Speech by The Hon Jane Prentice MP

Address to the Australian Network on Disability’s Ninth Annual Conference


Good morning everyone, I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders – past, present and emerging and indeed elders of any culture who have joined us today.

I particularly acknowledge, Ms Suzanne Colbert AM, AND CEO, and Mr Peter Wilson AM (AND Chairman). I also acknowledge Mr Alastair McEwin, Disability Discrimination Commissioner, and Ms Rhonda Galbally. Rhonda sits on the NDIA Independent Advisory Council.

Ladies and Gentlemen. Well it is good to be here. I was born in Melbourne and have spent many miserable days here at the MCG watching my team lose. It always starts well but never finishes well and that team, is of course the Demons. Anyone who is a Demons fan understands my feelings on this.

It is great to be here in this fabulous iconic venue.

I am delighted to be able to join you for Australian Network on Disability’s ninth Annual National Conference, to talk about how we can support and maximise the potential of people with disability, so they can participate equally and fully in our society.

I am told by Toni Wren that this is actually a sell-out event. The MCG is used to sell-out crowds, and it is great to see you all here today focussed on improving the lives of people with disability.

This, of course, is the focus of the National Disability Strategy, which ALL governments have committed to as part of a national approach to addressing the needs of people with disability in Australia.

As Assistant Minister for Social Services and Disability Services, I feel very privileged to have oversight of Disability Services in Australia at a time when there is so much happening in this space.

For example one of the greatest social reforms of our times, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, is being rolled out right across Australia, and as Sarah said, within our budgeted guidelines.

The Scheme gives people choice and control over the services and supports they can access. But more importantly empowers them to take control of their own lives.

The NDIS represents a significant shift in the delivery of services for people with disability and will create enormous opportunities for businesses as well.

However, as significant as the NDIS is, we must remember that it is not the whole story.

We must remember that while there are 460,00 people who we expect to qualify for the NDIS, there are another 3.8 million people who will not be eligible for the NDIS and we must ensure they have the support they need.

I co-chair the National Disability and Carers Advisory Council with Keran Howe. The Council was established to provide advice to Governments about issues impacting the disability sector. One of our main objectives is to reinvigorate the National Disability Strategy. As part of this work, we are looking at what can be done to support all those people who will not be eligible for the NDIS. We are also looking at enhancing support for carers and improving employment outcomes for people with disability.

You will be well aware that Australians with disability are underrepresented in our workforce.

More than 14 per cent of people who are of working age have a disability but only 53 per cent of people with disability are working or seeking work, compared with 83 per cent of people without disability.

This is one of the lowest rates in the OECD for workforce participation of people with disability and I am determined to do something about it. Quite frankly, ranking 21 out of 29 OECD countries is not acceptable. And as I often say, if it was a sport, it would be on the front page of the paper. We would be held to account and things would be done. So we need to raise awareness and do more.

For people with disability to be employed at the same rates as people without disability, 640,000 more people with disability need employment.

Our challenge, and I say, ours, is to bridge the gap, to help more people with disability find and keep jobs, and to encourage more employers to employ more people with disability.

Employment offers a person economic security and independence, and contributes significantly to their positive well-being.

For a person with a disability, often their job is more than just a job, it links them to the community and exposes them to new experiences. Disability employment is an area of which I am especially passionate.

In Government and in the community, and among business and industry, we need to do all we can to recognise the benefits of employing people with disability.

On Federal Budget night this year – just one week ago, the Government confirmed our commitment to improving employment outcomes for people with disability and announced improvements to the Disability Employment Services (DES) program.

I spoke with many stakeholders on budget night and I am told the changes have been well received. I am sure you will tell me more later if you disagree with that.

I note that the extension of the current contracts to 30 June 2018 and the indexation of provider payments are particularly popular. I will also speak further on these points shortly.

However, over the next four years, the Australian Government will invest more than $3 billion in DES and associated services to help people with disability achieve long-term jobs with mainstream employers.

This includes more than $3 million over the next ten years to index payments to DES, ensuring providers can continue to support people with disability who are looking for work.

Since 2010, more people with disability are being helped by DES every year. DES currently supports more than 186,000 people.

Since 2010 DES has achieved more than 350,000 placements of people in work – including more than 200,000 jobs lasting six months or more. But clearly there is more to be done, because despite these achievements, we know from consultations in 2015 and 2016 that the program needed to be strengthened to improve outcomes for jobseekers and employers.

DES participants – jobseekers – told us they wanted more control over the services they receive and to be able to switch to a provider who will better meet their needs, and to be better matched to a job that’s right for them and the employer.

Employers told us they wanted it to be easier to work with their preferred DES providers and not have to work with multiple providers simply due to geography. They believe this will result in better suited applicants for their jobs so that more sustainable employment outcomes can be achieved.

On the 3rd of March this year, I attended a roundtable, hosted by AND and the Business Council of Australia in Sydney. I was astounded to hear of one scenario where an employer received 50 identical resumes for 50 candidates for one position from one of the DES providers.

The employer asked the DES provider why they had not at least shortlisted some of the candidates or indicated the most appropriate applicant. The DES provider advised that they could not possibly short list anyone because that would be discrimination. We seriously have to be able to do better than that for employers.

Reforms to the DES program, to commence from 1 July 2018, will change the settings to address some of these issues.

The changes will improve overall performance and encourage better relationships between providers and employers, for the benefit of people with disability, businesses and our economy.

Under the new arrangements, the regional restrictions on a participant’s choice of DES providers will be relaxed so participants can choose a provider outside of the Employment Service Area in which they live.

It will also be easier for DES participants to choose and to change their provider if they are not satisfied with the support they are receiving.

We are also going to ensure that if a DES participant changes provider, their funding will move with them by introducing pro-rata service fees. Providers will have a direct incentive to provide the right assistance a person needs to get a job, otherwise the participant can change providers and the funding will move to the new provider.

The set market share arrangements for DES providers will be abolished. Providers will no longer be guaranteed revenue and will need to compete for business – just like most other organisations.

With no guarantee of referrals, providers will need to ensure they are actively engaging jobseekers, providing information on what services they can provide and how they will support them.

These changes will also make it easier for employers to work with the DES providers that they want. It will be easier for DES providers to expand into new regions to take advantage of their relationships with large employers. Because currently, employers with a workforce spread across multiple locations need to develop and maintain relationships with multiple DES providers.

Under the new arrangements, providers can extend into new regions during the period of the contract, meaning that where they have developed a good relationship with a large employer, they should be able to build on that to work with that employer in other regions.

Large employers – those who span multiple regions – should no longer have to deal with multiple DES providers in different areas unless they choose to do so.

Another change which will increase the focus of DES providers on employers, is a better alignment of provider revenue to provider performance. Payments will now better reflect the achievement of long-term employment outcomes.

Providers who work with clients who have more significant barriers to employment, or who are in more challenging labour markets will be better rewarded for achieving an employment outcome for a DES participant.

The revised funding model also rewards providers if a participant remains employed at 4, 13, 26 and now 52 weeks. This will reward better job matching and longer term outcomes.

Providers will want to ensure those milestones are reached, so they will need to have great relationships with employers and participants to make sure they achieve this. Providers will need to get a better understanding of the employers that they service – their culture of their business and their environment and business needs.

And of course, if this does not happen there is a greater risk that the employer – and the participant – will go somewhere else.

Increased competition and reward-based funding will incentivise providers to remain viable based on their relationships with employers, and their track record of matching the right participant to the employer and the job.

While there are a lot of changes, some things will stay the same – capitalising on the strengths of the current DES program.

Funding for workplace modifications will continue to be available.

There will be no change to the Employment Services Areas. The 110 Employment Service Areas where DES providers operate will remain because we are quite aware that there are many niche providers, often working with an employer, and to expect them to stretch their services into an area that does not suit them, will actually weaken an existing relationship.

There will be no changes to the Employment Services Assessment. However, a review of assessments will be undertaken during 2017-2018 that may result in changes in the future. The review will be undertaken in consultation with representatives of people with disability and with DES providers.

Most importantly, the outcomes focus of the DES program – that is, increasing and improving employment outcomes for people with disability – will not be changing.

In fact, the focus on achieving outcomes is strengthened through the funding model and changes to market share.

As I have mentioned before, the success of the DES Program largely relies on DES providers and you, the businesses and organisations, who employ people with disability.

Some people with disability need additional support to help them with their job, and this will continue under the new DES arrangements. DES will continue to offer the same suite of services to support employers to keep people with disability in the workplace.

Supports will continue to be provided to people with disability through the JobAccess Gateway and through the Employment Assistance Fund (EAF) workplace modifications program.

Other supports such as the provision of ‘Ongoing Support’ for participants through ‘Job-in-Jeopardy’ assistance will also remain.

The Job-in-Jeopardy program that provides employment support to people who are at risk of losing their job due to disability, illness or injury, is also available. It helps stabilise their employment so they can stay in work.

Unfortunately, overall participation in Job-in-Jeopardy has been declining. During consultations we heard from employers and others that the name ‘Job in Jeopardy’ is itself a deterrent to the use of the program. In fact, as Alastair McEwin pointed out to me, this is a very good example of how language can often perpetuate discrimination.

The need to re-name this program was widely identified in the consultations. As such, I am pleased to advise that Job-in-Jeopardy will be renamed to ‘Work Assist’. And I am particularly pleased to be able to report back to AND members, because this was the name change you suggested at our meeting in Sydney.

I hope this name change will mean that the program resonates with more people. The Department will also look at how they can better communicate the benefits of this program more broadly. It is better to assist someone to stay in work than to have them lose their job and have to find their way back into employment.

But all the Reforms in the world will not achieve the best outcomes if we are not working with employers. Over the past year, in collaboration with employers and industry, we have started to consider how we can increase employer demand for people with disability and provide better support to assist people with disability to remain in open employment.

For example, the now streamlined JobAccess Service has been working in collaboration with the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and Melbourne University to include a dedicated JobAccess – disability employment module as part of the postgraduate business curriculum. This project takes an innovative approach to raising awareness and potentially influencing future recruitment practices with individuals who are studying to become Australia’s future business leaders.

There is a wealth of activity going on along the employment continuum to support and make it easier for a person with disability to help them gain meaningful employment. This includes some of the great work AND has done with Aspect and Fujitsu as part of the NSW government High Growth Jobs Talented Candidates program.

We know of many other success stories where there have been good outcomes for both employers and employees, such as the success of the Tong Park Piggery, at Warra, just outside of Dalby in Queensland, which I visited recently, and in Gawler in South Australia, who have turned their recruitment process on its head to suit people with disability, and the changes Uber has made to attract and enable deaf drivers.

The Tong Park example is particularly interesting where they identified people with disability rarely interview well or look good on a CV, so they invite people in, including youth at risk, and they say to them, have a look at the jobs available in our business, and see which one you would like to do. Then they select candidates based on the enthusiasm of the individual as opposed to some of the paper credentials they may have. They have had some wonderful success stories. They say someone with a disability enhances the whole of their workforce.

We also know that it is not the skills, abilities and experiences of people with disability that keeps the workforce participation rate at 53 per cent.

In March, following the AND Roundtable, I reiterated my continued commitment to engage with employers. I still want to hear directly from employers about innovative strategies to employ more people with disability.

There is growing recognition amongst employers that diversity in their workforce contributes to their success.

Business leaders are seeing the potential of employing people with disability as part of a workforce strategy to address a unique business need. In the end employers who do not employ people with disability are doing themselves a disservice, as a person with disability may be the best person for the job.

The Department will work with employers who put forward innovative ideas to employ more people with disability and we are also looking to publicly recognise employers who have demonstrated success in employing people with disability.

One idea I know will be welcomed by employers, is the development of a Service Charter between employers and DES providers, that sets out clearly and simply what employers can expect from DES providers.

Suzanne has discussed this with me on behalf of AND, and I am pleased there is agreement from DES providers peak organisations to take this on.

A Service Charter would be a good way to outline the services and standards employers can expect from DES providers. This will help improve the consistency and quality of services delivered by all DES providers and strengthen the partnership between employers and providers.

We need to raise awareness about the free and tailored expert support and advice available to employers to help employ people with disability – for example, through JobAccess, the National Disability Recruitment Coordinator and the Employment Assistance Fund.

I will be encouraging providers to promote these services to employers as well as people with disability.

This in turn, will help to promote best practice in employing people with disability across the community more broadly. Some of the larger employers I have met tell me they would rather recruit people with disability without help from a DES provider, but acknowledge their Human Resources team may need support and guidance internally to facilitate that.

The Department is also looking to develop online training modules, to build disability confidence for employers and employees, and to break down the misconceptions people hold around the abilities of people with disability.

The online training will be free to use and self-paced to meet the needs of busy employers, their employees and the public in general.

We are also looking at how we can work with employers to improve their understanding of the benefits of employing people with disability and to increase employers’ willingness to employ people with disability.

I will be maintaining an open dialogue with employers and representatives as key agents in addressing the supply side of disability employment.

I am also keen to foster recognition of employers who are good at employing people with disability and who have benefited from doing so. We need to promote champions as examples to others.

I mentioned JobAccess earlier. The JobAccess Service remains as the national key resource for workplace and employment information for people with disability, employers and service providers.

JobAccess includes the advice service and website, the Employment Assistance Fund (EAF) and the Employer Engagement Service, known commonly as the National Disability Recruitment Coordinator – or NDRC (everyone needs an acronym in their life).

Employers will still have access to JobAccess; the national hub for workplace and employment information for people with disability, employers and service providers.

The National Disability and Carer’s Advisory Council has also established a Working Group to focus on improving employment outcomes for people with disability and their carers. This working group is chaired by Sally Sinclair, CEO of the National Employment Services Association, and will look at how we can engage more effectively with employers to increase employment of people with disability; improve support for people with disability who are transitioning from education to work; improve employment opportunities in regional and remote locations; and of course regulatory reform. This is another of my key areas of focus.

At our last Council meeting we also spoke about the importance of raising awareness of the good news stories and promoting champions in this space. AND does a very good job of highlighting examples of best practice and I want to see more of this so we can promote them together.

While there is an abundance of good work and good will to improve employment opportunities for people with disability across Australia, we need to continue the discussion and we simply need to do better.

I know you will be working through many issues and challenges throughout your conference, and there will be further sessions on the DES Reforms with officers from my Department available to answer your questions.

I wish you every success for your conference, in fact, I look forward to hearing about some of the outcomes and I thank you for inviting me to speak today.

I thank you for your contribution to improving our rating as a country of much better employment of people with disability.