2CC Radio Canberra, Canberra Live with Chris Mac
Now yesterday we spoke to a lady by the name of Mary Lou-Carter. Mary-Lou is with the Carer’s Alliance and is upset that the ALP, the Greens and a number of crossbench Senators — independents and the like – knocked back legislation in the Senate last week which would have aided employment for people with intellectual disability. Now we made a commitment to Mary-Lou that we’d get in touch with the politicians involved with this and try and find out what the story was. Now we did contact the office of Jenny Macklin, the Shadow Minister for Disability Reform, whose office provided a statement saying that Labor blocked the bill because it would’ve denied vulnerable people the right to pursue compensation against the Government in the courts. Labor did propose a number of amendments which the Government did not support. But what we’ve been able to do now is get in touch with the relevant Minister for this. Senator Mitch Fifield is the Assistant Minister for Social Services in the Abbott Government and joins us on the line here this afternoon, here on Canberra Live. Senator Fifield, thank you for your time.
Good to be with you Chris.
Okay now that’s the story from Jenny Macklin’s office, she wasn’t able to speak with us but did provide that statement. They knocked back the bill, but those amendments – what sort of amendments were Labor proposing that you felt you could not support?
Well Chris, Jenny Macklin is wrong. We weren’t seeking to deny rights to anyone with a disability. And I’ve got to pay tribute to Mary-Lou Carter, she’s a terrific advocate for people with disability.
Essentially the situation that we’re in is there is what’s called a representative action that’s being pursued by a law firm on behalf of people with disability who may feel that they have sustained an economic loss as a result of the application of a particular wage assessment tool. In Disability Enterprises, which are great organisations that employ about 20,000 Australians with significant disability. They use essentially a pro-rata wage assessment tool and there was a Federal Court decision that found that, in the circumstances of two individuals, the tool had been used in a way that was indirectly discriminatory against them. There was no finding in relation to other people, just in relation to those two people.
So what we said as a government is, look there’s this uncertainty for people with disability. We want to resolve it. We want to establish a payment scheme, that people who are assessed under this wage assessment tool can make application to. We guarantee that you will get a payment. It’ll be a straight forward mechanism. And the legislation essentially was setting up the payment scheme and giving people an option. You can take part in the representative action, or you can take part in our streamlined and guaranteed payment scheme. So not taking away anyone’s rights, but you’d have to choose between the two. The representative action or our payment scheme. And I should say, no guarantee as to what the outcome of the representative action would be. But with our payment scheme, guaranteed money in people’s pockets.
That sounds like a perfectly feasible outcome. Clearly the Labor Party thought that those rights weren’t protected. Looking and standing back as a lay person without a legal degree or training Senator Fifield, I find it awkward or rather confusing that both sides couldn’t get together on this. I mean this is ultimately about people with disability.
Absolutely, and we endeavoured to get the agreement of the Senate for our scheme. But what we couldn’t agree to was that people, under Labor’s proposition, could take part in both the representative action and also the Government’s payments scheme so people could double dip. Labor did propose a mechanism, which I don’t think really was real world, where if people were successful in the representative action and had already had money from our payment scheme, that the Commonwealth Government would then seek to recoup the money from the individual.
Now just imagine the situation where someone received money from our payment scheme, and then say 5 or 6 years down the track, they were successful in the representative action. I can’t really see a government of the day seeking to pursue people who are vulnerable for that money, for money that they might have received four or five years previously. So we thought that was messy. That was untidy. We don’t want to see government going after vulnerable people seeking to claw money back from them.
We think the simple way is, give people a choice. And Labor have in fact denied people with disability a choice. Because by opposing our legislation, the payment scheme isn’t established and people with disability don’t have that option. We were giving an extra option and the choice was entirely that of individuals.
Well, it’s an extraordinarily bad situation and I think it’s appalling quite frankly that there couldn’t be some sort of meeting of the minds here. Senator Fifield no doubt you’ll continue to work on this, and I would hope that Jenny Macklin – who I think to look and it more broadly beyond this immediate issues I think has done some good things for people and disadvantaged people over the years – that surely there is an opportunity here to take a step back from the raw politics of this and help people who really need it. And let’s face it, the other thing I was going to suggest, let that law go through as is, and if there are issues and difficulties, surely you can come back to the table in 2015 and sort it out.
Well, that’s right. This is where Members and Senators should put politics aside. And you’re right, Jenny Macklin did do some good things in her time as minister and I must say I am disappointed in her approach to this.
But the most important thing is that we provide the maximum certainty possible for people with disability and to Disability Enterprises. Our payment scheme would see an option that people with disability don’t currently have. And I can assure you Chris, I haven’t given up on getting this through the Senate. We were one vote shy of having the numbers to do it. Most crossbenchers came on board to support it, so I’ve just got to work that little bit harder to see that this gets resolved.
Well let’s hope it does, Senator Fifield. Senator Mitch Fifield, the Assistant Minister for Social Services, all the best on this matter.
Thanks indeed Chris. Appreciate your interest.