Linda Reynolds
Linda Reynolds (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Australia has a long history of women being blamed for men’s mistakes. It’s known as the “glass cliff”, whereby women and people of colour are appointed to positions only after an organisation starts performing badly and are then blamed for its past performance.

It seems if there’s unavoidable disaster, the blokes step back and a woman takes the fall.

Newly appointed National Disability Insurance Scheme Minister Linda Reynolds is likely to face that glass cliff having inherited Stuart Robert’s problematic draft legislation, which is sending the disability community into an uproar.

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Reynolds’ suitability to hold any portfolio, let alone one dealing with people’s welfare and well-being, should be questioned after her poor handling of former staffer Brittany Higgins’ allegations of rape. Reynolds called Higgins a “lying cow” — she later apologised. Higgins announced yesterday she is writing a memoir.

‘Pure power grab’

The NDIS has been a problematic portfolio for some time. Designed under Labor but implemented under the Coalition, the scheme is designed to give people with disabilities more choice and control over funding to live their lives.

Days after the March cabinet reshuffle, a proposal for changes to the scheme — which look as if they will do the opposite of what it is designed to do — was leaked. The proposal is horrendous. State and territory disability ministers were not given copies of it and have raised concerns it represents a “pure power grab”.

Key clauses underpinning the scheme have been removed in the proposal. The federal minister will be able to make “rules” without majority agreement from states and territories, and disability ministers will no longer have veto power.

Year after year under the Coalition there have been billions of dollars of underspend on the scheme — $4.6 billion in 2018-19 and $1.6 billion in 2019-20. A new form of assessing people with disabilities’ needs is set to be introduced that advocates say will cut peoples’ funding and lead to more underspend.

Participants will be surveilled in real time and — similar to robodebt — the NDIS will be able to collect debts if it believes funding has been spent on ordinary living expenses instead of disability-specific expenses.

The proposal has been met with outrage from state and territory ministers and the disability community, who are demanding answers but are met with silence as Reynolds remains on leave.

A history of scapegoating women

In 1990 Victoria’s first female premier Joan Kirner inherited debt problems from John Cain, and came to her premiership while support for Labor was falling. The career of Western Australia’s first female premier, Carmen Lawrence, faltered over the 1992 Penny Easton affair. The first NSW leader of the opposition Kerry Chikarovski lost her role due to a coup by her party in 2002 after a long campaign of sexism and harassment.

Former NSW premier Kristina Keneally came to power with corrupt ministers Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi in her ministry. Julia Gillard came to power when the Rudd government hit a crisis point in the polls. Current Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk took over Labor amid an electoral disaster.

It’s textbook, according to research that analysed CEO transitions in Fortune 500 companies across 15 years and found white women and people of colour are more likely than white men to be promoted to CEO of weakly performing firms. White men are then likely to replace these appointees — dubbed the “saviour effect”.

Many female political leaders did wonderful things in their roles. But how likely is it they would have been able to take up their high-profile positions had their organisations not been in crisis — and who will Morrison appoint to swoop in and “save” Reynolds’ ailing portfolio?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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