Imagine not being able to decide where and how you can live, afford an iced coffee at a café as an occasional treat, buy presents for your grandkids or replace your ill-fitting underwear. While that’s hard to comprehend for many of us, it’s the distressing reality facing some Tasmanians who are under the control of state-appointed guardians and the Public Trustee.
All these stories and more have been told in my office by people who have lost their homes and had their purse strings pulled achingly tight by the state. Indeed, I have had dealings with the Public Trustee dating to back at least four years, during which time I have repeatedly raised concerns from constituents about how their money is being handled and the lack of transparency on how decisions are made under the current guardianship and administration regime.
And let’s not forget that an inquiry conducted just last year by Damian Bugg QC concluded that for 26 years the Public Trustee in Tasmania had “genuinely misunderstood” the duties of an administrator. It was also perceived to be lacking in “empathy and engagement” by many of those whose affairs it administered. How has this been allowed to happen?
And what has become of Mr Bugg’s 28 recommendations to improve the system? As far as I can see, both individuals and their families caught up in this deeply flawed system remain at the mercy of an organisation very aptly described by the state’s peak advocacy group as “completely broken”.
The state Attorney-General’s recent explanation that the Department of Justice, the Treasury Department and the Public Trustee are still working on how best to respond to the Bugg review findings and “make the necessary improvements to better meet clients’ needs” comes as cold comfort those who continue to suffer.
Just last week the ABC highlighted yet another heartbreaking tale, this time about a young stroke victim living under an administration order who had to ask for permission to buy his beloved an engagement ring. Talk about ruining the moment.
Identified only as Ben, the 34-year-old was first placed under an emergency order in 2017 while unconscious and, despite annual reviews and making a steady recovery, has been unable to free himself of these constraints since.
For those not in the know, guardians and the Public Trustee step in if a person is deemed to be incapable of managing their own life and finances. It is also worth noting the situation is little better on the mainland, with Four Corners recently exposing horror stories in other jurisdictions about the heavy hands of state-run overlords ruining people’s lives.
The burning question now is how do we make things better for the 1,300 Tasmanians in this unenviable situation? The Gutwein Government would be well advised to seek counsel from Leanne Groombridge, of Advocacy Tasmania, who has called for the current system to be replaced by a scheme with a human rights focus, designed to empower, support and help people when they need it most.
It’s clear the Tasmanian Government, and indeed other jurisdictions, have no interest in fixing a system that effectively disenfranchises people who, like the rest of us, deserve to have a voice. The Federal Government needs to step in. That’s why I am working with Advocacy Tasmania, and other key stakeholders, to develop a national framework for supported decision-making.
We need an entirely new system which enshrines an individual’s inherent right to exercise control over their lives. That’s what every single person on an order I have spoken to has wanted.
Simply tinkering around the edges of our current system will not stop the daily injustices faced by so many. Surely it’s just common sense that the individual should be front and centre of the decision-making process, not left to struggle in silence because antiquated gag provisions prevent them from publicly speaking out.
This opinion piece was published in the Mercury on 1 April 2022