Speech by The Hon Jane Prentice MP

Disability Employment Australia National Leaders Forum


Good morning to you all.  It is a pleasure to be here and I certainly appreciate the opportunity to address your National Leaders’ Forum so early in my appointment as Assistant Minister for Disability Services.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet – the Ngunnawal people — and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I would also like to acknowledge:

  • Mr Rick Kane, CEO of Disability Employment Australia
  • Ms Donna Faulkner, DEA Chairperson
  • Professor Peter Whiteford and Dr Ann Nevile from the Australian National University
  • My good friend Dr Donna McDonald  from Griffith University, who served with me on the Board of Red Cross a few years ago and
  • Ms Lucy Macali, the National Disability Recruitment Coordinator. Congratulations on being inducted into the DEA Hall of Fame for your role in developing the peak body, and for your continued work increasing sustainable disability employment outcomes with large employers, and
  • Mr James Christian, Group Manager, Disability Employment and Carers, along with Peter Broadhead and John Riley from the Department of Social Security.

I have some interesting world records in Parliament. I have delivered the fastest speech and I am conscious with this kind lady standing beside me doing sign language that I need to slow down today. I also delivered the first speech in Parliament using sign language.

Ladies and gentlemen I am very happy to be able to address you today as the new Assistant Minister for Disability Services.  Since my appointment just 55 days ago, I have been busy meeting with a range of stakeholders to get their perspectives, indeed your perspectives, on issues facing people with disability. It’s great to look around this room and see many people I have already met in these last 55 days.

I have been building my knowledge and understanding of the disability employment sector in Australia. Indeed I have set myself a target of meeting 240 key stakeholders by May, and I am currently on track to do that.

A few of weeks ago I met with Donna Faulkner and Rick Kane along with representatives from disability consumer peaks and business groups. Since then I’ve been to Bundaberg, I’ve been to Geelong and earlier this week I was at the NESA meeting in Melbourne and tomorrow I will be up in Townsville.  I will also be going to Adelaide soon.  

It is really useful discussing first-hand the issues and opportunities facing the sector. I am keen to continue talking with employment service providers, as well as employers, people with disability and their families and carers to better identify what we can do to improve employment outcomes for people with disability.

Recognising the need for change, the Australian Government currently spends around $750 million a year on Disability Employment Services. As it stands, these services find employment for about one third of DES jobseekers, at an average cost of about $30,000 per job placement achieved.

Sadly, Australians with disability are still twice as likely to be unemployed, compared with their fellow Australians. Only 52.9 per cent of the 2.2 million people with disability are in the workforce or actively looking for work. It’s a statistic that does not compare well with other OECD countries. Clearly, we need to do better and we must all do our utmost to achieve just that.

As a society, we need to change attitudes and create an expectation that all Australians should have the opportunity to work and to experience the dignity, financial freedom and sense of achievement work brings.

With general unemployment falling, and more than 300,000 new jobs created in 2015, there should be more opportunities for people with disability to find employment.

The Australian Government values the contribution of people with disability in the workplace and in the community, and we’re committed to getting people with disability into jobs.

Employment for people with disability is not just about a job and money to pay the bills. A job for a person with disability is far more than that. It is an opportunity for new social interaction. It is an opportunity for developing new levels of independence. And most importantly, it is opportunity for self-worth and creating perception changes across the wider workforce. That is why this Government started a conversation about ways to improve Disability Employment Services in Australia.

The Disability Employment Taskforce was established last year by my predecessor, Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield, to review the current disability employment services programme. He did this with a view to identifying changes we could make to boost employment rates for people with disability.

The Department consulted extensively with stakeholders, through public forums, online surveys and a written submission process. Importantly, the consultations included not just employment service providers, but also people with disability and their families and carers; and employers, peak bodies and advocacy agencies.

I want to thank you for your input so far. The Department has listened to the issues you have raised, and is now working on future proposals. While the need for change is clear, the consultations did not elicit a strong view that Disability Employment Services is fundamentally broken or that it requires wholesale change.  

Rather, the changes seen to have merit involve rebalancing the programme to give people with disability more choice and more say about the services and support they receive. They also involve freeing up some of the current restrictions on service provision, and engaging with and supporting employers to increase employment of people with disability.  

Themes that emerged from the consultation are well aligned to the NDIS model with its focus on choice and control for participants and better connections with employers.

There is a clear need for improved engagement and support for employers.

The Government has a long history of working with providers of employment services. That’s obvious—you’re the ones who engage with employers at the local level in roughly 2000 sites across the country.  You know your business and you know the local context.

We need to bring employers into the discussion more broadly, and to increase their awareness of the support available. Employers are the source of the jobs. They know their business and what they need to succeed. They need skilled staff, and often there is no reason why those employees cannot be people with disability.

Currently employment services in Australia focus on building the capability of jobseekers and local engagement with employers. The most successful providers have extensive knowledge of local market conditions and employers—both essential elements in a successful programme, which need to be retained.

There has been general agreement, however, that more can be done to increase the willingness of organisations to employ people with disability.  My earlier comment about changing perceptions in the wider workforce is the improvements I’m seeking.

There is an “out of sight, out of mind” barrier to overcome. Low employment of people with disability leads to low visibility—meaning that many employers simply do not ever consider engaging people with disability. We need to do better at informing employers about both the benefits of employing people with disability, and the assistance available to help them do so.

Here in this room, we know that employees with disability are highly reliable and productive.  Contrary to the assumptions held by some, we know that people with disability take less leave, have fewer accidents and boost staff morale. Along with top performing business leaders, we also know that building a workforce that reflects the diversity of the community it serves, is good for business.

The job now is to share this knowledge, and to encourage employers to take action and hire more people with disability. Through consultation with employers, the Department has gathered valuable insights into the most effective forms of assistance for different types of employers. For example, incentives such as job matching are important to large employers and wage subsidies are of much greater significance to smaller employers.

The second key theme I’d like to talk about is enabling service providers to deliver high quality service. Just like the first theme, this is not new. We have always recognised that high quality service providers deliver strong outcomes. That is why the Department selects providers through competitive tenders, and why DES business is occasionally reallocated from less effective providers to higher performing ones.

The Government is conscious however on freeing providers from the $14 million worth of unnecessary administrative burden—or red tape—so they can concentrate on their core business of helping jobseekers find jobs.

For example, the Department has:

  • Reviewed 54 DES programme guidelines and other documents to eliminate duplication and to ensure that documents are consistent and easy to understand. (Regulatory savings of $6.1m).
  • Switched to weekly online publishing of operational news items for DES providers streamlining the approach to information management and minimising the need for DES providers to constantly monitor the online portal. (Regulatory savings of $1.97m); and
  • Removed the requirement for DES providers to collect and retain documentary evidence for an employment outcome claim where it can be supported by data from the Department of Human Services. (Regulatory savings of $2.0 million)

The start of new contracts in 2018 gives us the opportunity to reconsider the way employment service providers do business. Currently service providers operate in a restricted, controlled market. They receive a quarantined nominal market share of referrals within the borders of their service area for the contract period, unless the contract is varied by the Department.

The Taskforce found there is considerable support from providers to relax restrictions, so that quality service provision determines success in a more open market. In the meantime, the Australian Government will continue to fund workplace adjustments, and ongoing support to assist people with disability in the workplace, where necessary.

The final theme from the consultations is about empowering jobseekers to make informed decisions and have a greater say in the services they receive. Participants are currently expected to work with their provider to develop an individualised Job Plan, but otherwise have limited choice and control over the service they receive.

Empowering participants to make decisions about the services they receive encourages their ownership and investment in the programme, and allows them to concentrate on elements they consider important. Empowerment for people with disability is also at the heart of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

As the largest reform in disability services in Australia’s history, the NDIS has already supported more than 20,000 people with disability to engage as equal partners in decisions that affect their lives. The NDIS provides flexible, individualised support, giving participants choice and control over the type of support they receive, how it’s delivered, and who delivers it. With support from their NDIS planner, participants can develop their own personal support plan, based on their individual needs, goals and aspirations.

The NDIS will fund supports to assist participants with employment, where those necessary and specifically tailored supports are beyond the scope of employment services and employers. NDIS support can include assistance to build skills and capacity to find and retain a job, as well as personal care, transport, and assistive technologies like wheelchairs, personal communication devices and hearing aids.

Employment should be a core part of the individual plan for each person eligible for support through the NDIS. Accordingly, it is imperative that Disability Employment Services work effectively with the NDIS, as well as employers. To support this, the Government moved Disability Employment Services into the Department of Social Services so it is co-located with the NDIS. Existing Disability Employment Service contracts have also been extended to better align with the NDIS rollout. The development of DES for 2018 and beyond gives us the opportunity to align it with the NDIS for people who are eligible for both.

Another Government initiative aimed at improving workforce participation for people with disability is the new JobAccess Gateway, which is due to be launched in July 2016. Building on the current JobAccess service and website, the Gateway will support job seekers, employers and service providers to access free support through a central entry point into disability employment services.

The new Gateway was developed in response to consistent feedback about the existing JobAccess service, which indicated low awareness of Disability Employment Services. Stakeholders, including many of you here today, advised the Government about difficulties in accessing current support services and the challenges in navigating the large volume of information on the JobAccess site.

The new Gateway will streamline access to support services and localised employment information. It will deliver training tailored to emerging growth markets. It will also create better linkages with employers to support job creation and retention for people with disability. The work undertaken by the Disability Employment Taskforce will continue to inform development of proposed changes to the Disability Employment Service programme in the lead up to the end of current arrangements in March 2018.

Many of you have written submissions, engaged in workshops, and made valuable contributions to inform further development of Disability Employment Services. You have helped create an appealing vision of the modern, flexible disability employment market we can create.

I am excited by the possibilities, and truly look forward to working with you to bring the vision to life—and create a future where people with disability, like other Australians, can enjoy the economic and social benefits work brings.

Thank you