TRANSCRIPT – ABC Afternoon Briefing


TRANSCRIPT – ABC Afternoon Briefing
Wednesday 16 March 2022

Subjects: Four Corners investigation public trustees, mean girls in the Labor Party


GREG JENNETT: Alright. Now following on from this week's Four Corners program on the ABC into practices of state public trustees' offices, the Federal Disability Discrimination Commissioner has called for a greater level of coordination between those offices to make sure the legislation governing them is, roughly speaking, consistent across the nation. And this is something that's winning broad support from the Assistant Minister to the Federal Attorney-General, Amanda Stoker. We spoke to her from Brisbane about that and workplace culture in the Senate too.

[Begin Excerpt]

Amanda Stoker, welcome to Afternoon Briefing. Before I ask you about national remedies - if any - to some of the troubling stories that we've heard about public trustees' offices, can I just get an opening observation from you? Were you troubled by the reporting in the ABC Four Corners episode this week?

AMANDA STOKER: I was deeply troubled by what was covered in that report. The idea that the most vulnerable people in our society - people who really have nowhere else to turn to in terms of family or friends to help them through periods of incapacity - find themselves fleeced of their funds, find themselves charged fees, sometimes amounting to 40 per cent of what they earn, and that they find themselves facing - as one example covered by the report explained - fees up to $1 million to try and extricate themselves from arrangements. Made worse by the fact that, in order to get independent legal advice, these very people have to go to the public trustee to ask for permission to access their money, and often find that it's not granted. It shows that there is a problem caused by the secrecy around these arrangements. It also, I think, points some serious questions to be answered to the Queensland State Government, in particular, who - when these matters were raised with them - instead of taking it on board and making changes, fired the Office of the Public Guardian who raised the complaints. And that reflects the culture of secrecy and cover-ups that is so endemic here in Queensland.

GREG JENNETT: Okay. So they've announced a review, or in fact a couple of reviews, within the state of Queensland. But it does appear from the Four Corners reporting that this goes beyond one state. I mean, they largely focused on three. Can you put your finger on why these offices might have, you know, come to abuse their powers in this way? Have they not had sufficient oversight? Is there a role for Commonwealth supervision of some of these functions of these offices?

AMANDA STOKER: Look, I think there's certainly a cause to revisit the circumstances of secrecy that apply in this sphere. Now obviously there is good intention behind some of those arrangements - not wanting to have people who have experienced terrible things leading to them needing assistance - necessarily being unfairly ventilated. But if that's being used as a shield to conceal the mismanagement of funds, the underperformance of administration, or worse, then that's no longer in the interests of the people it's designed to protect. I'm really interested in what Commissioner Gauntlet has had to say on the matter. I'll also be really interested to see what the royal commission has to say when they take on evidence about this soon. There may well be a role for the Federal Government to try and bring people onto a consistent and more transparent page here. But this is a matter that does fall squarely within the rights of the states, and the states would have to want us to do that.

GREG JENNETT: Right. You know, this is Ben Gauntlett, Disability Discrimination Commissioner's suggestion, that even if there is not central control or coordination over these public trustee offices, perhaps there could be more uniformity across our nation. Now, is that something that you think the Commonwealth could lead a discussion with among attorneys-general, or is it something for the Law Reform Commission? How do you think you would get some coordination running there?

AMANDA STOKER: Look, the Law Reform Commission has provided some points about the ways in which the Federal Government could try and assist the states to get on the same page. We do have regular meetings of attorneys-general in which all of the people who do bear responsibility for this issue are brought into the same room. I think there is often merit in encouraging those different states and territories to learn from one another's experience and get on the front foot, and we can encourage them to do that. But it's always going to be because they have constitutional responsibility in the nature of us encouraging, guiding and using, sort of, carrots to try and drive improvement, rather than us being able to force it in circumstances where the Constitution provides that it is squarely for the states.

GREG JENNETT: Can I take you to another culture, I suppose, that is in the spotlight today? That's your own workplace in the Senate, Amanda Stoker. Reports that Kimberley Kitching had troubled relations with senior Labor colleagues. You knew her, do you think that is symptomatic of a workplace culture problem in the Senate? I'm not asking you to comment on the internals of the ABC but, if there is a problem around the Senate, is there a role for the Senate to look into that?

AMANDA STOKER: Look, I think it's- first thing to say is it's deeply tragic that we've lost Senator Kitching. She was the epitome of across-the-aisle collegiality. She was the best in her character of the Australian Parliament. She could work with people from any colour - politically, that is - and she was always constructive and principled in what she did. If there is a culture on the Labor side of the Senate where that kind of principled action is unwelcome, then there's got to be cause for self-reflection here. It, I think highlights the fact-

GREG JENNETT: Only that? Only self-reflection? It's not something that the coalition would seek to politicise or have the Senate look at in any way?

AMANDA STOKER: Look, I'm open to the idea, although the structure for doing so doesn't immediately pop to mind. I think the best thing that can be done here, though, is that it draws the Australian public's attention to something we haven't seen before - and that is the reality of what you get in a Labor government. The small-target strategy that's been employed so far means we actually know very little about what these people stand for, the standards of behaviour they are prepared to engage in, and what they regard as the policy to take this country forward. If this kind of mean girls approach is the tone they intend to set should they have the opportunity to govern, then that will not only be bad for women in parliament, it'll be bad for all Australians as the petty grievances of one group against another, or one individual against another, are prioritised over the bigger-picture needs of the nation. And when I think about the way that Senator Kitching fought hard for the Magnitsky laws - laws that I've also supported over time, and many colleagues of mine have regarded as very important - we've got real cause to say, why on earth was Senator Wong and some of her colleagues so opposed to them? What problem do they have with individuals being held accountable for their breaches of human rights? This is the way forward. It's a great legacy from a good woman. I only hope that she is remembered for that enormous contribution.

GREG JENNETT: Some of those questions are being asked today. We will await answers, I suppose, from the Labor Party. Amanda Stoker, thanks for covering a bit of ground with us today on Afternoon Briefing. We'll talk to you again soon.

AMANDA STOKER: Thanks, Greg.