Welfare Review Needs to Incentivise Sustainable Employment
17 April 2014 at 5:19 pm
Assistance to get and keep a job should be front and centre of the Government’s review of welfare support for people with disability, writes Disability Employment Australia CEO Craig Harrison.
To date the intent behind the Federal Government’s undertaking to review our welfare system has not been clear. While we look forward to a public consultation process and the release of Terms of Reference, there remains justifiable concern that the welfare review will be framed by a financial motivation to meet budget challenges.
Financial considerations should not obscure the fact that this welfare review process is a significant nation building opportunity – one that must be framed in terms of investment, not cost.
Tony Abbott has expressed the wish to be remembered as an infrastructure Prime Minister.
There could be no greater legacy than to build the social infrastructure that enables the full economic, social inclusion and active participation of all members of our community, including those with disability.
As the peak industry body representing disability employment, we are strongly supportive of any changes to the system that supports a move to open employment. Ultimately, a greater employment participation rate will reduce the welfare bill. Building a system that both supports and incentivises people with disability to voluntarily work at their capacity will have a positive long-term impact on the bottom line.
The receipt of the Disability Support Pension (DSP) should not be, or be perceived to be, a disincentive to work or to seek employment. The episodic nature of some disability means the DSP needs to be flexible enough to encourage individuals to voluntarily seek employment, without removing the safety of a return to income support if required.
When we discuss welfare reform and disability, it is important to unpack the substantive and layered disadvantage that most people with disability experience. Australia is ranked a shameful 21/29 in the OECD when it comes to the employment of people with disability.
As a country we have found ourselves in the diabolical situation where nearly half of all people with disability live in or near poverty. Unsurprisingly, the Productivity Commission’s report tells us that too many families and carers are by necessity disconnected from the labour market as a direct result of caring responsibilities.
One danger of a simplistic fiscal view of welfare, and something we already witness on the low Newstart payment, is an inability of people to adequately look for employment. People need to be enabled with the resources required to find a job and keep a job. This includes access to transport, clothing and technology. It also includes the opportunities afforded by an inclusive school system and access to a responsive training and skills development.
The gap between Newstart and the DSP is about $250 per fortnight.
Disability is not cheap. At a minimum there are extra costs for medical and transport expenses. Pushing people into poverty is not an effective way to empower them to find and maintain sustainable employment.
In embarking on this nation building agenda, and in setting our sights on a truly inclusive society, we need to understand that disability is not a ‘one size fits all’ agenda. At the core of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is the empowerment of people with disability. The welfare system of the future needs to embrace and reflect the NDIS’s focus on individual choice and control.
People with disability, including those with significant disability, can and want to work. But they require the appropriate supports to do so.
The expertise developed over the past 27 years of supported open employment in Australia by the specialist Disability Employment Services (DES) is a key to achieving the collective employment objective of people with disability.
To make the most of existing infrastructure and capability, the government should enable employment support services to better align their service offerings with the individual aspirations of people with disability and to provide people with an opportunity to develop careers.
One of the most significant barriers faced by people with disability is public attitude. As a community made up of people with disability, teachers, parents, medical staff, employers and government personnel we need to collectively raise our expectations.
There must be a presumption of employability. An important element of the welfare review should be a commitment to a national strategy to lift public expectation and attitude. That means that every Australian believes in the productive potential of people with disability. It also means we must be prepared as a nation to make the necessary investment in education and support services.
Income support is one component of a complex and integrated system. The government’s welfare review cannot be undertaken in isolation. It must invest in the bridging pathways that assist and encourage people with disability to become active citizens. To do this effectively, the government must inform and consult organisations committed to improved open employment outcomes for people with disability, disability advocates and people with disability themselves.
Without taking a broad view, we are at risk of failing to realise this great nation building opportunity – the opportunity to create a truly inclusive society that liberates and utilises the creative, productive and available talent within our community of those with disability.
About the Author: Craig Harrison is the CEO of Disability Employment Australia – the peak organisation representing the Australian Government’s Disability Employment Services.