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Thursday, 19 June 2003
Page: 17111

Ms ELLIS (11:29 AM) —I want to take the opportunity to address quite a number of issues to the minister here, on behalf of the minister in the other place, in relation to disability and disability services. As we are all aware, there has been a reform process in place—the quality assurance reform process—affecting business services, those enterprises around the country where people with disabilities are employed in a supported employment environment.

The process for the quality assurance reform within business services began quite some time ago. In fact, the quality assurance legislation went through the parliament over a year ago. One would like to think that, when governments propose reforms which are of such magnitude and have such an effect on individuals as this set of reforms will have, there has been very careful consideration about the pathway down which the reform process will proceed. I have some doubts—and I need to be convinced—as to whether the government has carefully considered just exactly how they intend to successfully carry out the reform process. There are some things that I want to particularly address.

In the budget that we are discussing here today in relation to this reform process, there were some dollars made available—some $25.4 million, as I recall, over three years—to enhance what the government claims are the viability prospects for business services in the transition through the quality assurance system. The quality assurance system means that, by the end of 2004, an enterprise within a business service has to be successfully accredited to the standards and the requirements of the reform process; otherwise they will not receive any more Commonwealth funding from that date.

We on this side of the House made it very clear at the time that in principle we supported the reform process very strongly, that it ought to be done. But we also laid down some very strong parameters, and those parameters contained warnings that, unless certain things were done, the intent of this process would fail and there would be far from acceptable fallout as a result.

Let me refer again to the $25.4 million that has been given in the budget to business services for the viability of those very enterprises in the reform process. As we understand it, the $25.4 million is going to be spent in quite an interesting way. It is going to be allocated for things like business analysts, business mentoring and a range of other things to try and make sure that these business services do not fall over. In the very recent Senate estimates hearings, in answer to a question in relation to the $25.4 million, and how it was planned to improve the viability of these enterprises, the answer we received was:

To some degree this is a matter of making some best guesses about the numbers of those 436 business services who we think might have some difficulty in meeting the QA requirements without this sort of intervention.

The answer went on:

We were particularly conscious of the need not to be giving money to organisations which clearly were not going to make it and where the money would essentially evaporate.

In a private member's motion in the House in very recent times, I raised these issues and I used terminology to say that, if we are not careful, we are going to have a crisis in the supported employment sector in this country—a sector that employs 15,000 people nationally, generally people with intellectual disabilities but with other disabilities as well—if this reform process fails.

I will never scoff at government giving money to the disability sector—never. But I will question very seriously how the $25.4 million is going to be best spent to absolutely ensure that we see no business services in this country fall over. If they do, the people employed in them go across into unemployment, into state run programs where the money from the Commonwealth is through the Commonwealth-state disability agreement, where the level of unmet need, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, is alarmingly high and growing, and where no evidence of the level of funding through the CSTDA from the Commonwealth to the states is even beginning to address that shortfall in unmet need. (Extension of time granted)

The question is this: will the minister at the table, on behalf of the minister responsible, give us absolute guarantees that this $25.4 million is going to save, enhance and ensure the continuing viability, in true meaning, of business services in this country? I refer again to the quote from the Senate estimates, where the officer at the table said:

We were particularly conscious of the need not to be giving money to organisations which clearly were not going to make it and where the money would essentially evaporate.

What is the government going to do about the services that their officers believe are not going to make it? I cannot accept—and I refuse to accept—that a good positive reform process in the employment of people with disabilities in this country is living under a prediction by an officer of the government's department that the government will not allow dollars to evaporate in services that are not going to meet the quality assurance process. If they are not, why are they not? Why wasn't this done earlier? Why wasn't the viability of these services given some chance in real terms earlier in the process?

This has been going on for a very long time. If the bill passed the parliament over a year ago, then the government's work on this process began long before that. There has been consultation to the point where the sector is consulted out. Advice has come forward. Views have been given. I was pilloried by members on the other side of the House on the day that we put up the private members motion warning about this. They said that I was crying crisis needlessly, that the government had it all in hand and that it was going to be okay. I can assure the minister and the government that I do not want to see $25.4 million disappear either. I want it to do something constructive. I want it to be used to make sure that all 15,000 of those employees, their families, the people who care for them and the people who employ them have confidence that the viability of their employment places in those business services is guaranteed. That is the job of government.

The job of government is not to predict openly in Senate estimates that we are going to see failure. Failure means that the people employed in those business services will be unemployed from the day they close—that they will have no hope of any other employment. These are specially categorised people and they need that supported employment. It means that they will fall over the jurisdictional line into the care of states and territories. The states and territories are already battling with unmet need around this country in the area of disability. That need is nowhere near being met, according to the Institute of Health and Welfare, by any attempt by this government to fully fund the flow-on from Commonwealth to state and territory moneys through the Commonwealth-state disability agreement. That paltry amount has been held at ransom by the government since June of last year, because the agreement is only now, I believe, beginning to be signed by individual states. So not one additional cent of money has been paid by this government into meeting unmet need in the period of time that that agreement has not been signed. I want the government to give me a guarantee that those 15,000 employees around the country are going to continue to be employed.

On exactly the same issue, I would also like to go to another part of this reform process, which is the wage assessment tool process. This is a little bit complicated but, with the patience of you, Madam Deputy Speaker Gambaro, and my colleagues, I will go through it. Without going into too much detail, the wage assessment tool is the process used to determine in the reform process how much money these people should be paid by their employer in supported employment. This has also been a very long and very complicated process.

The disallowable instrument attached to the reform process that went through the parliament late last year had a wage assessment tool in it. We tried, unsuccessfully, to have that taken out of that package for the simple reason that we knew that the government was, at the same time, through consultancy and tendering, having a new independent assessment tool developed. We could not see the sense in having one that was going to be overlapped installed into a disallowable instrument, but the government and the Democrats felt otherwise and it went through the parliament. After a very long and convoluted process, I believe that we now have a wage assessment tool, but it is one which the government will not release. (Extension of time granted)

Why can they not release it? In Senate estimates, in relation to a question on this particular issue, we had this response from an officer:

We employed a consultant, Health Outcomes International, to develop a wage assessment tool and to develop the training, the guidelines and the administrative arrangements around that. The consultant has reported to the department, and the department's wage assessment tool reference group has met four times. The last meeting was in April. The consultant brought forward the results of the trial up to that point. The trial has been going for a little while, so the tool itself has been emerging. Following that meeting, one of the members of the group raised some concerns. Following the raising of the concerns, some experts have been appointed to look at those concerns and they will be preparing a report very shortly to go to the minister.

The information that I get from the sector anecdotally, because I cannot find out through government sources, is that, if the tool that has been developed at government cost—again, with the expenditure of money—by a consultant to try to be incorporated into this reform process is released, it would virtually lead to the closure of many business services because the financial impact on them would simply be so great. There is no argument in my mind at all that a person in employment, whether it be supported or otherwise, should be paid a legitimate amount of money for the services they provide. It has become so convoluted and confusing here, and there has been so much consultation, all leading to an assessment tool sitting in the act through the disallowable instrument. At the same time, it is being usurped by a development tool that was developed at the government's expense—big expense, I should imagine—and now we cannot see it, because we do not know that it is going to work.

So, again, we come back to this basic question: how honest is the government in even attempting to put this reform process in place, when every item of it we look at is running into brick walls? Every item that is intrinsic to this reform process appears to be failing. Again, the sector—the employees, employers and everybody involved—has no confidence at all in the fact that, by the end of 2004, this jolly arrangement will work. So I want to know, Minister—on behalf of your colleague in the other place—what is the status of the wage assessment tool process? What impact would the outcome of that have on the viability of business services and their employment of employees? To what degree does the minister believe that we and the people in the sector can feel any level of confidence at all about their future as employees and employers in the business services sector?

The third point I want to raise relates to case based funding—yet another chapter in this amazing saga. I understand out of the budget that there is a commitment over four years of $135.3 million for the implementation of the new case based funding model. To say that the case based funding model being mooted has been controversial is to make the biggest understatement I could make in this chamber. `Controversial' does not come near it. There are employers out there who have no idea whether they are going to win or lose in the financial stakes once case based funding comes in for them. They are fearful that they will lose big-time.

They have every right to believe that because we understand that the government itself openly claims that social welfare payments will be reduced by at least $23.5 million over four years as a result of the case based funding implementation. That has come out in Senate estimates in the past and I think has been openly commented upon and agreed to by the government. There has been a great deal of speculation about whether the model that has now been developed for case based funding will work. The employers, as far as we know, are extremely concerned about the degree to which they will remain viable if and when it comes in—and I take it that it will come in, because the government seems pretty determined about it. My major concern here is the whole approach to this reform process. (Extension of time granted)

There are many elements, as I have outlined, in the quality assurance process, the reform process, affecting business services. It seems to me that, even if I try to be objective about it, it is confusing, it is disjointed, it is riddled with indecision and it is full of confusion. There is no guarantee or confidence in my mind or in the sector's mind of the coordination of this. The speed and the level of reform and the multitude of reform within it are such that, unless `barley' is called and we almost stop the process and try to get it all back into gear, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind at all that by the end of next year, if not before, we will see the closure of many business services in this country.

Operators of business services right now have already begun to make decisions. They are already choosing whether they employ a person with low needs or high needs in terms of productivity and output. They are making that decision right now. People are already being marginalised out of employment today. It has been happening for weeks, if not months, because the employers in the sector have no confidence at all in where they will be at the end of 2004. The government comes along with nothing more than a multimillion dollar rescue package that in our view does not respond to any of the queries of the sector. I think it is an absolute disgrace, if I could be so bold.

The people who are employed in business services do not have much choice. They are not going to walk out the door and hawk their employment possibilities broadly within our community. They rely incredibly on the access they have to employment in a business service. If the minister at the table, his senior minister in the other place and the government in general cannot pull all of this into line and reinject confidence into this system, they are to be condemned at the end of this reform process.