Speech by Senator the Hon Anne Ruston

Australian Council of Social Service National Conference


Thank you Cassandra.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting, and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

It is a pleasure to be here to address my first ACOSS Conference as Minister for Families and Social Services.

I acknowledge the strong advocacy of ACOSS and thank you for your ongoing input into the development of national social policy.

The Government and ACOSS both share a common goal which is to improve the lives of all Australians.

To achieve this goal we will require a sustained effort, innovative thinking and a strong economy.

Importantly, we must work together.

Social Services and the economy

Australia has one of the most comprehensive and targeted social security systems in the world.

Unlike many other countries it is non-contributory and it is not time limited.

Our tax and transfer system works to reduce income inequality.

It has assisted in Australia’s record 28 consecutive years of economic growth – a record unmatched by any other advanced economy.

But as the Prime Minister has said, economic growth is not an end in its own right.

We have to remember that our economy is about people.

A strong economy allows the Government to deliver better services. A strong economy is essential for creating opportunities and for creating jobs.

Since the Coalition came to office in 2013 job creation has been our core focus with more than 1.4 million jobs created in those years.

But we also recognise there are some Australians who are doing it tough.

Some families are struggling, especially those not in employment.

We know solutions to some of the very difficult problems that we face start with a strong economy and a Government that can afford to fund the services that Australians rely upon.

This year the Government is forecast to spend more than $180 billion – about one in every three dollars the Commonwealth spends – on our social security and welfare system.

It is therefore crucial that the system remains sustainable so that it is there to support future generations.

It is also crucial that we don’t saddle future generations with debt just as we as individuals would not leave our own children with debt.

That’s why we have worked so hard to bring the Budget back into surplus.

We know that the best way to improve someone’s circumstances is to find them employment so they can earn a wage to create a better future for themselves and their family.

The unemployment rate is currently 5.3 per cent. That’s below the 10-year average of 5.5 per cent.

We have also seen female employment and participation in the workforce at record highs.

As more people find employment we are seeing a fall in the number of working age Australians on welfare.

In fact, the proportion of working age Australians receiving income support payments is at the lowest level in 30 years.

The number of Australians relying on working age income support has reduced by 330,000 over the past five years.

Whilst the data I’ve outlined so far show a positive trend there is more to do.

We must be innovative about the design a welfare system to be targeted to those who need our help.

In order to do this we need to understand what works and what doesn’t.

We need to apply a critical focus to outcomes to ensure that taxpayer funds are spent in a responsible manner and that the people who need our help are the ones who getting it.

The Priority Investment Approach

Underpinning our way forward is the Priority Investment Approach.

This Approach uses actuarial analysis to look to the future.

The latest PIA modelling demonstrates a long-term trend of lower reliance on the welfare system.

In the year to June 2018, entries to the welfare system have decreased and exits from the system have increased compared to recent years.

Insights from the PIA have allowed us to build a better understanding of groups at most risk of long-term welfare dependency.

This allows us to be more targeted in our investment towards these groups to ensure they have the support they need to address barriers to finding and keeping employment.

By better understanding people’s pathways in and out of the welfare system, we can make sure we provide targeted support that is delivered in a way that helps build the skills and experience people at risk need to find work.

Try, Test and Learn

Our $96 million Try, Test and Learn Fund is an example of a new and innovative approach to support particular groups of people to gain meaningful employment.

The Fund takes an open and collaborative approach, recognising that the best ideas for addressing complex social problems may come from new partnerships between government and community groups, businesses and academia.

We have identified the priority groups at risk of long-term welfare dependence.

We have committed funding to 53 projects and are in the process of evaluating the results of the first tranche of the program.

Sonder project

One such program under the Try, Test and Learn Fund is being run in  Edinburgh North in my home state of South Australia.

The project, run by Sonder, is aimed at migrants and refugees who are at risk of long-term welfare dependence.

The latest Priority Investment Approach report reveals that once a refugee enters the welfare system during working age, almost one in four are still on payment after 10 years which is much higher than the one in seven of non-refugees who remain on income support over that same period of time.

Whilst it is too early to evaluate the Sonder project, as it only began delivering services in March of this year, the early signs are encouraging.

Participants receive culturally appropriate employment and education support from specialist career coaches who are integrated with a mental health service and trained in mental health first aid.  

About 190 people have entered the program and already it has helped 43 people find a job and 16 more have enrolled in education or training.

When I visited Sonder about a month ago I met a number of people in the program including an enthusiastic migrant Hasta who came to Australia from Bhutan about four years ago.

Hasta told me that he had been struggling to find employment – he didn’t know what a cover letter was or resume was – but since being connected with the program he learned how to put job applications together, prepare for interviews and his English has significantly improved.

He was so excited to tell me that week that he had secured work and was going to have his first shift the following week.

I am pleased to be able to report that Hasta has continued on in his employment and is now working Monday to Friday at a tomato glasshouse. He’s loving being employed.

It’s no surprise that the recent Productivity Commission draft report on mental health noted that the links between employment and mental health are particularly strong.

Working gives people a sense of identity and purpose, providing a sense of direction and personal achievement.

Individual Placement and Support Trial

The Commission also drew attention to another of our targeted employment initiatives, the Individual Placement and Support Trial and supported investigating a broader roll out of the program.

What makes the IPS model different is that each participant has an employment specialist who works alongside a mental health clinical team.

It means that employment and education outcomes are embedded into a coordinated plan.

Importantly, support is provided before, during and after a participant finds employment. This is truly a full wrap around service.

The IPS model was originally developed for adults but in 2015 the Government allocated funding to assess the effectiveness of the model for young people up to the age of 25 with mild to moderate mental illness.

This led to the IPS trial being launched in 14 headspace locations.

This year, we announced an extension of the trial for a further two years and allocated an additional funding to expand the program to 24 sites across the country.

The sites focus on high priority areas which include communities with high unemployment and socio-economic disadvantage.

In fact today I am releasing the findings a KPMG evaluation into the trial which shows positive results to date.

Of the 1558 trial participants, more than 40 per cent found employment or participated in education while a further 20 per cent continued to take part in the program.

The data showed that participants who entered the program who were on Newstart had highest level of employment success with almost 60% moving into a job.

Also pleasing was the fact that one in three young people on the program who were receiving the Disability Support Pension found a job.

Those participating in the Trial said several key elements made their experience with the trial positive.

Elements that were particularly valued include:

  • The time-unlimited support
  • The individualised and tailored support
  • And the fact that the program focused on their personal goals, interests and strengths

The evaluation report includes case studies.

One that stood out for me was about a 16-year-old young man who was not engaged in education or employment and had presented with challenges around mental health and substance use, as well as complex family issues.

With the support of a vocational specialist who provided encouragement to generate his motivation, a clinician, his family and an educator, he

completed two courses which enabled him to get a job as a kitchen hand in a local hotel.

His grandmother wrote to headspace to express her gratitude for the support offered and reported that her grandson had never missed a shift.

To quote her: “What a positive transformation, compared to 12 months ago. Family are proud and delighted. And relieved. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”


Over the last six months I’ve met many people who work in the social services sector, and I’ve been affected by their purpose and commitment to improving the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

My focus over the coming term of Government is to work towards getting the policy settings that structure our spending on social security and welfare right – to encourage participation, remove barriers to work, and focus on improving outcomes.

Clearly, there are Australians who are doing it tough.

To give people the best chance in life we need to help them to help themselves – to move into work if they are able to do so and to overcome the things that are holding them back.

We need to think very carefully about how we can encourage resilience and independence.

We want to give people the tools to overcome the challenges that life will inevitably throw up from time to time and to help them take ownership of their lives

The programs I have talked about today are the kinds of practical and individualised actions we need to address entrenched disadvantage.

These are programs that get to the root of problems and deal with people as unique individuals.

They take time. They take thought. But they are the key to ensuring that disadvantaged Australians have the opportunity to achieve their goals.

I wish you all the best for your conference.

I look forward to hearing its outcomes so we can work together to ensure have a well informed and outcomes focussed social security and welfare system into the future.