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Monday, 28 February 2011
Page: 1700

Mrs MOYLAN (11:02 AM) —I am pleased to have the opportunity to bring this motion to the House. I thank the member for Gilmore for her unwavering support and for seconding this motion. I also take the opportunity to thank all of my colleagues who are participating in this debate today. Despite the continual growth of Australia’s economy and increased workforce participation in general, the employment of people with a disability has been steadily declining. This trend raises significant concerns in that 18.5 per cent of Australians suffer from a disability—nearly one fifth of the Australian population. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals that since 1993 the workforce participation rate for people with a disability has steadily decreased to 53.2 per cent. The OECD currently ranks Australia 13th, out of 19 countries, on the employment rate of people with a disability.

The low level of employment for people with a disability denies them a decent standard of living and a social context to their lives. It leaves them socially isolated. In terms of the nation, denying people with a disability meaningful employment detracts from our national productivity. It is one of the issues that I consider our greatest challenges as a nation if we want to maintain a standard of living for all Australians. Further, it forces people with a disability to rely on a support pension and increases the welfare bill. I think it is a very sad reflection on our community when each year, as the federal budget is considered, industry leaders, economists, news editorials and others call for a tightening of the welfare budget. They want to target some of the most vulnerable people in our community to make budget savings. I think this is really inappropriate and it is time we begin to look at ways we can remove some of the barriers to employment for people with a disability.

Welfare for people with a disability should not be an issue if we address these barriers—except that the government continues to ignore and continues to fail to act on the many positive recommendations that have been made in the plethora of reports that have been completed to address employment disadvantage in the disability sector. While it is a fact that not every person receiving a disability support pension is able to work, many want to but are unable to find suitable employment or are insufficiently supported to do so. It should therefore be a priority for government to dismantle the identified barriers to employment for people with a disability. Those barriers have been outlined in the National Disability Strategy consultation report, Shut out: the experience of people with disabilities and their families in Australia, which was released in 2009. The same barriers were also identified in 2005 in the National Inquiry into Employment and Disability by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. That report revealed the exact same barriers that were identified in 2009. But very little has been done to dismantle those barriers, and it seems to me that there is a lack of commitment to do so.

Despite inquiry after inquiry, effective action just has not been evident. While the government spends millions of dollars encouraging the private sector to employ people with a disability—many of us each year attend a special event in Parliament House that acknowledges and awards companies in the private sector, largely, who do the right thing and employ people with a disability—we see no effort made to address the declining numbers of people with a disability employed in the Public Service, and those numbers continue to go south. Employment of people with a disability in the Australian Public Service continues its downward trend, declining from 5.5 per cent in 1996 to 3.1 per cent in 2010. Surely if we want private sector employers to provide employment opportunities for people with a disability then the public sector should be taking a leading role and setting an example. The government needs to have something to say about that. The explanation in the Public Service Commissioner’s statistical bulletin for this decline is that it may be due to ‘a reduction in the amount of lower level positions available’; yet a cursory glance at the report’s statistics reveals a relatively similar, though declining, number of people with disability across all levels of employment. The comment is also an example of the persistent perception that people with a disability are somehow less capable, a perception which can be refuted by the statistics in the very same report.

With such misconceptions continuing to persist within the public sector, how can government expect to address the concerns held by the private sector employers? Government needs to work harder to dispel the misconceptions of the cost of workplace adjustments to the employee acting as a disincentive. Data from the United States cited in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report estimates that most workplace modifications will cost less than US$500. Such a small outlay can easily pay for itself, considering that the statistics gathered by the Australian Network on Disability show that, on average, employees with a disability have few occupational health and safety incidents, have productivity rates equal to or greater than other workers and have superior attendance records.

Other major obstacles identified in the Shut out report include the inflexibility of the disability support pension and the cost of travelling to work. Indeed, the accessibility of public transport for people with a disability remains a persistent issue. The Shut out report gives an example of ‘R’, who spends $400 a week in taxi fares to get to work, as his disability prevents him from taking public transport. Because of this expense, ‘R’ would be almost in the same income position if he were simply to stay on the disability support pension. But compounding the financial disincentive to work is the loss of the pensioner concession card, through the loss of the disability support pension when an individual works for more than 15 hours a week, and the loss of the healthcare card or subsidised PBS medications, which can be financially crippling.

There was another fine work undertaken by Curtin University to demonstrate the cost-benefit of disability and injury programs to re-enter the workforce. That study, in 2002-03, showed that it cost the Australian government on average just over $3,000 for each person assisted by programs to re-enter the workforce, with a net lifetime benefit to government per individual of $128,000. These figures speak for themselves.

The inflexibility of the disability support pension does need to be addressed, as well as other identified barriers to ensure that the cost of working is not financially prohibitive. There is no evidence that there is any meaningful work being done to remove the barriers to employment for people with a disability. Further delay by the Commonwealth in setting a lead in public sector employment is inexcusable. The barriers faced by people with a disability are well documented. If government is sincere about wanting to open the door to employment opportunity, it could act immediately to help people with disabilities surmount those barriers.

I have been in touch with the previous Commissioner for Public Sector Employment and they have to do a report every year. It would not be too difficult for the government to mandate or have some kind of program to ensure that those rates of employment of people with a disability are lifted. If contracting out is a problem, which was indicated to me in some previous discussions with the public sector commissioner, we should be ensuring that those contracts provide that a certain number of people with a disability have to be employed. Once again, I thank my colleagues for their cooperation. I commend this motion to the House. (Time expired)