Speech by The Hon Bill Shorten MP

NDS Disability Employment Forum

Location: Brisbane Hilton, Brisbane


I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered, the Turrbal people, and pay my respects to Elders past and present.

Rob Styling, Tony Lund, Ken Baker, I’m hoping Milly Parker’s here, Ambassador, International Day of People with a Disability, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I have got a beautiful prepared speech, which much to the consternation of my speechwriters, I’ve re-written.

I don’t want to give you another politicians’ speech today. By that, some of you might be thinking ‘oh my goodness, he’s a Parl Sec, Bill Shorten, what’s he going to say which is actually relevant to us?’

As much as you want to hear a list of the accomplishments of the Rudd Government and they’re numerous, you can visit our many websites to find them out.

I really wanted to indicate to you today, that I’m really happy to be here with you. I actually consider it a privilege to be here with you.

Please remember this; for those of you who don’t know me, we share the same values. By that I think we that share the same ideal, the same hope, the same goal that people with impairment can receive equal treatment in our society. I think that’s the common thread of what’s happening here. And by us, I mean you, I mean me, I mean the employees, I mean the staff and all the volunteers, I also mean the customers.

There’s a whole group of people who are business services and people in disability services, and I think it’s important that we establish at the outset that I regard myself, albeit as a politician, serving in the same cause on the same team as you do. All I want is that people with an impairment and their families get an equal go. And I think that is the goal, sometimes we can make it a bit complex. That’s the goal I believe of business services, that’s the goal of what we do in disability.

I’d like to say about all of you, and it’s great I’m going to be presenting awards and that Her Excellency, the Governor of Queensland is going to present them, a bit of overdue recognition for disability and business services. I actually think, and I’ve met many of you and I’ve visited some of your services, in my experience people who work in business services are modest people, with one or two exceptions who I won’t embarrass, no there’s none I can think of – I won’t make eye contact with anyone.

I certainly know none of you are very well remunerated for what you do. You do work in tough conditions, and every morning you wake up – and that’s why it’s good to have a conference to share the stories of our efforts – every morning you wake up and you try and make the world a better place by the time you finish the day.

So in this talk that I’m going to give about future directions in terms of business services, from a Government perspective, I intend to also talk about future directions in disability generally. Part of what’s motivating me to be so pleased and, I have to say, relatively relaxed talking to you all, is that I respect the work you do.

I’ve been a Parliamentary Secretary for seven months, I do acknowledge that when I talk to you about business services that everyone of you in this room knows more about it, unless you haven’t been here longer than seven months. Based on time, all of you have a greater expertise, and I’m conscious of that and I hope you don’t find any of my remarks or observations too precocious, because I do respect the fact that you’ve been in this game, this very important work a lot longer than I have.

But I have to say, that in my old job as a representative of the Australian Workers’ Union for 14 years I thought I’d seen examples of disadvantage. But nothing can prepare you when you start to work in the field of disability, for the systematic second-class status which people with impairment receive in this country. I thought I’d seen unfairness, come and visit disability. And by that, I take nothing away from people with impairment, I take nothing away from their families and their partners, I take nothing away from what you do. But, and I believe the treatment that people with impairment receive is not malicious, with very few exceptions, but it’s certainly ignorant.

I was reading, to help give me a bit of motivation to talk to you today, the speech that Martin Luther King gave in Washington. He was writing 45 years ago about black civil rights but a lot of what he said, I think you can apply now in terms of disability in Australia. When you can’t catch a bus, when you can’t get on a train, when you can’t get on an aeroplane or you can’t go shopping, you can’t get a job, you can’t get an education, when you have to struggle to have a supported wage workplace, when you have to wonder what happens when you finish school, wonder what happens when you finish work, if you had to ask all those questions because of your gender, or because of your skin colour, then there’d be a massive reaction, and appropriately so.

But somewhere along the line when it comes to disability, in this nation of people who love the idea of the battler, and the underdog, we have learned to live – not that it’s people in this room but too many Australians and too many politicians of both political stripes – have learned to live with the notion that disability is too hard. And that’s something I want to return to before the end of my talk. You should not misconstrue me as not being a complete optimist. For those of you who know me in the room, I’m an optimist. But there’s no point pretending that things are good when they’re not. There’s no point pretending things are fair when they’re not. That takes nothing away from the marvellous accomplishments of what you’re doing, but Australian society as a whole could do much more.

You understand in this room that impairment is a fact of life. What disables is the attitudes to people with impairment. I honestly believe that it is Australian society that’s disabling people, and that impairment is something we can manage, work through and deal with. Discrimination against people, solely on the basis of their impairment, is so widespread, it seems to many Australians normal, natural and right. And, I think that what we need to do, and what business services is doing, is actually trying and change some attitudes and change some levels of treatment and discrimination. I mean, if some of you think I exaggerate, or if you think perhaps I’m being a bit negative, I’m really not. In this country, everyone’s supposed to be able to run for politics, to be a politician. But with a few exceptions, if you have a profound impairment, politics is not available to you, you just don’t get voted in and the mainstream parties don’t do enough to encourage candidates who are impaired. In this country everybody’s supposed to be above the poverty line, but for people with impairment, this is too often not true. In particular, an area most important to you, in this country everybody’s supposed to be able to find a job. But for many people with impairment, that is not really true too often either.

The last point is why we’re developing a National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy. We’ve released the discussion paper. In fact, Brendan O’Connor is speaking in the next room to the open employment crew and I know that you have your identity and they have theirs, but in the future I think it would be good to combine the two gatherings as well, because I think both are important strategies.

Brendan O’Connor and I have been consulting actively; 750 individuals, 380 organisations, and I attended nine of the consultations around Australia myself. We’re trying to look at what’s real, I think this is going to be different to what you’ve seen in the past: trying to coordinate between departments, even DEEWR and FAHCSIA! The whole-of-government approach, working with the states, it’s part of a broader National Disability Strategy which I’m happy to talk about with you later, a social inclusion agenda. This is a Government which talks about social inclusion as a priority.

I think that the barriers for people with disability are complex, and you understand the barriers, income support it’s not just one issue. Income support, fund-capped places, red tape, education, other supports – be it transport, buildings, the whole prism of, not second tier, but major issues which affect people. I think we’ve been grassroots and participative, and we’re interested in strong evidence-based solutions. But in all of that Strategy, business services, I believe fundamentally, are part of the outcome, they’re core to it.

I like business services. I had a mixed view of business services before I came into the portfolio. I thought, ‘oh well, these are places that don’t pay people a full wage, surely that can’t be right.’ But I have to say that when I’ve visited business services, and you actually learn and you visit and you talk to people both employees and staff, I do get that business services are an irreplaceable, fundamental, crucial part of a strategy to provide equal treatment to people with impairment in Australia. You have converted me to a full-on supporter of business services. To the point where I’ve visited 1000 workplaces in my old job, and I’ve been to many unhappy workplaces, but I have to say, 99 per cent of the business services I’ve been to are the happiest workplaces I’ve ever been to, and it’s real.

One of the things I find hard as a new politician is to be in Canberra 20 weeks of the year – it’s like mining camp but with nicer resources. So it is a really great day for me to meet people with disabilities, and I’m not putting this on. I realise that something bad happened to me in the last 15 years: I’m not an office person, I’d much rather be out and about. So it’s always a good day for me to visit a business service. And really what I want to do is take as many Members of Parliament, as many employers and union reps as I can to visit business services, because the right of people, no matter what their impairment to have a social relationship, to have friends, to have some validation through work in fundamental, and that’s what you provide 20,000 people every day which is just fantastic.

Now I do think, I know you understand these points again, and I put the precocious warning light on for what I’m about to say. I get that the values of business services are about compassion, there’s a huge social element it’s what drives it. But also, business services try to produce with competitive cost and with quality, so it has a business focus, and a fundamental social enterprise focus. I don’t want to get caught up in terms but that’s the value proposition of business services; good quality, cost effective and people with disability are getting opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise get.

But I do see some issues down the track. If we accept the picture that people with disability are treated as second class Australians unfairly, I see business services as an important response to all of that. And our Departmental people are working very hard, from Christine Bruce to Anthony Bartolo work very hard with you to try and get it right. I know you’ve gone through some change underneath the previous Government to case-based funding and what does it all mean?

Well I see four or five issues that I’ve noticed as a fresh pair of eyes. One is the issue of wages, and before anyone gets ‘toey’ about one issue let me run through all five. One is wages: I think business services will still struggle with their identity whilst wages are so low – it’s just a fact, don’t shoot the messenger and I think we all know it’s true. But I do understand that in order to pay people, you have to have money coming in. And I’m not proposing that the Feds make it up to the minimum wage. So understand that there’s a challenge there and a conundrum which I’m going to come to.

I also think that having 32 different wage assessment tools – too many. Now I know they all work uniquely for your business and they’ve been designed over many years and if I just took the time to understand exactly how it’s done then I’d be captured by the magic of it. Ok that point’s been made. I do know one thing when you’re ahead just shut up move on to the next point.

Staff, I’m amazed by the staff as well, I’m amazed by you people, but we have to do something about lifting the wages of staff in business services too. It’s true. All of you people in this room regardless of your particular position and organisation – for those of you who heard this the other week I’m sorry to repeat it but I’m going to keep repeating it until I’m 85 – in Australia we pay people for their physical labour, and we pay people for their mental labour, perhaps not in the proportion it should be paid. But there’s a whole missing link which is emotional labour, and that’s what you contribute. I was at Orana last week launching their new premises and a chap comes up and he’s a leading hand, a supervisor, and it’s the happiest job he’s had. He doesn’t get the same amount of money but what I do get about his work, and the work of many of you, and the work of many of your staff not here, is; you’re not allowed to have a bad day, because your employees, they’re so intuitively connected to you on so many levels, that if you’re unhappy, they’re disturbed and that’s the last thing in the world you’re trying to create. You to have a permanent grin, then you have to fill in all our Federal Government reports – sorry about that. But I say the bigger problem is the whole lack of value and recognition of emotional labour.

The other thing is we have to do more about superannuation and savings somewhere along the line in the business services field. I think there’s more we can do there too. Retirement income is such a nightmare. And for our group of people that we’re looking after and working with, be it staff and employees, we have to give them more of a sense of a career, a sense of a plan.

So they’re the issues I see around wages. Let me come to what I see as the next issue, it’s about being business-like. Now I’m not going to stand here and say you should all merge okay, so for those beautiful regional operations I’m not saying that – read my lips, not saying forced mergers. But having said the nice, easy thing to say, more’s got to give in terms of professionalisation of business services. Now that can mean, the devil’s always in the detail of that, but I do think that we need to- we want to do a branding exercise and the more advanced business services are doing their own branding exercises.

I do think that we need to work on how we become more business-like and I know my former colleague Sharan Burrow was talking about helping work with business management.

But I do think that there’s plenty of opportunities. Many business services were formed out of families, group of families getting together. They’re legitimately concerned about what happens to their children with impairment once they become adults, and some have gone on to be pretty professional but others creak along. The question is; what do we do to sustain a viable business service industry? And the problem is that even some of these smaller, creakier operations are in parts of Australia frankly, where if they weren’t there nothing would be there. So I get that, I’m not being judgemental. My union when I took it over in 1997, we were nearly insolvent. It’s not good enough just to care, we’ve got to care and also be more effective at how we care and that’s what people want to hear.

Which leads me to a third element which I see as an issue in terms of business services, and a priority, is procurement. I’ve contacted Lindsay Tanner, Minister for Finance and I got a good letter back from him saying they’re happy to look at greater efforts of procurement at the Federal Government level. Now again, devil’s in the detail but you should be aware that I’m leading a debate in the Government, you know no point me asking you to lift wages, pay staff better, no point in me talking about you becoming more business-like, if you’re not getting customers in the door. The Federal Government is one of the largest procurers of services in the nation, so we have to do a lot better across Government at utilising your services. So I’m just saying, we’ve started the debate, the finance Minister’s written back to me saying fair enough this seems to be a legitimate issue for us to pursue across Government. Early days yet but the signs are all positive.

Also the private sector, the people not in this room, should be doing more to use your services. I’ve written to 40 or 50 companies, 20 of them I’ve now met with, and I’m talking about National Australia Bank, I’m talking about ANZ, I’m talking about big companies, some of whom you might have relationships with at regional levels, and some of you might have done some work with. But my view is that the private sector, you as a group can meet the challenges of cost and quality, I’ve seen you do it every day. I think that the added benefit of giving organisations who actively employee people with disabilities an opportunity, to me it’s a fantastic proposition. So I’m meeting with captains of industry every day, I’m meeting with Suncorp this afternoon and I met with the Suzanne Group last week. I guess what I’m saying is I’m going to be hard, it’s a rising tide that lifts all boats, and I accept that if you have more work coming in, then there’s more you can do to tackle some of those earlier issues I mentioned. What we need in all of this is new allies. The CEOs of Australia, from the Business Council to the Australian Industry Group, they need to get out on the shop floor and see what happens. You cannot fail to be moved when you look at the joy and pleasure you bring to people every day you get up to do the work you do.

I’m aware that red tape is an issue. Now I don’t have any magical solution because there should be quality standards, but a couple of things which are definitely happening and I’m pleased to announce, it sounds like my colleague is announcing it next door as well. For business services, one of the challenges has been pathways to open employment. Now, how viable it is for many of your employees, I don’t know. But it would appear to be that not having an ability to keep a business place open is a disincentive. It’s a big thing if you’ve worked in supported wage work to go into open employment, so we are changing the policy to make it two years where the space is kept open. So if you have people, then they’ll be able to at least try open employment for up to two years, which I think’s a good development.

The other development which we’re doing is that one of the issues has been that people on the Disability Support Pension that when they have to do a Job Capacity Assessment, to see if they’re able to go and work which is fine, it’s also been used to evaluate people’s pensions down if the level of impairment’s not found to be what it was, we’re scrapping that second part for people who are seeking to go into work.

Disability Employment Networks are doing their work, and they’ll be reviewed in the next eight months. I’m also conscious that we need to do better linkages, pre-vocational training for people whose option may well be business services. So we need to connect up a lot more with the secondary system and talking to the state education departments to explain to people what business services is, getting people used to that and I tell you a lot of parents would be keen to see that done better.

You know friends, they’re some of the nuts and bolts issues I see with business services. We’re part of a National Disability Strategy, we’ll get that going asap, we want to hopefully have some ideas up in time for the next Budget.

Two other tough issues I see is the ageing in place challenge. Your supported workforce is ageing, it’s harsh to necessarily remove people from that, from where their friends are. On the other hand accommodation and ageing in place are expensive propositions. I don’t have an answer on that, I’m very keen to see what you’re saying but we do get that it’s a huge issue. It’s great that we’re living longer but we need to then catch up to the fact that we’re living longer. People have a right to retire. People do age more prematurely depending on the form of their impairment so it’s an issue which we’ve identified, and I don’t pretend that we’ve got any short term solutions, but I see that as a compelling priority for us to look at, both vocational entry in and pathways out into open employment but also what happens when you age in place and what are the strategies. I do know the stories of people in their 70s who are there. So they’re some of the issues we see, we want to equalise the mobility allowance, that hasn’t been finalised yet. But the idea that you get 100 dollars if you have an impairment in open employment, which is still arguably not going to meet all the taxi bills is it, but the fact that it’s less in business services, the mobility allowance, well it’s not as if anyone gives you a discount to where you are going.

We see them as serious issues. But I have to say that they’re some of the issues; professionalisation, procurement, red tape, making sure the income support rules are not unfair, making sure we do a lot more to promote business services, but that again is what you do, and what you are in the front line of, that’s what you do. But returning to the greater narrative if you don’t mind me saying about disability generally, is that my talk to you today is really one, in my opinion, about hope. I think you all must be like me to do what you do; persistent and consistent optimists. You believe that things can get better. I mean it’s yourselves, and we should let us who care and who strive and commit and who constantly hope, we should commit in an ongoing fashion to business services and to national disability services.

We should always be asserting ourselves. We should always be positive. And I actually think we should constantly strengthen our cause by admitting no doubt about the justice of what we do. We in this room are on the side of the angels. What we are doing is the right thing to do. What we are doing is trying to correct the wrong which is systemic in our society. Sometimes it can be easier, I suspect, to be pessimistic, to be overwhelmed, to be cynical and frustrated when you look at the unfairness, and the paper filling out, and the under-funding, and indeed, the sheer ignorance of the community at large about what can be done. But if you allow me to appropriate and translate returning to where I started. It was 45 years ago that arguably one of the greatest civil rights activists in the world in the 20th century, Martin Luther King spoke in Washington about the unfairness of treatment to the African Americans and have a look and download what he said, and there’s a fair bit. I mean he was talking about black Americans then but I tell you the more a scratch the surface of disability, you see the parallels. It is time for the disability movement to receive the sort of mainstream attention that some of the other strong movements have received. That takes nothing away from the accomplishments up to this point.

We did ratify the UN Convention last week which is great. The Howard Government hadn’t got around to doing that. We ratified the Convention in New York last Thursday night about rights of people with disabilities. The time is right. My view of politics is pretty straightforward. It’s a ‘but for’ test. What I mean by the ‘but for’ is: ‘but for what you do, would this have happened?’ See I actually think in your industry, but for what you do, things wouldn’t happen. That’s why I’m respectful of you, but for what you do would this have happened. In politics I ask myself in disability, but for what we do, would something happen? And I happen to believe that, but for us making disability a mainstream political issue, things won’t happen because not enough has happened. But looking at what Dr King said, he did say we’ve come here to discuss a shameful condition. Well I think the treatment of people with impairment in Australia is shameful. He said we’ve come to claim an unfulfilled promise. Now I think in Australia our Constitution, our courts, our Parliaments, our laws, they’re all about guaranteeing that people will be treated equally, and being treated equally means you get resourced. I think that if you are an Australian, you have an inalienable right to good health, to an education, to reasonable income support, to finding a job; these are things which people, as Australians, should get. Just because you have impairment is not a sufficient cause to deny you access to these things. I actually think that as a society, we have defaulted on this guarantee in so far as people with impairment are concerned. What we’re told when we seek in disability equal treatment, is it’s too hard, it’s always crisis, there can never be enough money. Well as others in past in other causes have said. I don’t believe the vaults of our nation are poor and empty. It’s not too hard to demand resources. It’s not too hard for business services to demand the resources which you need to provide the fundamentally important and meritorious tasks which you complete. As Dr King went on and he has made this since, and this is the idea which I really wanted to conclude on today.

I like business services and I hope you picked some of that up. I think there are vital challenges, important challenges. At the end of the day, how you will stop chasing your tail in disability, how you will stop the constant hand-to-mouth and band aid, is when we don’t accept the argument that the feminist movement didn’t accept in the past, that the civil rights movement in America didn’t accept, and it’s now our turn and ‘but for’ us not to accept. When people say, ‘what will satisfy you?’, ‘what is enough?’, ‘what is enough for business services?’ My observation and what I believe this Government is committed to and I certain am, is we should never be satisfied in disability until we get equal treatment. That’s the plan. Thank you.