‘I didn’t stuff it up like you have’: Plibersek on Q&A
WHEN she took her problem to Q&A, Fred Thorpe's wait for answers wasn't as long as the 90 minutes a day for two weeks she spent on the phone to Centrelink asking why her Disability Support Pension was being reviewed, but it was just as unproductive.
But as she told her story, Ms Thorpe gave a stark illustration of the gulf between politicians and the people wearing their decisions.
Ms Thorpe - forced to resign from a 28-year teaching career due to ill health - is raising three children and receives a $22,000 a year pension.
"Less," she observed, "than what most politicians would spend in month".
With her teenage daughter, Andie, who has been helping care for her since the age of five, sitting alongside her, Ms Thorpe, calmly opened fire on Q&A's chosen topic of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
The rheumatoid arthritis sufferer's question was simple: "Can George Brandis explain why politicians' expenses are extravagant and go unchecked while I am having my Disability Support Pension reviewed?"
Mouthing "I love you" to her daughter as Mr Brandis outlined changes to politicians' superannuation and parliamentary Gold Passes, then congratulated her on "what a great thing you have done to raise three children", Ms Thorpe waited patiently, then politely fired off another salvo.
"I think it is too little too late, and the superannuation needs to be looked at and gold passes are irrelevant when you look at what sitting members are getting," she said.
"This is my daughter Andie. She is in Year 11. She is my registered carer. She was the New South Wales Young Carer of the Year and Young Citizen of the Year for Manly and after taking care of her mum, she is going to study to become a doctor.
"Along with her brother and sister, my disability pension will produce far more for Australia than any politician ever will."
A fortnight ago, Ms Thorpe found out her pension was being reviewed.
She said she spent most of the weekend "throwing up with absolute fear".
"If my pension is removed, what will become of us? I have no family," she said.
The reviews are being undertaken to see if people who are on disability pensions are capable of working. Ms Thorpe doesn't have a problem with that: "we need to monitor this".
What she does have a problem with is she was already assessed and declared unfit for work: six years ago.
"I have now currently had both a professor and a doctor send in documentation to say that I am unfit to work after an exemplary 28 years of producing quality young Australians ... for me to be put through this, is quite awful, Mr Brandis," Ms Thorpe said.
Mr Brandis continued to speak in generalities.
"I can't talk of your own particular circumstances, but what you have done with your family is something we should all admire enormously," he said, adding that to run an effective social welfare system in Australia "then we have to ensure that every dollar spent in that system is targeted on those who need it most".
"That means ... there should be reviews from time to time to ensure that the payments are going to those who are eligible for them, to those who need the most and when we design policy in this area, it should be directed to the people who are most in need."
It set the scene for the personal to be sidelined by politics, as Deputy Opposition leader Tanya Plibersek entered the fray, clashing with Brandis over the Centrelink debt recovery debacle.
"We shouldn't be putting people who have a permanent disability or incapacity through the stress you are talking about and, at the moment if you ring Centrelink you are waiting hours on the phone. You don't get an answer. People are getting debt letters ..." was her opening jab.
It quickly deteriorated into a he-said, she-said over who had caused the debacle.
Mr Brandis said the idea of data matching Australian Tax Offcie data and Centrelink data could be traced back to the Hawke Labor Government, Mr Brandis said.
"The introduction of automation, so there is an automatically generated letter, if the data matching shows a discrepancy wasn't that all long ago. It was introduced in 2011 when you, Tanya, were the Minister for Human Services," he added.
Plibersek fired back: "I didn't stuff it up the way you have stuffed it up, George."
It earned the biggest round of applause for the night.
Mr Brandis earned the biggest laugh - of disbelief - for the night when he further defended the system, saying "when a notice is issued and appears to the person to whom the notice is issued a mistake has been made they can contact Centrelink to sort out the problem."
"You'll be waiting on the phone for a while," Ms Plibersek shot back, as Q&A host Tony Jones pointed out "Fred (Ms Thorpe) almost fell over laughing at that one".
Human rights advocate and barrister Julian Burnside said it was "outrageous that any government can send a letter of demand to a person and tell them you have got to prove to us that you don't owe them money".
Conceding the review of Centrelink "will be brutal for some people", political commentator Piers Akerman said it was "long overdue".
"When we have 51 per cent or more of the population paying no taxes whatsoever, and looking for the rest of the population to support them the taxpayer , all of us, and probably many in your audience, would like to know that their monies are being doled out responsibly," he said.
MS Thorpe wasn't interested in the politics, later calling for fairness for those being put under the microscope by politicians.
"The weekend the Prime Minister was enjoying the privileges of being in Kirribilli House, I was at home with $1.65 to my name trying to work out how to cook food for the remainder of the week," she said.
Originally published as 'I didn't stuff it up like you have'