Release type: Speech


Policy Directions in Open Employment

National Disability Services (NDS) Employment Forum, Hilton Hotel Brisbane,11.00 am Monday, 21 July 2008

I would like to acknowledge and pay my respects to the Turrbal people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today. I would also like to acknowledge:

  • Dr Ken Baker, Chief Executive, NDS
  • Tony Lund, President, NDS
  • Jason McKey, Vice President, NDS and
  • other distinguished guests here today.

It is a great pleasure to be here today, at the 2008 National Disability Services Employment Forum and to be a part of your discussions about the:principles, practice and the pitfalls in between.

It is very encouraging to see so many people come together through a shared commitment to achieving the best employment outcomes for people with disability.

The Australian Government is pursuing a number of policy directions which will assist you in your important work of helping people with disability to find and keep work. I will outline some of these in the context of employment services.

But before I do that, I’d like to mention that last week the Australian Government took a further significant step towards the inclusion of Australians who are disadvantaged by ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities - a great milestone for us as a nation. I am indeed proud to be standing here as a representative of the relatively new Rudd Government.

Social inclusion
I’m proud, because addressing the rights of people with a disability is a vital step towards overcoming disadvantage, which is fundamental to the Government’s social inclusion agenda. But in the area of employing people with disability, there is a lot more we can do as Australia is currently ranked 13th out of 19 countries by the OECD on employing people with disabilities, and we are at the bottom of a list of 16 OECD countries when it comes to employing people who receive disability benefits. I see my portfolio, Employment Participation, as a key area where the Australian Government’s social and economic agendas meet.

Situation today
As many of you here today will already know, in order to preserve as well as grow our nation’s prosperity, we need to boost our productivity — and that means, among other things, increasing the number of people in our workforce. Australia has nearly 2 million people receiving income support payments, including more than 700 000 people receiving the Disability Support Pension. Given the skills crisis we face today, and the impact that our ageing population is expected to have on labour and skill shortages in the future, we need to explore every opportunity to maximise our human capital.

We recognise that lifting participation rates beyond their current levels will reduce inflationary pressures in the economy and maintain economic growth rates. As many of you would be aware boosting employment participation is one of the points in the Government’s five-point plan to fight inflation.

You know that people with disability and/or mental illness have an enormous amount to contribute to society. Increasing the engagement in the workforce and community life of people with disability and/or mental illness benefits the individuals concerned, their families and the wider community.

Being employed can provide a sense of personal fulfilment and economic independence that enhances an individual’s belonging to society.

And having an effective employment services system is fundamental to our capacity to do this. It is therefore important for us to consider what progress we are making in enabling greater employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Just over a decade ago in 1997, the unemployment rate was 8.2 per cent and and around 750,000 persons were classified by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as unemployed. At that time back in 1997 there were about 525,000 recipients of Disability Support Pension.

Since then unemployment has fallen to around 4.3 percent – primarily of the back of the commodities boom – while the number of unemployed people stands at 471,400 , but the number of recipients of the DSP has grown by 35% to just over 700,000.

And, if we compare ourselves to other similar economies in the world, we can see the challenges that face us:

  • Along with our relatively low OECD ranking for employment of people with disability, the OECD noted that the employment rate for people with disability is particularly disappointing given the growth of the Australian economy over recent years.
  • The OECD also pointed out that Australia’s rate of employment of people with disability is declining, while the employment rate of people with disability in other countries is increasing.

We know that people with disability have a lot to offer the Australian economy, but the challenge for us all to is to educate employers, many of whom – rightly or wrongly – have misconceptions about the employment of people with disability, the main ones being that people with disability present a risk to health and safety or that they are less productive than other workers

The reality, of course, is quite different.

  • on average, people with disabilities have a lower number of OHS incidents and have lower workers’ compensation costs, compared to other employees;
  • they have lower costs in terms of recruitment and training of new staff along with increased staff stability;
  • on average, they have lower absenteeism and higher retention rates than employees without disability; and
  • job retention rates of five years or more (as well as average job tenure) are higher for people with disability.

National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy
One of the ways that we are addressing this situation is through the National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy.

Parliamentary Secretary Shorten and I announced the development of the Strategy in February this year. The Australian Government recognises the need for an overarching strategy that identifies why people with disability are underrepresented in Australia’s labour market and identifies ways to improve employment outcomes.

The strategy will take a coordinated, national approach to removing the barriers faced by people with disability and/or mental illness in finding and keeping work.

In developing the strategy, Parliamentary Secretary Shorten and I have held consultation sessions around Australia. We have been to all the capital cities and a number of regional cities including Geelong, Launceston, Cairns, Mackay and Newcastle.

There were over 700 attendees at these sessions including people with disability and/or mental illness, peak bodies, employers, service providers and other experts. It has been very useful for us to hear directly from stakeholders.

In addition to the consultation sessions, we have received over 300 written submissions. The submissions support what we heard in the consultation sessions.

Some key points raised include the need for:

  • better support for employers, particularly small businesses, through service provision that is ongoing, simple and easy to access.
  • employment services to be able to support the range of different pathways to employment, including school transition, work experience, casual work and business services.
  • ongoing support for people who find employment to help them develop a meaningful and ongoing career.
  • reducing the burden of administration and compliance to enable providers to focus on service delivery.

These and many more practical suggestions will continue to inform the strategy’s development as we work to finalise it later this year.

We have established an advisory committee of key individuals and organisations, including your Chief Executive, Dr Ken Baker, to help us in our work. I look forward to continuing our dialogue with the disability sector over coming months.

Review of disability employment services
We are also determined to improve the delivery of employment services to people with disability and/or mental illness.

As you know, we made an election commitment to review and reform employment services, and that is precisely what we are doing.

We are approaching the task keen to listen and learn from people and organisations that deliver services and understand the needs of clients with disability.

Many of you have already provided valuable feedback on the challenges for our employment services and I thank you for your input.

We have extended the DEN and VRS contracts until the end of February 2010 to allow us to incorporate the findings of the National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy into my review of these services.

I will also consult further with the disability sector to make sure we get the best possible services in place to help people with disability find employment.

I will be talking with peak bodies, like NDS, about the principles that should underpin the review.

During August, I will release a discussion paper and call for further input to the review of disability employment services. This will be accompanied by consultation sessions around the country. I encourage all of you to participate in the consultation process.

Making it easier for people on DSP to get in to work
An issue raised continually by the sector, including NDS since I have become the Minister, is the disincentive for DSP recipients to volunteer to look for work.

My colleague Joe Ludwig, the Minister for Human Services, when completing his review of the Job Capacity Assessment was confronted with the same concerns. When Joe, Bill Shorten and I discussed the matter it was clear that we had reached the same conclusion – we needed to act.

The Australian Government wants to encourage and support people on the DSP to participate in the workforce to the best of their capacity.

As you know, currently, people receiving DSP who volunteer for employment assistance, are required to have a Job Capacity Assessment to help them access an employment service. This means their entitlement to DSP is reviewed at the same time they are connected to an employment service.

The review of a person's income support is a disincentive for people to volunteer for employment assistance. I am very pleased to announce today, that from September, people on DSP volunteering for help to find work will no longer have to worry about losing their DSP.

The Australian Government is introducing a new ‘service referral’ Job Capacity Assessment for people receiving DSP, who want to look for work.

This new Job Capacity Assessment will only collect information required for determining the most appropriate service for the job seeker. It will not collect information for determining income support and will not review the person’s pension entitlement.

The change will take effect on September 8th this year to enable new systems to be in place.

This policy change creates opportunities for people on DSP to get in to work and increases the availability of labour to employers.

Job seekers will benefit in terms of economic independence resulting from employment and social inclusion through greater connection to the community.

  • Employers will benefit in terms of additional sources of labour to address labour and skill shortages.

The economy will benefit from lifting participation rates beyond their current levels as this will reduce inflationary pressures in the economy and maintain economic growth rates as noted in the Government’s five point plan.

As you have heard, the Government is addressing problems confronting disability in a number of ways. We recognise the unique characteristics of the Disability Employment Network and will continue to seek your input as we move forward with our policy development.

As the responsible Minister, I believe this area of public policy has been neglected for too long. I am conscious of the significant challenges that lay ahead of us but my resolve to create better opportunities for people with disability has been emboldened by the passion and conviction of people I have had the privilege to meet during the Strategy’s consultations.

We have some great challenges ahead, some that can be successfully addressed sooner rather than later while others will need more effort and more time. What is critical is that we determine our direction and set forth with purpose step by step. Today’s announcement was one deliberate step on this important journey.

Thank you.