29 May 2020

FRIDAY, 29 MAY 2020

SUBJECT: Robodebt class action settlement; Morrison Government accountability.

BILLSHORTEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Well, good afternoon, everybody. Today, this afternoon, the Morrison Government has just conceded the largest ever class action settlement in the history of Australia. Today, the Morrison Government has said that it has been illegally taking 721 million dollars from 470,000 Centrelink recipients. Labor spoke to a class action law firm and a class action was launched earlier this year and late last year into the illegal Robodebt scheme, because I believe that the Government for the last four 1/2 years has been holding people's money illegally. It has been charging people penalty fees. And the whole basis for the Government to take money off vulnerable Centrelink recipients was illegal. Now, today, in the late afternoon, the Government has said that they they're going to refund 721 million dollars to 470,000 Centrelink recipients.

Now, the Government says this is a refinement, it's not a refinement. The Government has finally admitted - because you don’t pay 721 million dollars to 470,000 people just because you think what you’re doing is lawful.

The Government has for years been illegally taking people's money, and has been putting ordinary Australians through pain, trauma - . people have lost jobs, people have lost relationships, people have suffered psychological injury, people were not allowed to go overseas - all on the basis of illegal Government debt notices. Labor is proud to have campaigned since the election and supported a class action, the class action will continue.

But what really makes me angry about this isn't just the injury to people. It isn't just the illegality of a Government taking hundreds of millions of dollars off people, but the Government are now still denying the class action and will still have to front up in court.
The only reason the Government settled this matter today or indeed offered a refund because the matter is not fully resolved, is because the trial date, I understand, was to be set for July 20th and Government Ministers were going to have to turn up to court in empty witness box seats and explain what they knew, when they knew, why the federal Government, the Federal Liberal Coalition Government had been taking hundreds of millions of dollars of vulnerable Australians and why they had no legal authority for these actions.

I'd also say to the Prime Minister, you gave a press conference at three o'clock, but you didn't choose to tell the Canberra media anything about the largest ever settlement in class action history. The fact that you have been taking 470,000 Seventy thousand people, money of them, keeping money unlawfully, in my opinion, for hundreds of millions of dollars and the Prime Minister had nothing to say on that. Five minutes after they stopped speaking, he sent his hapless and ineffective Minister out on the Gold Coast to tell Australians that the taxpayer is footing the bill for Government incompetence, Government negligence and the Government unjustly enriching itself of the most vulnerable Australians on the safety net. Happy to take any questions if there are any questions.

JOURNALIST: How embarrassing is this for the Government?

SHORTEN: I think that this is an incompetent Government when it comes to Robodebt. It's not just embarrassing. This is a matter which affects real people. For people sitting at home today watching the TV saying what does this all mean, 470,000 of your fellow Australians over the last four years received debt notices from the Government with legal implications where the Government said, you owe us hundreds of millions of dollars. Some people argued about it. Some people paid up. Others got stressed. Others lost their jobs. Others lost their relationships. Hundreds of people after receiving the debt notices passed away and I have no doubt that some of that was due, in some cases tragically, to the mental health stresses of Robodebt action by the Government.

This is not just embarrassing. You have both the Minister and the Prime Minister telling everyone on a Friday night so they hope that matter gets overlooked in the sporting news. This Government should be ashamed of itself. They should not just refund the money, but they now need to make recompense for the hardship and pain they’ve caused hundreds of thousands of Australian citizens.

JOURNALIST: What do you think is a suitable time frame for repaying these debts?

SHORTEN: Well, the Government would, if you owe the Government money, eventually they would throw you in jail. But when the government illegally takes money off you, they've held onto it for four and a half years. There’s two rules in Australia, there’s the rule for the ordinary people if you owe the government money, they'll chase you and fine you and chuck you into jail perhaps. But when the government owes you money, they think it should take forever. I think the government should be cutting the cheques now. And for the record, the only reason the government is cutting any cheques, repaying 470000 Australians, is because on July the 20th, some of those ministers who've been part of this unlawful Ponzi scheme against the Australian people were going to have to sit in court. And the court was going to see the whites of these Ministers’ eyes and these ministers were going to have to face the music. And the only reason why they're facing the music is because Labour and Gordon Legal kept fighting and fighting. And because these ministers would rather cut cheques, then explain their own shoddy conduct.

JOURNALIST: Do you think there are more debts eligible to be repaid beyond the 470,000 identified?

SHORTEN: Listen the class action is not over. I suspect and I'm not a betting man, but I suspect the first that the government's lawyers knew about the settlement by the government was probably by press release this afternoon. The government's doing what the cynics called taking out the trash on a Friday afternoon. They're telling people bad news when people are focussed on other matters. I think that I know the class action is due for mediation next week, and it's not a trial date on the 20th of July. The class action is not over. One thing I know about this government is when they make a mistake, they keep making a mistake and when they try and fix it up they have to be dragged kicking and screaming. This government folded like a deck of cards because of the class action, not because this government had seen the light.

JOURNALIST: How will the Labor government pursue the broader implications of this, so the millions of dollars spent on debt collection?

SHORTEN: What happened here is that hundreds of thousands of people, students, farmers, pensioners, the unemployed, they were chased for debts. And when you get a debt letter from the government, you tend to assume that they're authorised to do it. The problem is the government didn't have the lawful authority to do what they were doing. So now, in terms of chasing it, the taxpayer's going to have to pay the interest. Because this government for years has taken hundreds of millions of dollars off people where they weren't entitled to the money and they've been getting the value and the interest. So now that government and indeed the taxpayer is going to have to pay the interest on the money that the government unlawfully took from the people. This is madness. And I think the thing which is really, really galling no one in the government is responsible, no one's resigning. They’ve cost you, the taxpayer, tens of millions of dollars in interest they’ve caused countless harm to hundreds of thousands of our fellow Australian citizens. And apparently, it was just a computer glitch. No one's to be blamed. This is a cowardly government and they should have fronted up to the music. The Prime Minister should have done it. When the big mistakes are made, the buck stops with the person with the big job. And the whole way they've handled this has been one of denial. And if they didn't have a class action breathing down their neck, this money still wouldn't be refunded to Australians.

Thanks, have a lovely afternoon guys.