ACT News

Simon Corbell defies Liberals over merger of public trustee and guardian

Attorney-General Simon Corbell pushed through the merger of the public trustee and public guardian offices on Tuesday in the face of widespread opposition from the guardian and human rights community.

The Liberals voted against the move and leader Jeremy Hanson said he would consider reversing it if he won government at the October election.

Mr Corbell said the concerns were overstated. While there had been a significant fraud in the public trustee's office – with staff and contractors now charged with stealing $1.65 million from clients – the fraud had been detected by the office itself, he said. The public trustee was "continuously vigilant" about detecting irregularities and had a high level of diligence and probity.

The merger has sparked widespread opposition, and cost the office two of its three senior guardians, who have now left, with the third on extended leave.

But Mr Corbell said it made "perfect sense" to merge the two offices, given the public trustees were responsible for managing the financial affairs of people who couldn't manage their own, and the were guardians were responsible for managing people's other life affairs. There was no proposal for the same person to do both jobs, Mr Corbell said, rejecting concerns raised by former intensive care doctor Tom Faunce, who predicted that financial imperatives would result in one person in both roles, with the risk that financial considerations would trump others.

Mr Corbell said it was "simply wrong" to suggest the merger would water down the ability of the public trustee or guardian to act in people's best interests. 

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The change would save money in management, allowing more resources at the front line, he said. In a jurisdiction as small as Canberra it made no sense to have a proliferation of tiny agencies, each with their own administration, especially in a time of spending restraint, he said.

The law passed on Tuesday with the support of Greens minister Shane Rattenbury, who said he was confident vulnerable people would be protected. Guardians already took people's finances into account when making life decisions and the merger would make it easier for them to do so. It would also provide a single point of contact for clients.  

The new laws also reorganise the human rights commission, and Mr Hanson criticised the government for advertising commissioner positions in December before the changes had even been passed by the Parliament. The move was a show of "unbridled arrogance", he said.

His attempt to have the changes referred to a parliamentary committee was rejected by the government. They take effect in April.

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