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Monday, 26 May 2003
Page: 14911

Ms GAMBARO (5:29 PM) —I am very pleased to speak to the motion put forward by the member for Canberra and also to acknowledge the value that we place on employment opportunities for all Australians. I agree with the member for Canberra: employment gives people more than just an income; it provides opportunities and experiences for socialisation and skill development and, most importantly, can boost self-esteem.

Australia is one of the few OECD countries to acknowledge the role of business in providing paid employment for people with disabilities, coupled with important social and developmental opportunities. As a government, we are committed to building a business service sector that provides quality employment options for people with disabilities, including the payment of award wages. We are able to achieve this through a consistently strong economy. Not only did we return national jobs growth of more than 230,000 jobs in the past year but our unemployment rate of around six per cent is, in fact, almost one percentage point lower than that of the OECD average.

The recent federal budget, which included $135 million over four years to improve services to assist job seekers with disabilities and $25.4 million to assist business services that provide employment for people with disabilities, also demonstrates this government's commitment to supporting a business sector that provides employment outcomes for people with disabilities. That is hardly a sector `in crisis' as the member for Canberra pointed out just a while ago.

It is expected that, over the four-year lifetime of the $135 million budget initiative, around 6,000 job seekers annually will have access to improved employment outcomes as a consequence of the move towards case based funding. Case based funding will enable service providers to be paid according to the needs of their clients, the services provided and the outcomes achieved. And what is so wrong with that? The member for Canberra called the sector a `puzzle'. There is nothing puzzling about that. It is an effective system because it ensures that job seekers with disabilities are catered for based on their needs. It also results in an average increase in funding for business services of around 15 per cent and for open employment services of nine per cent. These increases are above the block grant funding levels for business services and are worth about $65 million. In effect, this enables the right mix of incentives to help those who need it the most.

I recognise the member for Canberra's support for positive employment outcomes for people with disabilities through this motion. However, I am really disappointed that the motion advocates a pre-emptive failure of the disability services sector as a consequence of the move away from block funding to case based funding. The commitment in the federal budget of $25.4 million for business services that provide employment for people with disabilities is an investment to ensure that this sector is both vibrant and sustainable. It will include immediate and practical assistance tailored for each service, and expert consultants will work with business services to identify and help find ways to improve their businesses.

In effect, the government has delivered on reforms that provide support for business services, as advocated in this motion. In 1986 the introduction of the Disability Services Act provided for a five-year transition period so that business services could meet their principles and objectives. Since then, the government has outlined and delivered much-needed reform in this area. This has included legislating quality assurance standards in 2002; tailoring an extensively trialled funding model, which reflected the needs of the sector; providing assistance for business viability; and providing growth in the employment assistance places of around 50 per cent through Australians Working Together and welfare reform.

Today, around 17 per cent of disability employment services—of which 13 per cent are business services and 24 per cent operate some business services—have been certified under the new QA system. There is considerable momentum in the business sector to continue the push, with certification required by December 2004—which is hardly unreasonable. Although there are business services and their clients who may not find the transition process easy, consultation with all stakeholders in this sector is being undertaken and the initial reaction has been very positive. The government maintains a commitment to the disability services sector, which currently provides employment options for around 17,000 Australians with moderate to severe disabilities. We have a strong record in providing the right economic conditions for a supportive business sector conducive to employment growth for all Australians. (Time expired)