Address to the National Disability Services Conference 2010
Riding the Waves of Change
“Australian Disability Enterprises under a Coalition Government”
Hilton on the Park, Melbourne
Monday, 6 September 2010
Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know about you but the last two weeks have felt like Ground Hog Day. Every day feels like the day after the election. We’ve been in the political Twilight Zone. And the opening monologue of that 1950’s television show sums up pretty well the journey we’ve been on since Election Day,
“You’re entering another dimension a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. The land of the different, the bizarre, the unexplainable. You’ve just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.”
Or there’s a short hand description of the current predicament courtesy of Simon and Garfunkel,
“Slip sliding away, slip sliding away. You know the nearer your destination, the more you slip sliding away.”
I’ll say no more. Such is the glory and majesty of our parliamentary democracy. It may be inelegant, but it still beats the alternatives. Watch this space.
Apart from an interesting post-election period. We have had, from the point of view of disability policy, an interesting and unique pre-election period. It was unique because disability got a look in. It was unique because the leaders of both major parties personally released substantive disability policy. But disability was also unique in that it was a policy area where there were areas of significant agreement between the parties. All parties agree the current system of support for Australians with a disability is a frayed patchwork. All agree that there is a need for better long term care and support. All agree that we need to get away from Soviet-style rationing. All agree on moving to a system based on need rather than how a disability was acquired. All agree the individual should be at the centre and in control.
And all parties are united in a commitment to carefully examine the Productivity Commission’s work on a National Disability Insurance Scheme. On the NDIS Tony Abbott has said,
“There are millions of Australians who are involved with this, not because they necessarily have a disability themselves, but because their loved ones do and they are rightly very interested in the outcome of this Productivity Commission inquiry and we won’t let them down.”
But the credit for this new Federal focus on disability shouldn’t go to the political parties. The credit for the national focus on disability should go to the sector itself who have been speaking with one voice. Over the last couple of years we have witnessed a pretty remarkable, grass roots, bottom up movement. And credit to NDS for its role. So, on the whole, it has been a good election for disability. And whoever forms government, there’s cause for some optimism for better days if you’re an Australian with disability.
And while we all look forward to the Productivity Commission report bearing fruit, in the meantime, none of us in public life should use the impending NDIS report as an excuse not to do whatever we can to improve the system in the interim. One of those areas is disability employment and ADE’s.
I think everyone who supports and works in ADE’s does so because they believe in the innate dignity in work. It gives us value. It gives us confidence. It gives us esteem.
ADE’s are part of this portfolio that I most enjoy and feel quite strongly about. Because every person that can work and wants to work should have the opportunity to do so. I congratulate everyone here today for making that possible for many thousands of Australians.
Great strides have been made in moving Australia’s supported employment sector away from a welfare based model to a business model. The old sheltered workshop is a thing of the past. But while a business model is good for the enterprise and good for the employees, government should never lose sight of the fact that these are extremely important and unique enterprises with a very special role. They provide more than jobs. They are more than businesses. They provide a social environment for employees and they make a massive contribution to the welfare and health of families. This always needs to be in the mind of government.
But there are challenges. While supported employment has almost doubled over the last 20 years (from around 10,000 in 1989 to almost 19,000 in 2010), demand still outstrips supply. And as Australia’s population grows and ages, the demand will increase. Labour force participation rates for people with disabilities still remain markedly lower than people without disabilities. The job of the next government must be to lift participation rates and ensure everyone that wants to work has the opportunity to do so.
Government funding is crucial to maintaining and increasing supported employment. And I know earlier this year as 30 June and the expiry of the 2007 agreement approached it was a difficult time for ADE’s. As with most businesses, ADEs felt the effects of the tough economic climate and were running tight budgets. And there was an understandable expectation that government funding would increase after the agreement expired. The funding freeze announced as part of the budget was a surprise. The ADE’s request was indeed modest – something that was driven home to me at the ADE Expo in Canberra. The timing of the Expo was fortuitous. It occurred during Senate Estimates hearings. So I was able to lobby the Government at estimates. But I had a secret weapon. I tabled some of Bedford Industries Fruit Chocks, as inducements for ministers and officials to favourably consider NDS’s request. Thankfully that decision was reconsidered, but only after a strong campaign from ADE’s and NDS.
During this time the government released a discussion paper to develop a new ten year vision for supported employment. The paper is seeking views on issues such as work environments, wages, choice, more flexibility, a more “person-centred” approach, better practice models. I know the issues vary from ADE to ADE. Some want more supported positions. Some more support per employee. All want less red tape. More flexibility. And some want consideration of capital contributions. I look forward to reading the submissions and if the Coalition forms government, we won’t waste the opportunity to develop a new vision for ADEs. We also look forward to seeing the results of the 12 month red tape reduction trial that the government also proposed for ADEs in June this year.
Coalition policy on ADEs
But there are a number of practical things I would like to do immediately to assist ADE’s if the coalition forms government and I am fortunate enough to retain this portfolio.
The Commonwealth Government should lead by example in procuring goods and services from ADEs. And we would all agree that the changes to the Department of Finance procurement guidelines to provide a tender exemption for Commonwealth departments and agencies that purchase goods or services from an ADE was a welcome one. I was surprised, however, when I asked in Senate estimates about the take up of this exemption. Surprised to be advised that Finance does not monitor its use. If we don’t know the uptake, we don’t know if the exemption is a success. And we don’t know which departments to praise, which departments to encourage and which are untapped markets. So the first thing we will do is ensure that Finance formally monitors and reports each year on the use of the tender exemption by Commonwealth agencies.
The Coalition will also appoint an “ADE Advocate” to work within government to highlight the opportunities for using ADE services. The ADE Advocate will be a retired senior military officer with a logistics background. The ADE Advocate will also be tasked with examining procurement processes to recommend further reforms that will assist ADEs to secure government business. The ADE Advocate will also serve as a voice more broadly for ADE’s both within government and within the private sector. The ADE Advocate will also be assisted by unpaid portfolio-specific champions who will promote the use of ADEs in both the government and private sectors.
In addition, as you know National Disability Services currently has a Commonwealth funded ADE purchasing officer to assist ADE’s liaise with government. Funding for this position expires at the end of 2010, and if the Coalition forms government, we will extend this for two years as part of the ADE Advocate programme.
We want to use the purchasing power of government and to lead the private sector by example to use ADE’s. And we want to use the ADE Advocate to raise the profile of ADE’s in both the public and private sectors. It’s not expensive, but it could make a real difference. And we would look to consult closely with NDS and ADE’s about how to make these mechanisms best work.
Many Australians with disability who work in supported employment are willing and able to move into roles in the open workforce. The Coalition believes that those who wish to attempt this transition deserve strong support.
Unfortunately, many people with disability are reluctant to attempt this transition for fear of losing their supported employment place and therefore being unable to return should their experience with the open workforce be unsuccessful.
This barrier needs to be addressed so that more people with disability can feel confident challenging themselves by having a go in the open workforce. A Coalition Government will ensure that this transition issue will be a key focus of the recently announced discussion paper and review process to develop a new ten-year vision for ADEs.
Other Coalition policies
In addition to these policies, the Coalition also made a number of other commitments in the area of disabilities during the election which I will touch on briefly.
The Coalition has committed to a new Education Card for students with disability worth up to $20,000 per year.
o The entitlement will follow the student. It will be indexed to inflation and will be paid in addition to existing support
o The Education Card will introduce portability of funding for students with a disability so that parents have real choice when it comes to selecting a school for their child
o This would further enshrine the principle that the individual should be at the centre of and in charge of the support they receive
The Coalition has also committed to increasing the Education Tax Rebate.
o Under the Coalition, parents for the first time will be able to claim for education costs for children with a disability
o Upto $500 per year per primary school child and upto $1,000 per year per secondary student
We will appoint a Commonwealth Disability and Carer Ombudsman
o The Ombudsman will serve as an independent voice and policy activist within government
o The Ombudsman will independently investigate complaints, resolve issues with Commonwealth departments and agencies and will also undertake references from government
o One of the first two references given to the Ombudsman will be a comprehensive audit of Australia’s supported accommodation, identifying gaps in both capital and recurrent funding
o Another reference will be a nationwide audit of the need for special schools that cater for students with particular disabilities
o The work of these audits will be considered alongside the Productivity Commission’s work on the NDIS
Need for a Strong economy
But in order to achieve these modest commitments we need to maintain a strong economy and for government to live within its means. This is even more important if we are to meet unmet demand and to sustain the big structural changes we hope to see in the sector.
We shouldn’t see good social policy and good economic policy as alternatives. They are two sides on the one coin. People who work in ADE’s appreciate this more than most. That you need a good economic policy to afford a good social policy.
And there is always an opportunity cost with bad economic policy:
Exhibit ‘A’ – the $16.2 billion spent on school halls.
Exhibit ‘B’ the $2 billion spent of roof insulation.
We all know what just a fraction of that money could have achieved in the area of disability. Now that waste occurred without the Greens being in government. I’ve got to admit the prospect of a government in alliance with the Greens does trouble me. I do worry. I worry because a government that wastes money, runs budget deficits and racks up debt is a government that ultimately compromises its ability to improve disability services. Don’t get me wrong, all governments have spent money on things they shouldn’t have. But the current administration does have form. And the Greens are a risk factor.
But having said that, let me acknowledge that while the current and the previous governments both did some good things in the area of disability – no government, state or federal, has covered itself in glory. Governments of all persuasions need to do better for Australians with disability. Not for political benefit. Not to silence the advocates. But because decent support for Australians with disability should be core government business.
When I took on the disability portfolio eighteen months ago, it came with a surprise. I had been operating on the assumption that because Australia is a wealthy, advanced Western economy people who have a disability get the support they need. I was wrong. But I think I shared the operating assumption of most Australians. And it’s a reasonable, if mistaken, assumption from the point of view of a taxpayer. You pay your taxes and you assume government does its job. Well, it’s time for government to better do its job with the taxes it collects. NDS deserves great credit for the light is has shone on this. And for raising the profile of disability.
If the Coalition does form government I look forward to working with you to better support ADE’s. And if we don’t form government, I look forward to working with you to better support ADE’s. There is much to do in this portfolio and I hope to have the opportunity to join with you to do some good things.