Upgrading our debate on disability, welfare and jobs

| March 6, 2015

The government has released its final report of the review into the Australian Welfare system. Craig Wallace, President of People with Disability Australia, says too many Australians with disability are still locked out of the labour market.

When introducing the final report of the review by Patrick McClure into Australia’s Welfare system at the National Press Club, Social Services Minister Scott Morrison expressed a desire to upgrade the conversation on welfare from self-interest, based on whether individuals are better or worse off, to long term national interest.

It is in no one’s interests to see so many Australians with disability locked out of the labour market with squandered skills and lost opportunities.

Government also needs to play its part in upgrading our discourse by moving from media drops which end in welfare participants being painted as bludgers, rorters and leaners to describing how those same people might chart a course towards opportunities.

Sections of the McClure report make a reasonable fist of this. The proposal for a Disability and Mental Health Jobs Plan is a good start. The disability community has consistently called for a substantial jobs plan from both sides of politics for some time. The Rudd/Gillard Government’s National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy lies moulding on a shelf, and the Abbott Government hasn’t made progress here either.

By contrast the jobs suggestions by McClure seem to be concrete and targeted at areas where Government might actually exert some leverage: tailored support services; awareness raising campaign; a leaders group; government employment targets; segmented industry awards; procurement practices; an employment covenant and wage subsides (especially for Small to Medium Enterprises) could be the spark that we need to kick-start a serious employability effort in this country. Above all we must act where the jobs are and in ways that engage employers.

Also sound is the idea of a passport to work which removes the fear involved in people taking up jobs by enabling them to return to their former income support arrangements and concessions if the job ends or hours are reduced. One of the “wicked problems” in disability employment is the perception by some people that they will be worse off if they enter employment, especially in a contractual or casual job with a finite life. By making it better, things seem worse.

A sophisticated income calculator might enable people to input their personal circumstances, the rates at which benefits fall away with earnings, plus newly accrued income and see what side of the ledger they fall and how that changes over time.

Of course the elephant in the room remains the antiquated Disability Employment Services (DES) system which has a poor record of meeting the needs of both employers and people with disability.

At the National Press Club Minister Morrison talked about the need to update the payments system at Centrelink from Walkman era technology last fit for purpose when we were listening to Duran Duran. Likewise the less responsive parts of the DES bear hallmarks of your great grandmothers Parlaphone spinning out a 78 rpm vinyl recording of Enrico Caruso.

It remains block-funded with a bias towards easy short-term employment cases and it is hopelessly ill matched with choice-based social services emerging via the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Last week saw a note of lament from Scott Morrison who fears that Australia has no appetite for welfare reform. If he really wants to whet our appetite for change he could do worse than provide us with a concrete commitment to some of the investments and incentives recommended by McClure.

There are also ideas the Government might take off the table soon to bring us into a reform tent. For instance, moving from income-based public housing rents to Rent Assistance sits uneasily in a new system meant to nudge people into the benefits of employment. Rent assistance is currently only available to people on income support, meaning that people who move onto a low wage while in public housing could suddenly be hit with full market rents, removing any gains in one fell swoop.

On the support side we need to know more about how the different tiers and payments proposed in the review would actually work. Tasked with reducing complexity, the final system described by McClure is still complex, and it’s unclear what incomes or requirements people within the various payment tiers might expect.

Nearly everyone would concede that there are some people with disability who simply can’t work due to the nature of their illnesses and impairments. These people deserve a decent safety net that doesn’t sit at the mercy of changeable indices such as inflation but instead provides a proportion of the average wage to reflect the living standards of ordinary Australians. Without that guarantee it’s hard to understand how reforms can deliver the promise that no one will be worse off.

Above all we urge Government not to simply adopt the savings with the investments that build a disability and mental health jobs plan. This time obligations must be mutual. If they are, people with disability will be first in line to make them work.



  1. youngy920

    March 25, 2015 at 9:17 am

    Response to Blog

    Employment, it can be seen as an opportunity for some to earn money in exchange of their hard labour. The Government has stated that “Having a job is an essential part of social inclusion for people with disability” (Australian Government, 2014). So, having a job must be a crucial part of life even if you are disabled. I also believe having a job and being able to support yourself is crucial and it is “generally good” for physical and mental health and well-being (Waddell & Burton, 2006). Additionally, by working and receiving wage it establishes independence, social inclusion, improved quality of life, better social relationship, community participation and a pathway to developing a socially valued identity. (Marwaha et al, 2008; Orygen, 2014).

    I do understand what the McClure report is trying to do and is trying succeed as the National mental health and disability employment strategy was/is unsuccessful. However, I believe McClure report is just a pretty cover up to forcefully push people with disability to work even though some may not be capable of doing so. McClure’s intentions are naive or possibility of being “true” and “pure” however, many people like you (Craig Wallace) and I do not agree that this report’s only intention is to provide jobs for people with disability. Furthermore, in the Mental Disability sector the funding has been greatly reduced and they are feeling the impact immensely. The funding cut has greatly impacted mental health jobs, service cutbacks and 10 organisations that represents people with intellectual disability, autism, brain injury, blindness, deafness and physical disability will run out of funds within February of 2015 (Parker, 2015; Mental Health Australia, 2014).

    Due to these cutbacks

    • 40% report they have already experienced loss of staff,
    • 46% report a difficulty attracting new staff ,
    • 53% report a reduction in services to clients,
    • 81% report a decline in staff morale,
    • 85% report a loss of trust in government amongst management and staff,
    • 56% report they have had no communications regarding the future of their Commonwealth funding after June 2015,
    • 91% of organisations said if they did not find out about their funding, they would need to reduce staff, and 88% said they would need to reduce services. Retrieve from, Mental Health Australia (2014)

    I strongly agree on what you (Craig Wallace) are saying and trying to prove. As you said above the National Mental Health and Disability Employment strategy was put in place to provide people with disability to “Search, Find and Maintain Employment” and yet employment outcomes for people with mental illness are woeful (Orygen, 2014). As work is stressful it’ll cause relapse, hence through relapse it will lead to loss of job, feelings of failure and lowered self-esteem (Orygen, 2014).

    As Orygen (2014) strongly states, “In short, work for people with mental illness should be avoided”. Moreover Orgyen (2014) comments that in the past people classified as disabled have not gained any support or help from the various changes in employment policies over the years. Hence, even if the policy was to be carried out it will lead to poorer outcomes or even poverty for people with a disability.