24 June 2020


SUBJECTS: Robodebt

 One of the stories that took a lot of media attention in the last few months has been the absolute shambles of Robodebt. This was an algorithm that was constructed, by the way, it's turned out to be illegal, so the federal government have got to refund a lot of money. And we're talking in the hundreds of millions of dollars. But in the meantime, even though those that were saying this isn't lawful and it's wrong, there's now a call for a royal commission. Now, yesterday, the prime minister was very clear that ain't going to happen. But let's talk to the Shadow NDIS Minister, Bill Shorten. Bill, thanks for joining us today. So the government should know, is there anything you can do to force it?

BILL SHORTEN, MEMBER FOR MARIBYRNONG:  Well, they said no to a Banking Royal Commission 26 times. I don't give up.

BYNER: So what are you gonna do next?

SHORTEN: We'll keep pressure and we'll debate the issue in parliament. We'll talk with the people of Australia. Merely because Mr Morrison says no, well they were very stubborn on the Banking Royal Commission and that turned out to reveal all manner of misfeasance and misdeed.

BYNER: So what is it you’re hoping to achieve by having a Royal Commission, given that we have an official decision that it wasn't lawful? The government has basically admitted that they're now going to refund all those people. Of course, it caused a hell of a lot of duress. Apart from a political end, what would that achieve?

SHORTEN: There is more to this than just plain politics, it’s about people. First of all, the government only admitted the scheme was unlawful in November of last year, in a federal court case. In other words, a citizen had to take their government to court to stop the government breaking the law. This scheme was introduced in 2015/16, so it had been running for in excess of three years, illegally. The government said the scheme was unlawful. They haven't said how they broke the law. They haven't said who knew. When did they know? How could this happen? They've said that they’ll offer a refund. They haven't told us how they've arrived at who gets a refund and who doesn't. They're now in the federal court, again arguing against a class action which now has 60,000 registered parties, 60,000 people registered with Gordon Legal. And they're wasting taxpayer money. Having conceded it's unlawful, they don't want to agree to the class action. And so the problem is, even with the class action, even with the concession of illegality, even with the refund of some of the money, they still won't tell us how this happened. They hide behind what they call legal immunity or legal privilege. Only a royal commission can penetrate the corporate veil and find out how does the government break the law for four years.

BYNER: Let me ask you, how much, if this class action were to be successful, what would it cost the taxpayer? Because it's all of us is going to pay.

SHORTEN: Well, first of all, the biggest component of the class action won't cost the taxpayer a cent, because all that the government's going to be required to do is repay money the government was never entitled to. If I take your money and I repay you, there's no cost to me. All I'm doing is giving you back what was always yours. Now, because the government's stuffing around to put none too fine a word on it, not mincing my words, because the government say there's a legal cost as the government defend the indefensible that's costing the taxpayer. So, one bunch of taxpayers has to seek legal remedy against the government, and yet the government is using taxpayers money to stop them. So there's that cost. There's also the cost of interest. If you owe the government money, for many things under Social Security law and tax law, if you haven't paid them what the government asserts you owe them within a certain time period, you have to pay the general interest charge, seven and a half percent interest. If you're a poor punter who's been down five thousand dollars or ten thousand dollars for the last four years, you haven't had the advantage of that ten thousand dollars. Is it satisfactory that the government, having taken your money, denied you the use of your money, hands it back with no interest? And unfortunately the taxpayer would be up for the interest due to government incompetence.

BYNER: So when will people start getting repaid, the money that they were wrongly charged for?

SHORTEN: Well, this is going to be one of the great sagas that will go longer than the Siege of Troy, I suspect. They say they're going to pay three hundred and seventy three thousand people back, roughly, and they’re going to pay them 721 million dollars. I don't think that Centrelink, or Services Australia, will have the current details of three hundred and seventy three thousand people, so they’re going to have to go and find them. So some people get their money back soon. But others might have to wait on and on and on. I mean, one thing you know is that if you mix this government with information technology, plus cleaning up a mistake, it could take a fair while.

BYNER:  What I'm gonna do, Bill, and thank you for coming on. What I'll do is we'll talk to the feds and ask them when the reparations are going to start. I would have thought they should have started already. So given we had a lot of feedback about this and thousands of people got letters. Now, let's be clear that if somebody is owing a legitimate debt to the taxpayer, they are supposed to pay it. But this is not that at all.