money for a good cause. And for the last three years it’s been for Carers Australia.

I do have to make a confession, I didn’t don the lycra. In fact, I didn’t even hop on a bike. I had the good sense, while my colleagues were riding, to spend that time meeting with carer groups, disability organisations and aged care organisations in Moree, Bingara, Tamworth, Dubbo, Gunnedah, Lithgow, Gravesend, through to Katoomba and Penrith. It was a great opportunity to spend some time talking to people in larger regional centres, many of which Patrick knows very well, and smaller centres where a minister mightn’t usually have the opportunity to spend time.

As I was travelling through Central Western New South Wales, I popped into an Australian Disability Enterprise in Tamworth. And a supported employee came up to me and said, “Mitch, are we going to get to keep our jobs?”

And my unequivocal answer to her was, “yes.”

And I elaborate on my support for ADE’s in an opinion piece in the Australian newspaper today. I wanted to put it on the record that we’re going to fight for ADEs. We’re going to defend ADEs. We’re going to make sure that the answer to the question from that supported employee from Tamworth is always “yes”.

Friends, I don’t need to tell you the reasons why this is important. We all know that a job gives rhythm to our life. It gives rhythm to our days. It gives rhythm to our weeks. It gives rhythm to the relationships we have. It gives a rhythm to our sense of responsibility and to the contribution that we feel we make to the community in which we live. To sum it up, it really gives us our sense of self-worth.

And we’re all here because that’s something we share in, that’s something we are passionate about – that opportunity should not be denied to a significant group in our community. And we’re here because we know that’s easier said than done. That people with disability do face some extra challenges.

And not just in getting work – in fact I probably should go back a step; they face extra challenges even getting to first base, even getting to a job interview. And that is probably where we have to start – getting people with disability in the front door for a job interview in the first place.

I think as Minister for disabilities and carers, I do have a good opportunity to make a contribution in this area having brought responsibility for disability employment into the social services portfolio.

Disability did seem like a huge challenge when I first got the portfolio. But there’s something that’s really helped make it look pretty straight-forward, and that is my gig as Manager of Government Business in the Senate. As you might know that makes me the Senate’s answer to Christopher Pyne. Make of that what you will! He’s a great man and we work very well together. It’s an interesting role and it certainly helps put some of my other responsibilities into perspective.

I’d like to just briefly go through some of the significant issues in the portfolio in relation to employment.

First and foremost the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which really is going to become the lynchpin in a number of ways, bringing together a number of elements that will support people with disability into employment. It isn’t going to be the lynchpin for everyone, because as you know only about 460,000 Australians will receive support auspiced by the NDIS. The bulk of Australians with disability will still receive their supports in other ways. But the NDIS will nevertheless be important for a large number of Australians.

I probably don’t need to, but I will again, underline our commitment to delivering the NDIS in full. I know there was a little bit of angst in some circles before the Budget. But the Budget answered any concerns which people may have had. There was the full accounting over the forward estimates for the required funds to deliver the NDIS in full. And for me, our commitment to the NDIS is in a sense an early dividend for our efforts in repairing the budget. Because that’s why we’re doing it – so that we do have the capacity to fund those things which are core government business. Things like the NDIS. Things like proper support for Australians with disability.

I know the NDIS, for a lot of providers here, is a big challenge. It means change in the way you do business. It means change in the relationship you have with the people you support. And I know it’s a challenge that you relish. But challenges nevertheless can cause a bit of discomfort for providers. And I want you to know that I’m very mindful of those challenges and of the need for the NDIS Agency to be open, to be listening, and to make adjustments as is required.

And to emphasise that point, you probably noticed that at the first COAG meeting that the Prime Minister chaired, the language in relation to launch sites was changed to trial sites. And the reason for that wasn’t any diminution in our commitment to the NDIS. It was really just to emphasise again that the launch sites, the trial sites, are there to learn from. Not just for providers to learn from, but for the NDIS Agency to learn from and for governments to learn from. And we know that there will need to be some changes as we go.

And partly in response to that approach, the NDIS Agency has introduced a new pricing strategy, with new hourly rates, from the first of July. And there are other changes that they are introducing as a result of feedback, such as a change to the cancellation policy to allow payment where late notice is really very late. And there will be other changes as well. But please, if you feel that you have not been heard, shout out to me, shout out to my office if you think that there are further things that need examining.

Vicki touched briefly on Disability Employment Services. And as I mentioned before, we’ve brought those into my portfolio, social services – the old FaHCSIA portfolio. And there is an important business opportunity which I know many of you have been seeking to avail yourselves of through the DES-DMS tender. We thought that it was important to open up to competition that business which CRS previously had grandfathered. And I hope that that provides some good opportunities for a number of you in this room.

The approach that we are taking also provides greater certainty because all DES services will now be contracted until 2018, which should provide some stability as we look forward to what DES might look like post-2018. I know 2018 might sound, for those of us in government, a little while away, but I know from the point of view of service providers it’s not actually that far away and we need to work hard and quickly as we talk to you about what the future of DES looks like.

As I mentioned, I think this time last year, the NDIS is conducting some interesting trials, particularly one in Tasmania for people aged 15 – 24 – that’s the Tasmanian NDIS cohort. There’s a pilot program which is helping young people with disability and their families to make informed decisions about the transition from school to work.

What we’re finding is that it’s bringing about closer working relationships between the NDIS Agency, DES providers, the Department of Social Services and the Tasmanian Education Department. And we’re now looking at other pilots around the country.

You will be aware that one of the focuses of our Government is red tape reduction. Already we’ve done a little bit in the area of employment services. Our objective government-wide is to cut a billion dollars of red tape across government services every year. And we have heard about paperwork when it comes to the DES program. We’ve already, for DES providers, doubled the time available to lodge claims, streamlined guidelines to eliminate duplication, relaxed the documentary requirements and provided for online completion of the employment pathway plans. Now I’m told, by my Department, that this will save DES providers $7.6 million. I have also asked the Department to continue to look for efficiencies and things that get in your way in doing your business, so please do keep talking to us about them.

Now, the key, obviously, for the employment of people with disabilities is employers. They are front and centre. We’ve got to satisfy their needs. We’ve got to make sure that they know that they’re getting good employees. That they’re getting quality employees. That they’re getting reliable employees. But employers do need to be open. They’ve got to have open minds and open hearts. And there are a lot of good employers and I know that there are many who are represented in the room today.

And we need to highlight those who employers who are doing a good job. Those of you who’ve heard me speak before will have heard me talk about a guy called Bruce Parker in Dandenong. I won’t talk about Bruce again, but we do need to highlight the Bruce Parkers of this world.

You will be aware that in the Budget, we had a few things to say about the Disability Support Pension, that from the 1st of July 2014 DSP recipients who have an assessed work capacity of at least 8 hours per week or more, must have a compulsory Work Focussed Activity added to their DSP Participation Plan. Rest assured, this change will be managed sensitively, but it is important DSP recipients do have an ongoing opportunity to consider their employment options. I know there’s been a bit of negative press about what we’ve announced in relation to DSP changes, but everything we do in relation to the DSP is focussed on giving people the opportunity to consider employment. There’s nothing punitive here, it’s all about keeping a relentless focus on assisting people into employment where we can.

Friends, I have touched briefly on Disability Enterprises in my opening remarks, but I just want to make clear, we have been doing everything we can to provide the maximum degree of certainty in a very uncertain environment for Disability Enterprises.

We supported the application for the three year exemption from the Disability Discrimination Act applying to BSWAT. That’s something that Social Services put forward during the caretaker period of the last election. And we supported that.

You will be aware that earlier this year I announced that we would be commencing what we referred to as a payment scheme for BSWAT and the thinking behind that was to provide some certainty for supported employees who have been assessed previously under the BSWAT. But also to provide some certainty for disability enterprises themselves that the Commonwealth would stand with them and be willing to make a payment to people who had previously been assessed under BSWAT.

In no way does that, would that, take away from the legal rights of individuals who had been assessed under the BSWAT — they could simply elect to either be a participant in the Commonwealth’s payment scheme, or to pursue their legal options. But obviously, there’s no certainty when you pursue other legal avenues. It can be expensive and it can take time. So we thought we would provide an avenue which would be quick where there would be a known outcome and in doing so, we would also be assisting ADEs to know that the Commonwealth was ready to stand beside them.

We had hoped that that legislation would already be passed but the non-government parties in the Senate combined to refer that to a Senate Committee for inquiry. That Senate Committee reports back this Wednesday. So we hope to be able to put that through the Parliament in the next few weeks.

Friends, I hope you feel some reassurance through our efforts as a Government to provide greater certainty for Disability Enterprises. But I would like to announce today a further initiative. We are committing $173 million to help the supported employment sector to work towards new wage arrangements for supported employees in ADEs.

The $173 million will be used in part to develop and implement a new productivity based wage tool, including new assessments for use across the supported employment sector. Work on the tool will commence shortly, and we’ll be inviting all who are interested to participate in the consultations, details of which will be available from DSS over the coming weeks.

The funding will also assist ADEs with the additional wage costs associated with the suspension of the BSWAT in the form of tapering wage supplementation to assist ADEs to meet different wage outcomes.

So again, we’re doing what is within our control to try and give support where we can and to try and give ADE operators some greater confidence and some greater certainty in what is a fairly uncertain environment.

Friends, ADEs, obviously, in the NDIS world, will be operating differently. The relationship will not be so much between government and ADEs as it will be between the individual NDIS participant and the ADE. I’m mindful, and I think it’s important, that we recognise that there will still be and should still be an employer/employee relationship. That while someone might have an NDIS entitlement, that will give them the right to have an interview, but, we’ve got to make sure that the employer/employee relationship which is currently enjoyed in ADEs continues and that that’s reinforced.

The final issue I just want to touch briefly on, is that of retirement. I know it’s a challenge for a lot of ADEs, you are such good employers that your supported employees never want to leave in many cases. But, obviously, that creates a situation where it’s harder to offer employment opportunities for other people, if you have people working long into retirement years. But we do want to provide opportunities for those people when it comes to retirement age and there’s good work that the Department is doing to provide person-centred case management to older supported employees.

It also should be easier, under the NDIS, to manage that situation, because someone should have the opportunity to take their assessed entitlement to another service provider when it comes to that time of life, to retire.

Friends, I just want to touch briefly on some of the key issues in employment in disability at the moment. I look forward to working with you in the years ahead and particularly, on what will be the DES environment after 2015. We’ve got a lot of work to do to see if we can improve what is already a pretty good system. We’ve got to work closely with you on the transition to the NDIS and how employment services will integrate with that. And I’ve also got to continue to work closely with you to make sure that ADEs are protected. To make sure that they’re defended and to make sure that the supported employees in ADEs have that ongoing opportunity for work.

Together, we need to make sure that we have a continuum of employment options for people with disability. From supported employment to open employment. And together, we need to encourage employers to think more broadly about the available talent pool in the Australian community and we need to highlight those employers who are doing that well.

Can I thank you again for your support in my role in one guise or another over the last five years. And I look forward to continuing to work with you to help deliver a better deal for Australians with disability that we all know that they deserve. Thanks very much.