Upgrading our debate on disability, welfare and jobs

When introducing the final report of the review by Patrick McClure into Australia’s Welfare system at the National Press Club on Wednesday, Social Services Minister Scott Morrison expressed a desire to upgrade the conversation on welfare from self-interest to 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 the tone by moving from regarding media drops which paint welfare participants 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 Governments National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy lies forgotten 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 kickstart 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 expectations of both employers and people with disability.

At the National Press Club this week 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 the choice-based social services emerging via the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Scott Morrison 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 the community 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 all their 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 then people with disability will be first in line to make them work.

Craig Wallace

Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.