Speech by Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield

Keynote Address to the Australian Network on Disability Conference

Location: University of Technology, Sydney


Well thank you very much Julie. And can I acknowledge the great Suzanne Colbert. For those of you who know Suzanne, you know that when Suzanne asks you to do something, you shouldn’t take it as a request; you should treat it as an order. It will simply save time to do so. Suzanne, I love your passion, I love the fact that you work so hard to keep all of us up to the mark, particularly those of us in government. So you have done a wonderful job for years and thank you for all that you do.

Can I also acknowledge the Australian Network on Disability and its members for the work that you do.

As it’s been mentioned, I wear a few hats. I’m the Minister for Disability, I’m the Minister for Ageing and I also have another hat, which is Manager of Government Business in the Senate, which is the same as Manager of the House or Manager of Business in the House. Which I guess make me the Senate’s answer to Christopher Pyne.

But that role is going to get a lot more interesting come the 1st of July. I think it’s going to make the other parts of my work seem a walk in the park. But anyway it’ all good fun.

For those of you who mightn’t be aware, I am one of two ministers in the Social Services portfolio. And the Social Services portfolio is a new creation. It is essentially the former FaHCSIA, add to that working age payments, add to that Disability Employment which has come across from Employment. Add to that Ageing, which has come across from Health and Ageing. And Indigenous Affairs has gone from the former FaHCSIA to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

So the Department of Social Services is, if you like, the Commonwealth’s lead social policy agency in a way that there has never previously been. I love it, and I love the job that I have. I said to the Prime Minister after the election, having shadowed disability in Opposition, that it was an area that I wanted to stay in. I thought one of the contributions I could give was continuity. We all know that no sooner the sector train up a Shadow or a Minister, that they seem to move to another portfolio. And I didn’t want that to happen. Another thing I said to the Prime Minister was that I thought it would be a really good idea if we put responsibility for disability employment policy under the same minister responsible for disability policy. And that is what he did and I think that creates some terrific opportunities.

I think that the stuff that is in my portfolio is the core business for government – providing extra support to people who face extra challenges for reasons beyond their control. That’s why we pay our taxes. And that’s what our portfolio is about. I think that what I have responsibility for is the core of the core.

Given that this is the week after the Budget. I thought that I should share a little frustration with you that I have. And that is when people present good social policy and good economic policy as alternatives. I think it is a false dichotomy. Good social policy and good economic policy are really two sides of the one coin. You can’t have and sustain a good social policy if you don’t have a good economic policy. And the heart of a good economic policy is a good budget policy.

And can I present as Exhibit A for that: our commitment, our unconditional commitment, our unqualified commitment to deliver the NDIS in full in this budget.

One of the reasons why we are making some difficult decisions is so that we have the capacity to fund in-full and deliver in-full important social policy like the NDIS. I just wanted to put that in context for you if you had any doubts.

It’s wonderful that we are all here and we are all here because we recognise the benefits of employment. And we recognise that getting a job is about the most important thing, or one of the most important things, there can be in anyone’s life.

Our workplaces are at the heart of our community. They are a part of life and you’re all here because you know that work is so fundamental to dignity, to meaning in our life. We get so much of our self-worth from the job that we do. So much of our social life comes from the job that we do. There are few things that are as important. And the job that we do is of course the great poverty buster. There has never been a better poverty buster than a job and we want to see people with disability get a job.

We are also here because we know that people who have disability face some extra challenges, a few 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. And that is one of the first things we have got to tackle, is to at least help people with a disability get to first base and that’s a job interview. I know that that is why we are all here.

And we know that a more diverse workplace helps create a more interesting workplace, a more creative workplace, a workplace with a broader range of talents. And that’s a good thing. In my portfolio you will hear more than anything, employers getting a shellacking for not doing enough, not employing enough people with a disability.

But I want to sing the praises of employers, those who are represented in this room, for the work that you do. And there are some great examples of employers. And I just want to share one with you, and Suzanne has heard me refer to this gentleman, Bruce Parker, before.

Bruce Parker is a former Army Commando and he first developed an interest in people with disability because of those he served with who acquired a disability through their service. He subsequently went on to found a very successful, multimillion dollar business called HMGem in Dandenong, not far from my Electorate office. And HMGem recondition Holden Engines.

Bruce Parker decided, without any government program, without any government support, that he wanted to avail himself of the best possible workforce, people with the best talents and the best commitment. So he has employed on his shop floor has many staff with hearing impairments. He has many staff with intellectual impairments. He has some staff who are non-verbal. And as you move around his factory floor you do not realise who has a disability until you stop and talk to them and hear their story.

He simply figured out that if you give someone a go, someone who has faced some extra challenges in their life, if you give them a go, they will repay that tenfold as an employee. And for him, it was just purely self-interest. He knew that these employees would have lower absenteeism. He knew that these employees would have fewer sick days.

I just think that Bruce Parker is such a good example of what can be done. That if we don’t look at the entire community when we’re looking to recruit we really are denying ourselves some of the great talents, capacities and contributions that can be made. So I want to talk more about the Bruce Parkers of the world and I know there are some Bruce Parker types in the room today.

Friends, yet we know that despite your efforts and the efforts of people like Bruce Parker, that Australians with disability are much less likely to be employed than other Australians. In fact, you are almost twice as likely to not have a job if you are an Australian who has a disability. We do need to do better as a community; we need to present a continuum of opportunity for employment.

There needs to be a safety net of support for those Australians who have disability that cannot work, or for a point in time can’t work. There needs to be supported employment for those who want that opportunity, and there needs to be assistance for people to be in the open workforce. This is really why we are all here today.

I thought given the Budget has just been handed down, I should reemphasise our commitment to social safety net in Australia and I want to put into context some of the things we are doing in relation to the disability support pension. We have made some changes, and there has been some controversy around it, but I want to make it clear that everything we are doing with the proposed changes to the DSP have one intention and that is to assist people who have their hand up to work. There is nothing that is punitive.

You probably know that there are over 800,000 people in Australia who are on the Disability Support Pension. That we spend about $16 billion a year on the Disability Support Pension. And I don’t think that Australians in any way begrudge that. It’s one of the things that make us the society that we are. That people who face extra challenges in life, for reasons beyond their control, get a hand from the community via the Government.

But there is the opportunity, I think, to have a particular focus on people below the age of 35 who have the best opportunity to get into the workforce. Under the reforms we are undertaking, those people who are under the age of 35, who were granted the DSP between 2008 and 2011 under the former impairment tables, we are going to take a fresh look at their situation, under the new impairment tables that the previous government introduced. New impairment tables that we supported, because the shorter the period of time a person has been out of the workforce, the greater their potential capacity to get back into work. And we want to help them do that.

Also people who do have some capacity to work, who are being supported through a plan, we are going to emphasise the participation aspect of that. To put them in touch, make sure they are in touch with a DES or a Work for the Dole program. The intention is to make sure people have a connection with work or work like activity so that they have the best possibility of getting into work.

So I just wanted to make clear, that’s why we announced these small changes to the DSP, because we want to see more people back in work. Those who have got the capacity, those who put their hands up, those who want to work.

Another very important element of our support for people with a disability is the Disability Employment Service and some of those people who are on the DSP will be beneficiaries of DES. We are spending about $3 billion over the next four years on DES and that’s a good thing. I actually hate mentioning the dollar figures that government spends. Because it gives an impression that somehow it’s government’s money that we are handing across. It’s not, it’s your money. It’s the money of those that pay taxes. And the community again I think don’t begrudge spending that kind of money on disability employment.

As I mentioned, it’s an important opportunity, that we now have all the elements of social policy together. The NDIS, DES and disability supports in the one portfolio, under the one minister. DES is doing some great work. I was at Crown in Perth a few weeks back meeting some of the staff who have been engaged by Crown. And I see Therese Campbelll here who is doing good work. There are good things happening, and we do need to highlight that as much as we can. And I want to see more.

I know that DES is not perfect, and there is opportunity to improve it. This is something that I want to take a close look at.

I also think that government, as a big employer, needs to lead by example when it comes to the employment of people with disability. The Australian Public Service Commissioner has put together a bit of a focus on this in recent years. And I am pleased to say that my own department instituted a few years back a cadetship for young people with an intellectual impairment. I want to see that expanded across all government departments and agencies.

I want the Department of Social Services to be an employer of choice for people with a disability and I want it to lead by example for other Australian Government departments and agencies. So government has an important role there.

Having the NDIS cheek-by-jowl with DES will provide some good opportunities. The heart of the NDIS is an individual’s plan. And part of that plan for the individual is for those who have the capacity to work and for those who want to work; employment should be a core part of that plan. And we need to work out how DES can dovetail in with that individual plan.

It’s going to be important to have a separate Disability Employment Service because only about 20% of the people who are supported by the DES are people who are likely to be NDIS participants. So we need to make sure that the NDIS and the DES work well together. But we also need to recognise that the NDIS is not the sole employment answer. It is not the sole vehicle that will lead to jobs for people with a disability.

We still need DES or the DES equivalent.
Friends, I just thought I should touch briefly on one of the announcements we made in the Budget in relation to DES. We are going to be opening up the DES-DMS market to full competition. This will see the expansion, I hope, in the number of high performing providers. The 47 per cent of the DES-DMS which is currently delivered by the Government, through CRS Australia, will be offered through an open tender, with contracts taking effect from the 2nd of March 2015. This will mark the first time that the DMS market has been fully open to competition. The contracts for the DES-DMS market already held by the non-government providers will be extended from July 2015 to March 2018. This will create an opportunity to align DES to the broader disability framework, including DES-ESS and the national roll out of the NDIS.

I think that is going to provide an opportunity for us to think afresh about how we can refurbish the DES to make sure that it is the best it can be.

Another thing that I think is important is that in every ministerial portfolio there are dozens of advisory councils that advise Ministers on the views of consumers and service providers in a given portfolio. And there had previously been the Disability and Carer Council, which did some good work, particularly with the Shut Out! report that was received by the previous Government that helped till the soil and make the case for the NDIS. We are not going to be continuing with that Council arrangement, but we are going to be establishing a new Disability and Carer Industry Council.

And the reason we refer to it as an Industry Council is for two reasons. Firstly, the disability sector is going to double in size. There are going to be another 70,000 employees in the disability sector between now and 2019-20. So disability is going to be in a sense a growing and very important sector. I can see AI Media, Tony, here today as an example par excellance of what I am talking about.

I also have the word industry there, because I want this Industry Council to have a real focus on jobs. And I want to give disability a real focus on employment and a real focus on employers. I don’t want it to be a traditional advocacy body. I want it to be an advisory body which focuses on practical outcomes and, in particular, on employment outcomes for people with disability. So I am very keen to get AND’s views and ideas on how we can structure the Industry Council, on how we should focus it, on the sorts of people we should have on it, the sorts of views that should be represented there.

Of course we will have and we need to have people with disability on the Council and providers as well. But we want to have people who understand the needs of employers, because we can’t have the jobs for Australians with disability unless we ensure that people with disability are meeting the business needs of a particular organisation. I don’t think any of us want to have a situation where organisations are providing jobs for people with disability purely out of a sense of somehow it’s the right thing to do. Well of course it’s the right thing to do, but we want people with a disability to be recognised for the skills that they have and the contribution that they can make and for how they can improve the workforce.

I look forward to working with you over the years ahead on this important task. It’s one of the most important in my portfolio… Jobs, Job, Jobs and people with disability.

Thank you for all that you do and I look forward to working with you.