Gordon Campbell on the ongoing debacle at ACC

The non re-appointment of Accident Compensation Corporation chairman John Judge falls a long, long way short of what will be required to effect a culture change at ACC. Especially since the government appears to think – if one can judge by the comments from ACC Minister Judith Collins on RNZ this morning – that the main problems at the organisation would be resolved if only the staff spoke more nicely to ACC claimants. Some of the language used in some ACC communications, Collins felt, had been “inappropriate.” She had visited nine ACC offices around the country and told staff they should speak to claimants and treat their material as if it were their own – “ or even more importantly, their mothers.”

Back on Planet Earth, ACC claimants – including Bronwyn Pullar – see a rather more pressing problem about the culture of the ACC organization, one that was eventually raised with Collins by the RNZ reporter. Namely, that people with long term disabilities are being culled systematically and unfairly denied the long term disability payments that are their due. That possibility just didn’t compute with the Minister:

Collins: I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. We have the dispute resolution service that deals with any disputes on that. I’m also very much aware that there are people who get back into work and can get back into work. So for people to be claiming that, it’s difficult to say without any evidence. There are, you know, lots of allegations made but until people front up with the evidence it’s a bit difficult to deal with.

RNZ: And [these complaints] would have to be considered on a case by case basis, rather than by saying that all of these people have suffered this fate?

Collins: I think so, too. I’ve been in a meeting on an Accredited Employer programme with trade union, with employer, representatives and had the trade union representative say that people were being forced back into part-time and I thought “Well what’s wrong with going and doing part time work if you can? So their attitude was very much that work was a punishment. It’s not. It’s actually…it incredibly does help with people getting back into physical and mental good condition. I don’t understand why work would be seen as a punishment.”

Clearly, we’re a million miles away from a culture change at ACC if – at this late stage of the ACC debacle – the Minister cannot even conceive of what Pullar and others have been saying for years and years. To spell it out: the main criticism is that in order to cut costs at ACC, large numbers of claimants with genuine disabilities are being forced back into work (whether it be full time or part time) when their disability precludes this from being either a fair or a healthy outcome, and in a situation where the existing checks and balances on ACC decision-making are simply not robust enough to prevent this from happening. The process may mystify Collins – but that is why the trade union representative used the words “forced” with respect to claimants being compelled to go back to work when they were not fit to do so. Duh.

Replacing John Judge with another corporate drone will change nothing. Government needs to prove leadership if there is to be a change of ACC culture. An entirely new board would help to restore public confidence, but that alone will not do the trick if the organisation is then left to pursue its current course. Government has to make it clear to ACC that it has to behave in a way that is more closely aligned to the core values enunciated by Owen Woodhouse four decades ago : that it exists in order to respond to need, and not to the cost cutting imperatives of central government.

For now, the government appears content to ignore the poisonous culture that has developed at ACC, and which has flourished in the post-GFC climate of austerity. Neither Judith Collins nor Prime Minister John Key seem willing to concede – publicly – that the organisation has strayed too far from its original purpose. At his post Cabinet press conference this week, Key even sought to argue that the steep decline in long term disability payments reflected the implementation of better rehabilitation techniques, and not cost cutting by ACC managers, in the name of austerity. Yeah, right. Clearly, this scandal will not go away – not as long as the government chooses to live in denial about its most basic symptoms.