Speech by Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield

National Deafness Sector Summit

Location: Brisbane


Well thank you so much, David. And I have got to say, David is one of the preeminent Chairs in the disability sector. He is also one of the most positive and optimistic people you will ever meet. But I know that it is a mistake not to recognise that beneath that sunny exterior is a man of steely determination. So David, thank you so much for all that you do.

And thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for inviting me to join you at the 8th National Deafness Sector Summit. And can I commend Deafness Forum Australia for the incredible work that it has done across the portfolio. If I could encapsulate Deafness Forum Australia and see it replicated in other organisations in the sector I would be a very happy Minister, let me tell you.

I think events like this one are extremely important and I think they actually do give effect to elements of the National Disability Strategy. I know we talk a lot about the NDIS, as we should. But we should never lose sight of the fact that it can’t do everything and won’t do everything. And that there is an important role for the National Disabilities Strategy; and for non-government organisations; and for governments – State and Federal – to play their part in giving effect to that.

As we know, the National Disability Strategy is also an important expression of our obligations under the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.

I have been a very happy person since September last year. Not just because I am in the very privileged position of being a Minister but because I have responsibility not only for disability and carers but also disability employment and aged care.

For those who might not be aware, the new Department of Social Services, of which I am one of two portfolio Ministers, has brought together a range of things which were not previously together.

So it is essentially the old FaHCSIA – the Department of Families, Housing and Community Services, less indigenous affairs – which has gone to the Prime Minister and Cabinet Department. But we have had added to the old FaHCSIA — ageing from the Department of Health and Ageing, settlement services and multicultural affairs from the Department of Immigration — have joined my department.

We also have responsibility now for working age payments, which has come from the Department of Workplace Relations, and responsibility for disability employment has also come from the Department of Workplace Relations.

So the social services portfolio, the Social Services Department, is the Commonwealth lead social policy agency in a way that I don’t think there has been one before and it brings together a whole range of elements which I think probably should have been together for quite some time.

For me – and those of you who have heard me speak before will know that I feel very strongly about this -the sort of stuff that we look after in my portfolio is the core business of government. It is why people pay their taxes. It is why we have governments.

We might disagree at all sorts of levels about what should be the role of government but what is in my gig really is, I think, the core business of government.

Can I seek to summarise the focus of this summit in three words – jobs, jobs, jobs. And it is fantastic that that is the focus. I think there are few things that are as important in someone’s life as having a job. The sense of dignity, the sense of purpose, the sense of belonging. Most of us will find our friends through the work that we do. And it is just so easy to take for granted, when you do have a job, that you are fortunate. And it is easy to lose sight of just how significant that is and how fundamental that is. So it is just so very important that you are having this conference with this focus over these days.

We all know that there are barriers to people with disability, to people who are deaf or who have hearing impairments getting work. The employment statistics across all disabilities are horrendous and it is no different for Australians who are deaf or who have a hearing impairment. The employment statistics are horrendous.

And that is why one of the first things that we did when we came into government, as I mentioned, was to take responsibility for disability employment from the Department of Employment and put it into the Department of Social Services, under me, with responsibility for disability more generally.

Because I think even with the best will in the world, whoever the Employment Minister of the day is, isn’t going to be as focussed on employment issues for people with disability as they might like to be. So we have the opportunity to give a significant focus in the portfolio.

You would all be aware that an important part of the government’s disability reform agenda is Disability Employment Services. There is a lot of money that currently goes into Disability Employment Service. It is about $3 billion over the next four years. I hate mentioning dollar figures because whenever a Minister does it sounds as though they are talking about money that is theirs. Of course it is not, it is yours. It is the money of taxpayers who have contributed that and we have got to make sure that we can deploy that money in the best possible way.

We will have an opportunity, I think, to do better by having DES sitting side by side other programs in the disability portfolio. I think we all know that DES has two sides to the equation. It has got to have a very personal tailored focus on the individual who is seeking work. But it has also got to focus on the needs of employers. And DES can’t adopt the attitude, and I think it would be wrong to and patronising to, that employers should employ people with disability because it was in some way the right thing to do.

It may well be but we have got to make employers aware that if you employ someone with a disability you are getting a good employee, someone who has lower absenteeism than other members of the community. And also, that if you don’t look at Australians with disability you are actually limiting the talent pool and the resource pool that you, as an employer, can draw upon.

There are a range of things that the Commonwealth does to assist people with disability into employment other than DES. There is the Employment Assistance Fund, which I know there was a bit of concern after the election. I saw some press releases buzzing around saying that the government was going to cut it in some way. It was never true, it was never the case. It is an important program.

Deafness Forum Australia already does play an important role in advising government. Deafness Forum Australia is one of 15 consumer groups who receive some funding to provide advice to government on the DES program as to what is not working – what is not working as well as we would like – and what can be improved. And can I thank Deafness Forum Australia for that important work and important advice that they do provide.

Since about 2010 the DES program has helped more than 200,000 Australians with disability into work. That is good but I am under no illusions about the fact that we can do better, we need to do better and we must do better. And that in the DES programme we haven’t achieved some sort of employment support nirvana. There is certainly scope for improvement and I look forward to working with you to see how we can improve the system.

We would probably all agree, I would think, that one of the biggest impediments to Australians with disability, getting work – well, let’s go back a step, getting a job interview, let alone getting work, let alone keeping a job – is attitudes that people have. And the fact is that so often what Australians who have a disability, who have an extra challenge can achieve is limited by the low expectations of others. But there are some good stories out there.

There are some good employers out there as well. Some of you may have heard me cite one before and, if you have, forgive me. But there is a fellow by the name of Bruce Parker who has a business in Dandenong in Victoria. He was an army commando and he first developed interest in people who have a disability because of those he served with, who acquired a disability through their service.

He left the commandos and went on to found a very successful business called HM Gem, which reconditions Holden engines. It’s a very successful business, a multimillion dollar businesses. He employs on his factory floor, in a range of positions, people who have hearing impairments, people who have intellectual impairments. He employs some people who don’t have the capacity to articulate.

And the reason he did that was because he figured out for himself, without the benefit of any government program or any government assistance, that if someone has faced a challenge in their life, if you give them a go they will repay that trust ten-fold. And he figured out that people who have a disability are good employees. They have fewer sick days, they have fewer days absent.

So for him it was just purely a commercial decision. He wanted to find the best people he could, the best fit for his organisation. And as you walk around his factory floor you don’t know who has a disability until you stop and you talk. And it is a wonderful example of an employer who didn’t need a program, didn’t need a support, who just got on with the job of identifying the best employees possible and he thought the way to do that was to look at the widest talent pool possible.

So I think the Bruce Parkers of this world we need to emphasise and highlight. That is not to say the Government should not do things to encourage and support employers. But I just wanted to mention Bruce as an example, that there are some good things and some good employers out there.

I think it is also important that we don’t just exclusively focus on adults. Our focus has also got to be on education on how to improve the support, how to improve early intervention for kids who can benefit from that. Because it can be much harder later in life to seek to provide someone with the supports to get into work if they don’t have some of those foundations laid, if they haven’t been given the best possible opportunities through early intervention. So that is something that we want to keep a particular focus on as well.

And when it comes to early intervention and when it comes to the educating of kids with a disability, for me there is no place for ideology in the education of kids with disability. For me it is a case of whatever works. In some cases it may be a more specialised setting. Maybe for a period of time, not for all of their schooling. For other people, a mainstream setting with appropriate supports is the right way to go. But for me, the debate between specialised settings or mainstream settings is pretty arid and pretty irrelevant. It has got to be what works for the individual.

David mentioned the NDIS and that provides a great opportunity to compliment the DES. We will now have the NDIS and the DES cheek by jowl together under the same Minister in the one portfolio rather than being separated. That is going to provide us with great opportunities.

The NDIS, as you know, is all about the individual being at the centre and in charge. For people who are deaf or hearing impaired, access to the NDIS is not going to be based on reaching some arbitrary threshold of hearing loss. People who have hearing loss, if it is permanent and results in substantially reduced functional capacity, will be eligible for supports through the NDIS. The key to the NDIS is it doesn’t really look at whether you fit a particular diagnostic category.

What it looks at is the functional impact of your disability and because of that – if someone is being assessed for the NDIS, if they are someone who has a hearing impairment – that assessment on functional capacity is made, for instance, in a particular circumstance, without someone wearing a hearing aid. So that ensures that it will be a fair and true assessment of what people do need.

Friends, DES is not, as I said before, part of the NDIS. But there is a great capacity for the NDIS and the DES to work together. The whole focus of the NDIS is working out someone’s individual plan and, at the same time, it should be possible to factor in an employment plan for someone and to do that in cooperation with the DES. It will be important to maintain the DES in whatever form it may be.

I am very open-minded as to how the DES can change over time. But given only about 20% of DES participants are likely to qualify for the NDIS, it is important that we still have a system of supporting people into open employment that remains separate from the NDIS.

Friends, there are some good things happening in some of the NDIS trial sites in relation to employment and doing better in the education system. I will just give you one quick example.

The DES, with the National Disability Insurance Agency and the Tasmanian Department of Education, are piloting a join-upped, as they call it, servicing arrangement between employment and other services in the Tasmanian launch site. The pilot will test an integrated school-to-work transition project for students in year 12 this year and this will, I think, give a good opportunity in a practical case study to see what does work and what does not work. But that is just one to keep an eye out for and to watch. I will just conclude by talking about the NDIS a little more broadly. There has been feverish speculation about the NDIS in the lead-up to the Budget. Look, I can understand at one level why that is the case.

I think the public don’t really often feel they have a sense of what is in the character, in the heart of a government, until the first budget has been delivered. It is a little bit I think like someone who becomes a new member of Parliament. The Parliament doesn’t really have a sense of what makes them tick until they have given their maiden speech or first speech. I think a Budget speech, if you like, is the maiden speech or first speech of a government.

But I just want to make it absolutely clear, because of the speculation that there has been, that this government and myself are absolutely committed, 100%, come hell or high water, to roll out the NDIS in full. And I am equally determined to do whatever it takes to ensure that the roll-out is smooth and that it is successful. And part of that means learning lessons from the trial sites. That was the whole vision of the Productivity Commission – that there be a series of trial sites and that we would learn lessons from those and that we make adaptions and changes before we progress to full national roll-out.

That is as important for people who are deaf and hearing impaired as for any other group of Australians. If there are things working in the Geelong or Hunter trial site or in Tasmania or South Australia then I want to know about it. And if there are things that are not working I want to know about that as well. But we are working hard on progressing the scheme.

The Prime Minister earlier this week opened the national headquarters for the NDIS in Geelong. The Prime Minister yesterday signed an agreement with the Northern Territory for the Barkly trial site, which will commence on 1 July. The Prime Minister a couple of weeks ago signed an agreement with Western Australia for trial sites there, which will commence on 1 July. And the ACT goes live as the first jurisdiction-wide roll-out on 1 July. So these are not the actions of a government that is intent on doing anything other than rolling out the scheme in full.

The Board of the NDIS Agency, which is independent, and Government, are very much on the same page. The Agency Board, you might be aware, has commissioned KPMG to undertake work to look at what the optimal phasing is for the remainder of the NDIS. The Agency will receive that work and then they will provide advice to government. But everything I do in relation to the NDIS is focussed on making sure that it is the best that it can be, that it stands the test of time and I am committed to delivering it in full.

Friends, I might just conclude just by making an observation about the transition from being a Shadow Minister to a real Minister. Obviously you go from a position where in a sense you are a commentator. You talk about a lot of stuff, you have views on lots of things. You move to a position where you have a capacity to do things, to make decisions, and that means that your days are even more full than they were before. And that is a good thing.

But something that I am very aware of is that I don’t want to be less accessible in government than I was in opposition. That’s easier said than done, but the extent to which I am a good and effective Minister will depend to a large extent on the conversations that I have with people with disabilities, with their families and with the organisations that support them.

I know that is a critical part of the success of my job. I also know the extent to which I may have been prepared for this role is because of those conversations I have had in the past.

So if you feel frustrated that you might be not getting through as easily as you might via the office. You can call me or text me. I don’t want anyone to feel they are frustrated. I don’t want anyone to be disgruntled. I want everyone to be gruntled.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for having me. It is very important work that you are undertaking over the next couple of days and I look forward to working with you over the next couple of years and hopefully beyond. Thanks indeed.