28.2.11 Workforce Participation of People With a Disability

Wednesday, 02 March 2011


 Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (11:22 AM) —I want to begin, firstly, by commending the member for Pearce and the member for Gilmore for moving a motion that I think has great scope in terms of what it seeks to get government to do. I know the member for Pearce and the member for Gilmore have long records as advocates for the disadvantaged and people who need assistance in our community, and I want to praise them on that record; it is something to be very proud of.


There is no doubt that society and civilisation are judged by the way they treat their weaker citizens. It is something that has been said often throughout history, and I welcome motions that call the attention of government back to core priorities of addressing the issues of our weakest citizens. I want to say at the beginning that I do think there has been government failure and systemic failure over a number of years in disability services. Whilst there has been report after report calling for change, progress and different approaches, there are some barriers. Although, it is not all bleak. I think we are better at what we do today than we have been for a long time: there is more recognition and more time given. But when you consider that the federal budget takes so much out of society—we take $117 billion off in individual income taxation and $114 billion goes back in terms of welfare payments, human services, and a lot of that is pensions, and disability support pensions are part of that—there is plenty of money in our system to do better for the people who need us the most.


I want to report a story, which I think is important to draw to the attention of this House. In New South Wales we have a government which is at perhaps the lowest moral and ethical point that we have seen in New South Wales in living history, and it was a salient reminder of the failure of government in disability services to watch the Minister for Disability Services, Graham West, a fine man with a lot of integrity who went into politics with a vision for disability services, to help people get into the workplace and to do things for them, interviewed on Stateline by Quentin Dempster, and I want to report it here today. I turned on the Friday news, and the Minister for Disability Services in New South Wales, a young man with fine motivations, sat there in front of Quentin Dempster, a seasoned ABC veteran, and said to him that he was resigning as minister because there was nothing he could achieve in government for people with disabilities in New South Wales.


Quentin Dempster stopped for about a minute. I stopped for a minute. Quentin asked him again, and he said, ‘Yes, Quentin, I don’t believe I can achieve anything through government for people with disabilities in New South Wales.’ That is a stunning indictment, a damning indictment, of all government in Australia and New South Wales today. As Quentin pointed out to the minister, if the New South Wales minister with the legislative and bureaucratic power and with the money at his disposal cannot achieve anything or make a difference, then what hope do we have? He was resigning of course to head up a third-party advocacy group for people with disabilities. But he could not achieve anything as the minister. That was something that made me pause and reflect on why we are all here and what we do in government today.


There is no doubt that in this motion there are several very important components of what we do need to do and focus on as a government. Federally the government seems to be engaged in a whole range of activities which may have desirable goals and outcomes, including telecommunications companies and pink batts, but we will be judged and measured by how we treat our weakest citizens. The member for Pearce made a great case just before about the disability support pension and the welfare mechanism and how they relate to getting people back into work, where they can have dignity and self-worth and where they can pursue social and other goals through their employment. The disability support pension has become a disincentive. There is a component and an attitude in it where people cannot achieve the work they desire, and that is of course an undesirable outcome. It is something that needs reform.


I want to quote the example of the Endeavour Foundation, which has taken over Cumberland Industries’ Pak-It-Rite and Sew-It-Rite in my electorate of Mitchell. With the member for Wentworth, I had the opportunity to tour many of the fine manufacturing and other facilities that they run. They employ some 200 people with disabilities in my electorate. It is a fantastic experience to go into those facilities, meet with the employees and listen to their individual stories of achieving dignity through their workplace. I welcome the remarks of the member for Shortland, but I want to differ from her slightly on one point. I do not see this from a collectivist point of view. Each of those individuals had an individual and different story, a unique story about how work had benefited them, their family, their household and their ability to do something positive for themselves. It is really enlightening to go there and see how that works and how it operates.


The federal government supports that. The Hon. Bill Shorten, who was the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services, visited my electorate and did a very fine job of speaking with all of the employment providers, and I want to thank him and the government for sustaining Cumberland Industries through a very difficult period, ensuring that not one job placement was lost through the company’s difficulties. That was a good thing that the government did, and every one of those employees and their families is grateful.


I also want to note the government’s $6.8 million pilot program trialling incentives to provide jobs for people with a disability, which started on 1 March last year. This kind of thing has a lot of merit. The wage subsidies of up to $3,000 for jobs which are in place for 26 weeks do make a big difference. That is the kind of scheme and innovation that we should be pursuing, and I think there is scope for us to do a lot more.


The Shut out report notes several areas of concern, and I think there is a lot of merit in it. I particularly want to jump to transport for a moment. Access to transport, participation in critical activities, employment, education and health care is difficult, if not impossible. In north-western Sydney transport is a major barrier for all of us but for people with disabilities in particular. That is why the New South Wales Liberal Party is so committed to building the north-west rail line and funding better rail infrastructure. This barrier disadvantages our most vulnerable group more than any other group in our society.


I also want to note that the New South Wales government changed bus routes across Sydney recently, in the last year. There is a most compelling argument against that, when the bus is the only form of alternative transport in north-west Sydney to the car. When that service was cancelled, a young girl who had worked for a number of years and caught the bus had no way to access her place of employment and, in spite of all our efforts, it was very difficult to keep her in employment. This is the kind of real impact that people in government do not really think about when changes come. So there is plenty of merit in the call for access to transport in this motion before us.


I think there are also many widespread misconceptions and stereotypes influencing the attitudes and behaviour of employers, recruiters and government. I think the member for Pearce made a very eloquent pitch—that government is perhaps most mystifying in its intransigence in employing people with disabilities. The government has ‘led’ the way in terms of maternity leave and other areas, we have bloated bureaucracies all across the states and territories, yet we are not best-practice employers at a governmental level in terms of people with disabilities. I think it is a challenge to every member here, it is a challenge to every level of government in this country and it is something that we ought to be very concerned about when we think about what we want our governments to do in general.


I do think this is a worthwhile motion. Calling on the government to provide leadership in improving participation rates in the workforce of people with a disability is, I think, something that we should put at the centre of our focus as a nation. This is not a political or partisan motion, but it does have many different components that need our attention. We need to really look at where the problems are and what is happening in a non-partisan way. That is why I think the former parliamentary secretary for disabilities, Bill Shorten, the member for Maribyrnong, was a good advocate in that role. When he came to my electorate and toured our Castle Hill facility, he was well received. He lifted the profile of this vital portfolio area. Those kinds of ministers, who have a proactive approach to this portfolio, are very welcome. By contrast, we witnessed with dismay the resignation of Graham West, the state minister. He could not make a difference in disability services, and that is the other side of that coin.


I do not think we should allow such a situation to emerge in our society today at any level of government, state or federal, and that means a renewed commitment from this House and from its members to seek the best for the weakest in our society, including people with disabilities, to ensure they have the dignity of work and the ability to participate in our workforce.