Australians living under state control are testifying at the Disability Royal Commission. But gag laws mean you won’t see their faces

Home Politics Australians living under state control are testifying at the Disability Royal Commission. But gag laws mean you won’t see their faces
Australians living under state control are testifying at the Disability Royal Commission. But gag laws mean you won’t see their faces

“When people with a disability approach me as a lawyer, they express a sincere and genuine fear of ‘the government’, as they call it, which is the Public Guardian and Public Trustee, coming to make decisions for them.”

That’s what lawyer Natalie Wade told Four Corners earlier this year, as part of our program, State Control — a year-long investigation into the secretive guardianship and administration system which controls the lives of 50,000 Australians.

The “decisions” this system makes are fundamental to these people’s human rights,  including where someone lives, what medical treatment they have, how much of their own money they are allocated and what they can spend it on.

Pop icon Britney Spears was placed under similar orders in the US for 14 years. In that case, her father was given authority over her.

In Australia, “state control” is supposed to be a last resort, with families and friends supposedly preferred to assist a loved one. However, in some states, family are often rejected in favour of public guardians and trustees.

Public guardians and trustees across the country argue that they’re stepping in to ensure vulnerable people aren’t neglected or exploited. That’s because these people have been deemed to be lacking capacity due to cognitive disabilities like stroke, dementia, a mental illness or an intellectual disability.

A compostite image shows a middle aged man in a suit and a grinning pop star at a red carpet event.
Britney Spears’s father Jamie (left) set up and oversaw the conservatorship that controlled the pop star’s life and money for more than a decade.(AP: File)

Unlike the Britney Spears case, the issue is relatively unknown here because virtually every government in Australia makes it a criminal offence for the media to identify anyone “under orders”. Gag laws mean publishing a story — even after someone has died — is against the law in most of the country, with penalties ranging from hefty fines to a jail sentence for journalists. 

That’s why the ABC went to the Supreme Courts in Western Australia and Queensland to fight to identify some of those people. We won, and were able to expose extraordinary fees and legal costs charged unknowingly to clients with cognitive disabilities.

Hearings of heartache

This week some of these long-silenced people will be giving their accounts of life under state control to the disability royal commission.

If any of their stories are like the emails we received following our Four Corners, there will be plenty of heartache on display. 

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