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17 August 2022

First of all, I just want to thank Aunty Violet for her consistently generous Welcome to Country. I can guarantee you that everyone in the room will have appreciated the way that you, and your Welcome to Country weaved together a lot of the issues which we actually have to talk about today, which is the future for kids with disabilities and the future of the workforce for them. So that was a great start.

I too acknowledge that we meet on Aboriginal and I pay my respects to Elders past and present. I must say, the word I would use for today is optimistic. I'm optimistic. And it really makes my heart soar when I see so many people disability and so many people here so passionate about disability, here in the Parliament. 

You know, they say in life that you should start as you intend to continue. And this is how we intend to continue: co-design. Nothing about us without us. Empowerment. 

You know, the fact is that I don't want to make this an unusual event. This is the first time many of you have ever been to the nation's parliament. Is there any kind of way of giving us indication that this is a first time for people to visit? See, that's great. And it shouldn't necessarily take an election to do it. But I’m rapt that you’re here. 

I want it to be unremarkable in the future, that we have people with disability, not just visiting the Parliament, even though access here is substandard in my opinion, not just making decisions and drawing up policy. But there's no doubt in my mind that the last frontier of parliamentary representation, is in fact people with disability. So that not only will people with disability be guiding policy for people with disability, people with disability regarding policy for all people. And that's as it should be. So I find this very exciting, just to be here with all of you. 

Sometimes they say politics is a lonely business. As U.S President Harry Truman once said, “if you want to friend in politics by a dog.” I would say to you, though, that it is impossible for me to feel lonely here today, when there are so many people here with the same shared goals and aspirations. And our goal and aspiration is to make sure that every Australian gets a fair go. But as I've learned in my journey in Parliament, and I was aware of it beforehand, when I was a union rep looking after workers who were catastrophically injured at work, or who were poisoned over the years by industrial diseases, that the fair go doesn't actually exist equally for all people. 

And when we helped create the NDIS, it was about remedying the imbalance. And what I think fundamentally is that impairment is not the problem. Impairment is a fact of life. It can happen in birth, it can be in a blink of an eye on a country road, it can be through the onset of particular conditions. Impairment is a fact of life and it's any of us or a family member at any time. 

The real barriers are a lack of money and a lack of power. And I have this conviction. And I believe that ever since the start, and I still believe it now fundamentally, and that's what makes today's session so important, on one hand, we've come a long way. 

You know, the NDIS just didn't exist a decade ago just didn't exist. Now it exists. And change in Australian politics is not easy. And the first 22 years of this century, have been particularly brutal for those who aspire for progress and change. 

There's been some changes marriage equality, for example. But I would put to you that one of the biggest changes that's happened in this century in Australia, is in fact, the creation of the NDIS, a generous safety net, which provides individualised packages of support so people can have choice and control in their lives. It's fantastic. 

But I have been concerned in the last nine years under the previous government, that the discussion of NDIS is less about investment and more about cost, less about people and more about numbers. And to some extent, I felt that the NDIS under the previous government has been viewed as a, “Well we've got to do it but you know, we only have to do really the bare minimum of what we should do.” 

Now, that's not fair. Of course, to a lot of people who work in disability, work in government on disability. But that has been, in my opinion, the overarching narrative is that it's a costly scheme out of control. 

I don't buy that. 

I don't buy the idea that the Scheme is a cost, I buy the Scheme as an investment. Because when you invest in individuals, you get the best out of community. When you provide opportunities to empower people, to have a fair go, the return for those individuals, their families, quality of life, and indeed, community is exponentially superior to not doing it. 

That doesn't mean of course, there aren't many challenges in the NDIS. There clearly are. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be trying to, at all times, to be vigilant against waste, vigilant against the opportunists. But, the one thing that we should not do is say that the only way the Scheme continues forward is by punishing people with disability, by making it harder for people with disability to access, modest and reasonable supports. 

But now we talk about the future. And there's plenty that we're doing, in plenty of areas. But there's a general principle, which underpins today, and underpins where we go, generally, it has to be by co-design. I like the word empowerment. Co-design is another great word, it has to be done with trust. And I think that as we approach the Job Summit, the NDIS has to step up. Even though we're at a time of full employment, people with disability are not sufficiently sharing in the benefit of full employment, the dial effectively hasn't moved for three decades, in my opinion. 

Now, it doesn't mean that it's not good that there's 270,000 people providing home based care, community based care, and of course, allied health professionals. But not enough of these people are people with disability. 

It is great that 51 per cent of people on the NDIS are adults have listed a goal of employment. But what is deeply unsatisfactory is I cannot find out from the Agency, how many people actually have a support in their plan to materialise that goal. Now that’s perhaps because no one's ever asked the Agency to find that out. I guarantee you I now have, it isn't good enough. 

The Department of Social Services also can't tell me how many people with a disability work in the disability sector. Perhaps they’ve never been asked that question too. But now we have asked that question. And we will find that out. 

See, what I think the picture is, is that there's a promise and then there's a reality when it comes to employment. People with disability, the promise is that in time full employment, this should be the best time possible. But I'm not convinced that the dial is moving sufficiently forward. Other ministers and the Government are talking about disability in other areas of government policy, there's a session on the 22nd of August, which is fantastic. 

But today, I want to put to you that we have fundamental challenges of joining the promise to the reality. 

I'm very keen to hear people's ideas about how we can build in more support for pathways of employment within NDIS plans. It’s a fundamental question, and you'll have many different ways of putting these propositions that I'm interested in.

And it is good that the Agency has 17 per cent of people working in the National Disability Insurance Agency who record as having a disability. That's good. But we need to talk about what government can do to help people with disability more. We need to talk about what we can do with the NDIS to make that Scheme focus on participation and employment. 

We also need to talk about the workforce. It's great that we've got union reps here. It's great that we've got providers here and I must say the providers are doing a great job and it's been a tough time in COVID for everyone with a disability and the people who provide services. It's also great the unions are here. For nine years they've been excluded from the coming here, just like people with disability have too often be excluded. 

We need all perspectives and I welcome it. We need to also work out where will we get the workforce into the future. Now there's talk about migration and visas. That's fine. That is part of it. Absolutely. But we also need to have that conversation that you've actually got a workforce here. That people with disability, their carers who understand intuitively, in their bones, what can be done and what they could contribute to it. 

We just need to look at the old problems with new lenses. 

So I think we've got solutions for the workforce demand, I think we've got solutions on how we can make the NDIS more responsive in the employment space. We've got solutions that have already succeeded. I acknowledge that whatever we do today, it's not a blank sheet of paper. 

There are success stories, and we want to hear about them. There'll be low hanging fruit, obvious suggestions, which frankly, should just be done. We don't need to have a white paper on employment, we don't need to have a Royal Commission into the issue. We know what the answers are, what we need is political will, what we need to be is unreasonable. What we need to be is not to accept that things take months and years when they can take days and weeks, we don't have a minute to waste.

I want us to get on with stuff, I'm hungry for your solutions, hungry for the discussion today. No pressure on the conveners of the sessions, you know, just come back with all the ideas in an hour and a half and let us know what we've got to do. 

But I tell you, this is a magic point in time. We have the people who can make it work here online, and many thousands of others, not even in this engagement, but who contribute to our ideas. You have got a minister and a government who are open to ideas, and collectively, collectively together. It's no whether or not I succeed. It's not whether or not you succeed, it's whether we succeed. 

As I say, I regard this to be a house full of friends. No one should feel lonely about trying to change the system. We've all got each other. But we should not accept no for an answer. We should not accept that it's too hard or too far away. We should be unreasonable. If you have the right idea, we need to back ourselves. If you have the right ideas, you will get my backing. I want to work with you. 

Anyway, enough chat from me, I’m rapt to be here with you. This is a long day coming. Hopefully, though, it is the first of many days, the first of many days where we can actually shake it up where we can change the assumptions. I'm not going to look at your suggestions and say ‘why’? You're smart enough. I'll look at your suggestions and say, ‘why not’? 

That should be the spirit would we approach this and the days forward from here.

Thank you very much.