29 May 2020

FRIDAY 29 MAY 2020

SUBJECTS: Robodebt refunds, class action.

BILL SHORTEN, MEMBER FOR MARIBYRNONG: First of all, the government doesn't have the right to just take money off you illegally, unlawfully. Secondly, this wasn't a mistake made on one day to a few people. This is four and a half years. The Robodebt unfairness was highlighted from when the debts started getting issued. People for four years have said that this doesn't feel right. And when I came into the shadow portfolio after the election loss, I noticed there was a pattern that the government had 200 matters where people took them to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and they'd settle each matter. They wouldn't go to hearings. And I thought, well, that's pretty shifty. Why doesn't the government want to demonstrate its legal authority? The Victorian Legal Aid Commission had to run two cases and in the end they got an admission out of the government. The scheme was unlawful last November, So why is the government waited until May just to refund the money? It's not it's not just an accident. This isn't like forgetting to turn the light off in the office when you leave the office.

NICOLE CHVASTEK, HOST: In your view, is this a shakedown by a democratically elected government on its people?

SHORTEN: Yeah, I think they thought the people on Centrelink would be less likely to fight back. I think they've rushed the whole scheme. They relied on a computer algorithm and took the human oversight out of it. And they thought, well, we need to, you know, buttress our bogus budget numbers by having a compliance campaign on welfare because they love to infer that people on welfare are bludgers and cheats. I mean, you know, you should never receive a dollar you're not entitled to. But, yes, I think they picked on a more marginalised group of Australians and now they've been found that they acted in, well, they haven’t been found, they've had to fess up because there was a court due, I understand that the federal court had put down a hearing for the 20th of July coming up. And I reckon some of the ministers thought ‘we don’t want to get into that empty witness seat. We'd don’t want to say what we did and didn't know it when we did it we didn't know things. So it was the pressure of a class action, but it shouldn't take a class action, make the government recognise the error of their ways. And this has not been a victimless matter.

CHVASTEK: You have pointed, as have others, to those who have taken their own lives, that vulnerable welfare recipients not only vulnerable financially, but those suffering disability and carry mental health conditions who took their own lives. In your view, is the legal action over now?

SHORTEN: No. No, it's not. This is just the beginning. I mean, it's good that there's a refund. But that doesn't, and we haven't seen a lot of the detail. If it includes the interest on the money that the government took, which wasn't an individual's bank accounts for sitting in government coffers for years. That's good. This government issued tens of millions of dollars in penalties and late notices for people who they alleged had Robodebt. So hopefully that's been refunded. But it's been a lot of hardship here. People weren’t able to go overseas because there was a government debt order against them, which is illegal. Think about it, Nicole. If you or I or anyone listening couldn't get on a plane, you booked a holiday, or going to take up a job overseas or, you know, travel to see family and, you know, the embarrassment, you’re at the customs. No, you can't go overseas because you've got a Robodebt notice. And then some years on, the Government says my bad. What’s going on? Oh, sorry. It’s just a refinement. Governments should not treat their citizens in this manner.

CHVASTEK: When you when you talk about this just being the beginning of legal actions, yes there have been a number of impediments to people being able to live their lives normally, but just in relation to those who took their lives. Do you think that there are families with whom you have connections, who will now be looking at taking legal action, given that this may have been the trigger which pushed their loved one over the edge?

SHORTEN: Gee, it's so hard, isn't it? I mean, I'm very mindful of the people we're talking about. When someone takes their own life, I'm not going to be so arrogant to say it's for one fact or the other. But I do respect parents and people who have taken their lives, and some of them have said that a vulnerable person's been pushed to the edge. It’s not the job of the government to push you over the edge. So I imagine there will be more legal action. I mean, the thing is, the government's announced a refund on a Friday night. They're hoping it doesn't get much. People tend not to watch the news as much on Friday night. Hopefully they'll be watching some footy on the weekend. It's pretty cynical. The Prime Minister of Australia does a press conference at three o'clock, but he just happens to forget that we’re going to refund money to 470,000 people. Politicians of all ilks turn up at the opening of an envelope, so you'd think that sending money to people would be a good news announcement. So they've done it in a pretty weak way. But there’s a court action. So they're going to have to resolve the court action.

CHVASTEK: Would you encourage those who have lost loved ones to investigate the possibility of a legal action?

SHORTEN: It's hard. First of all, people who are feeling mental distress should seek appropriate counselling. If you're a constituent of mine, or a relative of mine, or you came and spoke to me directly, I wouldn’t claim to understand all your circumstances. But I would say acquaint yourself with your legal rights. But everyone's different, I wouldn’t want to say to people they should do X or do Y. That's not my place. But what I do hope is that the legal action shakes out all of the problems in the system. See, the thing is, when you run a class action, you get discovery. That's the technical term. But what it means is we find out what the government was really doing, and this government never wanted to show what they're really doing. So I think they're hoping they'll make the problem, try and go away and never have to give evidence about all of the poor behaviour. But anyway, let's wait and see.

CHVASTEK: Thank you for your time.

SHORTEN: Lovely to chat, cheers.