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Monday, 11 August 2003
Page: 18023

Mr BARRESI (6:52 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak about one of the more emotive and concerning issues confronting any just, tolerant and compassionate society—that is, the issue of disability services and in particular the employment of disabled persons. There are many faces of this issue. The most important faces, however, are those of the disabled people searching to make a constructive contribution to society. This has been achieved time and time again through the various disability employment programs offered by a number of very worthy business services employers. One such organisation is Nadrasca, based in Nunawading in my electorate. I pay tribute tonight to Nadrasca and its general manager, Frank Harris, for the work it does in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne and more particularly its contribution to the debate on disability services in Australia through its membership of ACROD and other organisations.

The emotion of this topic has run high for quite some time and was evident over the weekend at Kew, in Melbourne's inner east, where a group of concerned parents, residents, family and friends stood in the parklands adjacent to Kew Cottages disabled care facility, which has been earmarked for private sale by the state government. One of the emotions that struck me particularly was the apparent misunderstanding of the plight of many disabled people. The misconception that because you are disabled you are now a burden to society is totally offensive and downright wrong. This is a group of people who crave as much as able-bodied Australians to be given every consideration to help them make a meaningful contribution to society. The alternative belief is damaging to a widely caring, compassionate society intent on breaking down barriers to discrimination.

I would like to draw on some of the key initiatives of the government in this area and reinforce the importance of providing real and tangible opportunities to disabled Australians. Furthermore, I would like to propose for inclusion in the debate on possible government responses to the challenges posed by an ageing disability population the US model known as the Javits-Wagner-O'Day program or JWOD—but more on that a little later on.

This year in the 2003-04 budget which was brought down by the Treasurer we saw in the area of disability services the introduction of a case based funding model. This model will be introduced for all disability employment services from 1 January 2005. Funding for disability employment assistance will increase by $135 million over four years with the implementation of this model. Disability business services' reaction to the government's case based funding model has been positive. They welcome the new employment places as an initiative that is well overdue. They recognise that case based funding will provide a fairer funding system providing equity for all.

Nadrasca have consistently had an average of 10 persons on their waiting list. They have now been successful in receiving funding to take on an additional five persons. Unfortunately the capacity to take on additional persons is principally limited by the business capacity to have sufficient work for increased numbers. The Javits-Wagner-O'Day program could ease the pressure felt by many of these business services organisations.

As part of the government's response to the pressures, I understand the minister has called for a business services review, which I understand—although I am not totally certain—is being carried out under the auspices of Mr Nobby Clark. This review has adequately described the difficulty business services are currently being confronted with in the marketplace. The last 12 months have been the worst business activity period that businesses such as Nadrasca have seen in a decade. One of the outcomes has been the need for a thorough review of actual costs of running business services—the unseen costs of employing persons with a disability.

If it is not too late I would like to suggest that the chairman of the business services review go back through the departmental records and have a look at a report brought by a scoping task force which I headed up back in 1998. The scoping task force was called by the then Minister for Family Services, the Hon. Warwick Smith. The report was presented to the minister in the closing days of the 1998 election. Unfortunately for the government and for members of the task force—individuals such as Ian Spicer, Mike Sumner from ACROD, and the general manager of Nadrasca, which is in my electorate—the minister lost his seat in the 1998 elections and the momentum for change was lost with it. I have raised the matter with successors to the minister and I intend to bring it to the attention of the current Minister for Family and Community Services.

In the short time I have available I would like to give a very brief synopsis of the JWOD program, and the study that we conducted back in 1998 which is as relevant today as it was then. Certainly I know there are many in the sector who believe the need for action on an activity of this nature to assist disability employment activities would be very timely. Our report examined the feasibility of increasing employment opportunities for people with severe disabilities by streaming a percentage of government purchasing contracts to disability business services, as is done under federal legislation in the United States.

The US JWOD program was introduced in 1938-39 for those who had blind disabilities and extended in 1971 to those who were considered to be severely handicapped. It is also known as a President's committee and reports directly to the President of the United States. I had an opportunity back in 1999 to visit the JWOD offices in Washington DC to get a first-hand appraisal of the program. The program requires government departments and agencies to purchase selected goods and services such as office supplies, janitorial and mailing services, gardening services and industrial products from non-profit organisations employing people with severe disabilities. This provides employment and training opportunities and also prepares many people with severe disabilities for jobs in the open labour market.

The purpose of our review was to assess the benefits and the costs of the program that was taking place in the United States and to assess its applicability in the Australian context. Of particular importance, in Australia we were looking at the opportunities for employment of people with severe disability, and their need for support. We also looked at the social policy framework, which promotes work rather than welfare; the current policies of government—and I am referring here to state governments as well as local governments—in relation to their purchasing of goods and services; the legislative framework of the Trade Practices Act and whether or not there are any legislative hindrances to introducing a model of this type under the TPA. Also, we looked at the extent of alignment between government purchasing requirements and the supply capacities of disability business services.

This program was not based on the government welfare handout mentality that is often attributed to programs of set-aside purchasing models. The organisations that fall under the JWOD system in the United States still have to meet very strict requirements for quality assurance and wages and employment conditions, and they receive full accreditation through NIB and NISH, the auspicing organisations, to make sure that they qualify.

Of course we also understood, through our review, that the environment in the United States differs very much from the environment in Australia in terms of possible government contracts. When you have one per cent of government contracts in the United States equalling $1 billion, that is a lot of money that can go into disability services. One per cent of possible government contracts in Australia would be significantly less than that and of course very much limited to the major capital cities, unlike in the US, where departments such as the Department of Defense are located throughout the 50 states of the US. Our feasibility study did not invite public submissions, but we did do a thorough investigation of the issues. We consulted with ACROD in Western Australia in particular, where they were doing some exciting work. We met with a number of business service providers in South Australia, Queensland and Victoria.

Satisfying employment is widely accepted as a natural aspiration of most people of working age. Such employment not only provides income but also offers social and economic status, the fulfilment of personal ambition, the development of talents and the recognition of an independent, mature and contributing member of society. Regrettably, the workplace environment to provide or support access for people with disability to employment is poor; nevertheless the need is as important to that group of Australians as it is to others. I would urge the Minister for Family and Community Services and other members to acquaint themselves with this excellent program—the JWOD program. It is a way for us to relieve the financial pressure on the disability sector, particularly as the pressures of an ageing disability population will become even more severe in years to come.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lindsay)—Order! The time for the grievance debate has expired. The debate is interrupted and I put the question:

That grievances be noted.

Question agreed to.