2GB - The Alan Jones Breakfast Show

E&OE

ALAN JONES:

Now, Christian Porter, I understand, believes a settlement has been reached and he’s on the line.  Christian, good morning.

MINISTER PORTER:

Alan, how are you this morning?

JONES:

I don’t know how you get any sleep – you’ve got a million things on your plate. Just before I come to that, this business about individual debts by welfare cheats; I mean these are phenomenal amounts of money aren’t they? Welfare cheats are 71, 82, 87.

MINISTER PORTER:

Yeah. I was astonished to see both the nature of the debt, the size of the debts collectively but what I was astonished at is the lack of effort that was undertaken by the previous Government to recover these debts.

JONES:

Correct.

MINISTER PORTER:

And look some of the more extreme cases are quite frankly extraordinary, but at its heart is the fact that there are $870 million held by about 270,000 people, there’s $870 million dollars worth of debt. These are people who did receive overpayments, then left the welfare system.

JONES:

Say again, how many million?

MINISTER PORTER:

$870 million held by about 270,000 what we call ‘ex-recipients’. So people who were in the welfare system, received overpayments, and then have left the welfare system, so are supporting themselves which is wonderful, but there have to be concerted efforts made to recoup that debt.

JONES:

But have you, you’re running a mammoth Department there. How does Christian Porter or Alan Jones get taxpayers money because we fake identities? Doesn’t someone say now here’s a letter from Christian Porter making an application for an Age Pension, now let’s check if he exists, let’s check is this address is real? Or do we say, oh, it’s other people’s money give it to him and he comes in as Alan Jones the next day and Ross Gittins the next day? I mean there something wrong with the system that this can happen.

MINISTER PORTER:

I’ve spent many years as a Crown Prosecutor, Alan, and people who are intent to commit offences of fraud will do so and are likely to do so for the next hundred years. And there’s always room for tightening up and being more stringent, and as we move to better electronic management of data and cross matching, which we’re doing with the ATO, we’re going to get better and better at preventing these things. But it doesn’t the fact that…

JONES:

No.

MINISTER PORTER:

…we’ve got $870 million outstanding        

JONES:

You won’t get that back will you?

MINISTER PORTER:

We’re going to get a lot of this back. One of the things that I found astonishing was that, in effect, $870 million under the previous Government had been left to take the form essentially of a low interest loan with no repayment scheme. Because if someone had been overpaid and they’re inside the welfare system we garnish their welfare payments, but once they leave and become self-sufficient through employment we really were not making efforts to recover the money. So what we’re doing now is three things. One, we are applying an interest charge to that deb – so we will politely write to people, notify them that they will have 9% interest placed on that debt unless they enter into a time-to-pay arrangement. These are very modest arrangements. I mean the average debt is about $2300 dollars and at average wage you’re paying back about $60 a fortnight. If you enter into that time-to-pay arrangement, you don’t have the interest charge applied. So for the first time we have an incentive for people to actually to pay back their debt once they’ve left the system…

JONES:

And what punishment for actually taking money that’s not theirs?

MINISTER PORTER:

Well, in some cases it is fraud, in other cases it is error, whether it is error through sloppiness or wilful blindness or just plain error, it’s not always fraud but nevertheless money is owed by 1% of the Australian population…

JONES:

But I saw in your thing welfare overpayment debt is now $3 billion dollars – overpayment, not fraud. Overpayment!

MINISTER PORTER:

Well, fraud’s inside…

JONES:

Ah inside that.

MINISTER PORTER:

Yes, that’s the global figure. But the other two things we’re doing, we are going to use passport control. If you have enough money to fly the family to Bali, you have enough money to repay your debt. This has been very successfully applied with child support debts, so why would we not apply it for welfare debt?

JONES:

Good on you. Tell you what you’ve done some work.

MINISTER PORTER:

The other third thing, Alan, I must finish is that previously if we hadn’t taken action against you or couldn’t find you for six years – the debt just ended. So even before this legislation gets passed $132 million dollars worth of debt becomes irrecoverable to us before because it clicks over that six year mark. Now we are ending that statute of limitation…

JONES:

That’s it. Even after six years we’re coming after you!

MINISTER PORTER:

We will be looking for many, many years to come…

JONES:

Good on you.

MINISTER PORTER:

…it’s all part of keeping this Budget in reasonable control.

JONES:

This bloke’s been in the gig I might add for less than six months. Now look, this disabled stuff – the disabled people tell me that this does nothing to resolve the real issue that basically they’ll come back again in relation to payments that they believe – these advocates – should be made to the disabled. Now what does it mean in the blurb when you’ve got a bill that quote “will increase payments to every eligible supported employee”, what’s that mean?

MINISTER PORTER:

Okay, so there’s three issues here. One’s the litigation. I’ve learnt through being a lawyer for many years that nobody benefits from long and protracted litigation. My desire here was just to end this, to reach a settlement and move on to other issues which are about sustaining disability enterprises. So what we’ve done is we’ve set extra money aside. We think this will pass the Senate this week – we very much hope so, we’ve had Labor’s support thankfully in the House of Representatives – if it passes the Senate we understand that the lawyers and the advocates that you’ve spoken of are in agreement with us that this will settle the matter. So the employees…

JONES:

What with taxpayers’ money?

MINISTER PORTER:

It is taxpayers’ money but I must say…

JONES:

So basically they’re going to subsidise every person in a ‘sheltered workshop’?

MINISTER PORTER:

Well, we are subsidising for the period before this decision and look, Alan, we’ve been subsidising this decision to try and help ADE’s transition across. 

JONES:

Where is the principle that I’ve articulated Christian, which is so true, that there is more to these people than the wage?

MINISTER PORTER:

I mean, I would agree with you as a matter of philosophy – the reality is though that we’re confronted with a legal decision that is outside of the control and auspices of Government. So my job is a pragmatic and practical one – how do I help ADEs survive and provide the dignity and employment to the disabled?

JONES:

Right. So who’s going to get this quote unquote “extra payment”?

MINISTER PORTER:

The individual people, Australians with a disability who worked in ADE’s and were, according to the court, paid pursuant through a tool which was at the time deemed to be not lawful.

JONES:

So is that all people in disability employment?

MINISTER PORTER:

Well, anyone who was nominally the subject of the decision and who applies for the money.

JONES:

Because they came again with a further court case didn’t they?

MINISTER PORTER:

Yes they did.

JONES:

Right. So this will cover all the disabled people. Now alright, they’ve got to make applications though have they?

MINISTER PORTER:

That’s correct.

JONES:

This is the intellectually disabled, who does that?

MINISTER PORTER:

We’ve structured a very simple process for application – that’s the first issue. The second and third issues relate to how we ensure the future for Australian Disability Enterprises, which is incredibly important. We have allocated and are spending $141 million dollars to help Australian Disability Enterprises organise and structure themselves so they can operate under the new wages tool that is being developed by the Fair Work Commission. Now 80% of all the ADE’s have managed to transition from that old tool, which you know had that terrible name BSWAT, to the wages tools that we think, on best available legal evidence, will be deemed to be lawful under the Disability Discrimination Act. 

JONES:

Okay.                       

MINISTER PORTER:

So I’m getting more and more confident that more and more ADE’s are going to survive…

JONES:

Good on you.           

MINISTER PORTER:

…not, as you point out, without massive assistance from this Government, because they are so important.

JONES:

Just two quick questions – will there be some disabled workers in the disability sector though getting paid more than others?

MINISTER PORTER:

At the moment I think the answer is yes but only at very marginal differences because individual ADE’s have developed wages tools which they consider to be lawful. Now that will likely end to a great extent when the Fair Work Commission says, “look this is the tool that everyone should be using”.

JONES:

Okay. Secondly, what in the so called settlement prevents future legal discrimination claims seeking to compel ‘sheltered workshops’ to pay even higher wages? 

MINISTER PORTER:

Well, indeed. This is the ongoing problem. If the Fair Work Commission comes around and says, “Here is the new wages tool, we consider this is what you should be using”, I do not control disability advocates and they may or may not determine to try and run the same game against that new wages tool. Obviously that is something that I as a Minister and we as the Government are watching like a hawk – and that in my view would not necessarily be in the best interests, as you’ve pointed out, of people who are employed in this sector who are provided with dignity and more than just a wage.

JONES:

You are doing an outstanding job in a very difficult portfolio. I thank you for your time we’ll talk again when we need to.

MINISTER PORTER:

Alan, thank you.

JONES:

There he is. Christian Porter is his name, the Minister in charge of all that. He’s been there five months and he’s on top of it.