ABC NEWS AFTERNOON BRIEFING
SUBJECTS: Robodebt Royal Commission; Dyson Heydon revelations; COVID-19 spike in Victoria; Victorian Labor.
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Bill Shorten, welcome.
BILL SHORTEN, MEMBER FOR MARIBYRNONG: Good afternoon.
KARVELAS: Why do you want a Royal Commission into the Robodebt scheme? What details do you expect will emerge from such an enquiry?
SHORTEN: The Government has never explained in parliament nor in court when it made the decisions to introduce Robodebt. Did they have a legal opinion validating it? This is an illegal scheme, which has affected hundreds of thousands of Australians, where the Government has unjustly enriched itself by hundreds of millions of dollars. And we are no closer to knowing who made the decision. Why did they not check it was unlawful for four year? Why did people have to go to court to stop the Government from breaking the law?
KARVELAS: Why does it have to be a Royal Commission though? I mean, there has been many criticisms, as you know, that we're perhaps having too many Royal Commissions. There's other ways to do the enquiry. Why does it have to be a Royal Commission?
SHORTEN: Well, I think the parliament's broken. In many ways, we can't get to the truth in parliament. We ask questions of the Government. There's no requirement for them to be relevant. For years. They just said we were wrong. And then when we ask about court cases and when the Government's finally run up the white flag and said it was unlawful in November of last year, they then hide behind, ‘oh, this is public interest immunity. It's legally privileged. We don't have to tell you’. So if the Government doesn't account to the people in parliament, if it hides behind legal privilege like James Hardie did in the asbestos cases, the only way to break through the corporate veil of legal privilege that the Government's using to hide its illegal activity is a Royal Commission. Nothing less than that gets to the heart of it - the court cases, the class action which I've helped organise, the point about that is that it may get compensation to people and it may discover key documents the Government's been hiding from the people, but we'll never get to which minister is responsible. How can such a catastrophic mistake be made at the highest levels of our public service? Without a Royal Commission, the Government will just cover it up.
KARVELAS: If Labor is so passionate about a Royal Commission, why did Labor vote against the Greens motion calling for a Royal Commission last week in the Senate?
SHORTEN: We gave the Government one last chance. I mean, they should have been on notice that the public mood is deeply unhappy with their handling of Robodebt. We asked in the Senate for the Government to drop its argument of what they called public interest immunity, in other words, they say that this matters in the public interest and so they don't reveal their legal arguments. We ask that they drop this stonewalling by close of business last Friday. You know, that was probably an exercise more in hope than experience. They passed our deadline. So we left with no alternative but to raise a Royal Commission.
KARVELAS: Gordon Legal is pursuing a class action into the scheme, as you mentioned, and it's trying to force ministers to testify. Won't that achieve potentially the same outcome?
SHORTEN: Well, I think it'll have some effect. I mean, there's now sixty thousand people signed up to the action and hopefully it'll deliver compensation. I've got no doubt that first of all the Victorian Legal Aid Commission case for an individual where the Government sort of surrendered at the door of court and said, yes, it's unlawful, followed up by us organising a class action - that's what's dislodged 721 million dollars from the Government to return it to the people from whom they illegally took it. But this Government’s still stonewalling, the court may be able to offer compensation, but it can't suggest reform of the system. This is a Government who, having been caught, has denied it for four years. I mean, what happens is your average Australian's recourse under Social Security law is to appeal, when they don't like a Government decision to go to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. But the problem is, in my opinion, the Government effectively neutered the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. What happened there is Administrative Appeals Tribunal made a series of decisions in 2017. They ran up a red flag. They said, look over here, Government. What you're doing is not lawful. But the Government didn't appeal these cases. Now they're not publicly on the record. So the public don't get to hear about them. Instead, in my opinion, they adopted a cunning legal strategy. If you had enough go in you to complain, if you could find a lawyer or an advocate or an MP and get to the door of the AAT, they would give you ‘go away’ money. They'd say sorry in your case and all of the rest of the time, all the other people who didn't have the capacity to fund lawyers or get MPs or they just assumed the Government was right, the Government was shovelling all of this other money. So I think they've neutered the AAT. They don't answer the questions in the parliament. The court case will can deliver compensation. But ministers Morrison, Tudge, Porter and Robert, they've all been in charge of a system which was illegal. I mean, if a bank had half a million illegal transactions charging Australians illegally, hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe the Government would have a Royal Commission.
KARVELAS: Wouldn't it make more sense to hold a broader enquiry into the automation of Government processes and how that's impacted also on service delivery?
SHORTEN: I've got no doubt that if you hold a Royal Commission into Robodebt - and let's face it, this is the king of all case studies, this has caused such great hardship - that inevitably they're going to have to look at how the Government rolls out digital systems. Increasingly around the world. people are starting to speak out about the creation of the digital poorhouse. What I mean by that expression is that the Government’s into poor shaming, the safety net is no longer a universal right. Instead, this Government seems to say that if you're on the safety net, we're going to make you jump through a whole lot of digital information, steps and scrutiny, because we're not sure you are the deserving poor. In many ways they've treated many of our Australians as the undeserving poor. And they've been doing this illegally. So, I've got no doubt A.I will be an issue in a broader Royal Commission on Robodebt. But you've got to have the case study to understand the problem. People have got to be responsible and held responsible for this.
KARVELAS: You've called for former High Court Justice Dyson Heydon to be stripped of his Australian honours after an investigation found he'd sexually harassed associates. But he hasn't been convicted of anything. Isn't that perhaps a denial of natural justice?
SHORTEN: Well, I'm not saying that people don't have their rights in criminal courts. Not at all. But this isn't just some Internet allegation. Chief Justice Kiefel has taken a very hard job. We've learnt through the media there have been extensive investigations. I mean, is the only way you lose Australia's highest honour is if you’re criminally convicted? I thought that if you'd been found to have been someone who sexually harassed many of your staff, and that's what Justice Chief Justice Kiefel has essentially said, why do you need another court to tell you that you should keep your AC? I mean, are Australian honours given to everyone except those who were convicted in court?
KARVELAS: No, that's a point I take on that. Absolutely. You've also suggested that if the matter goes further, though, Dyson Heydon shouldn't be allowed to keep his taxpayer funded earnings as well. What would the legal basis be for that?
SHORTEN: That was an answer to a question. I think we've got to see what happens next. But it is a bombshell. And I should have actually started at the outset. I know you like me to answer your direct questions with direct answers, but I should have acknowledges – what an effort it must be for these six associates, some of whom have given up their career in the law. What an effort for other senior women lawyers to come forward. I mean, it is shocking, but a lot of women have told me and I spoke to some pretty smart people in the last 24 hours, that harassment just a fact a life for a lot of people. So, you know, I guess it isn't shocking for some, but the fact that it's a high court judge, I think a lot of people will be gravely disappointed. Chief Justice Kiefel, she’s taken this most seriously, and that's why she apologised for the court. But this has been tough on the women involved, no question.
KARVELAS: Fair enough. You're right. I did ask a direct question on it. So thank you. But ultimately, though, what are the lessons here? Clearly, these issues around sexual harassment in the legal sector in this case, but more broadly, are you a systemic and very serious still in this country?
SHORTEN: All of us, all the time have to constantly be pushing for the best possible standard. And when these people have come forward with their complaint, I think Chief Justice Kiefel has shown us the way to go. You know, everyone's got rights, but you must take the complaints seriously. And again, I feel for Chief Justice Kiefel. I think she's been very strong on this. Of course, the people who have been subject to the harassment, shouldn't. But I think they're all organisations need to constantly be vigilant.
KARVELAS: I just want to ask you another question, because I know if you sort of take an interest in this area in relation to payments and supports for many unemployed people on the JobSeeker, which is the unemployment payment, the Government doubled it, but that's due to run out in September. The trade union movement says it should be extended for another six months. That doubling. Do you think it should be extended for another six months at a doubled rate?
SHORTEN: That’ll be a decision made by the whole Labor team. I don't see how you pull the plug on September the 25th. I just don't see how you can. The Government said it will. I think it's up to the Government. The Government have also said that after the Eden-Monaro by-election, they'll work out what they're going to do in July. So watch this space. I would be amazed if the Government just pulled the plug on everyone on September the 25th. A lot of people are just doing it really hard. Now, I know you can't keep paying everyone everything indefinitely. But between that obviously not doable proposition and just pulling the plug on the 25th of September, surely common sense will intrude because a lot of people are just doing it hard. We'll get out of this eventually, but the world isn't going to be the same. And there's a lot of industries, you know, from the arts, theatres, people in the entertainment industry, travel, accommodation, hospitality, small businesses, lack of customers, the cities. Gee, it's been hard for a lot of people.
KARVELAS: It has. Well, on that, what do you make of this spike in COVID19 infections in Melbourne? You’re a Melbournian, so am I Bill Shorten, we see each other on the street every now and then, have people in your area stopped social distancing?
SHORTEN: Well, I was at Highpoint shopping centre on Saturday and it's a great place to shop, but some people maintaining social distance, but others were right in your face. You just have to say to people, please, you know, let's we're not out of this yet. But people have been great so far. But I think some people are sort of just wanting to get on with their lives. And I can understand that frustration. I really can. My family is not immune to that feeling themselves. And it's been hard for business. But all around the world, you see the second spikes and the third spikes. So, better to try and deal with this once than never properly deal with it, and it keeps coming back and back and back. So it's really hard for people. And we've just got to, I think, follow the public health science.
KARVELAS: I've spoken to a couple of Liberal MPs, one yesterday was Jane Hume, who’s a frontbencher, and she says the Black Lives Matter protest in Melbourne, even though it may not have spread the infection, according to the health experts, because it didn't, sent a message that it's okay to relax. Do you think that's what it did? That it kind of sent a message to Victorians, Melbournians, that they could be lax?
SHORTEN: I think going to the protests was a mistake. We've told people they can't go to the funerals of loved ones. There are weddings waiting to happen and people's lives have been put on hold. So I think the issue is fundamentally very important, I have been on the record long before this about the unacceptable, you know, the unfairness and racism within our system. But going to the rally was the wrong timing completely. Full stop.
KARVELAS: Do you also think because it sent a message on that basis? Because we know that it didn't, according as I say, to the health advise, didn't spread COVID. But is that one of the reasons are concerned?
SHORTEN: Well, I think a lot of people are very cheesed off at the people who did go. So I'm not sure it encouraged everyone to ignore social distancing, but I think there is a genuine anger in the community that some people think that their particular point is more important than the than the general good. Mind you, I can understand that Indigenous Australians and supporters say, well, what does it take to get the message through about what's happening to our First Nations people here? But listen, we've come through this far together. It's not worth us dropping our guard now, when if we keep sticking together in this public health emergency, then we can do a whole lot of things that we want to do once it's over, including protests, including weddings, including, going to the football. But we've just got to go the distance on this one.
KARVELAS: Your electorate is culturally and linguistically diverse. Do you think the messaging around social distancing has reached everyone? There has been criticism even from some of the groups representing ethnic communities saying that it hasn't been up to scratch?
SHORTEN: Listen, I think on balance, the State health departments have done the very best they can. I know in the early days, people were caught off guard. I've got a housing commission flats in part of my electorate. And people came to me and said there's nothing in some of the first languages of a lot of the people living there. So we photocopied hundreds of leaflets and we've got posters put up. So I think in those early days, people were scrambling and that's understandable. And not everyone is going to go and print off a leaflet or knows how to use all the systems. But I think on balance, our State Department of Health have tried to do the best they can. But I'm sure if people aren't getting the message, then we've just got to do better.
KARVELAS: Just finally, of course, the big story last week and it continues to have repercussions, is the story about Labor and branch stacking in Victoria, as part of the federal takeover of the Victorian branch of the party, all voting rights have been suspended until 2023. Is that too long, in your view?
SHORTEN: Something had to be done. Whether or not it goes to 2023 is another question. I know that Steve Bracks and Jenny Macklin, the administrators, are working to restore confidence in the rank and file membership roll - a deep clean, I guess that's the description du jour, have a deep clean of the roll. Most people in the Labor Party are absolutely fantastic and would be gutted by some of the most recent revelations. I don’t think it will take to 2023 to clean up, though. But let's just take each week as it comes, Steve and Jenny have a job, they're going to do a report by July.
KARVELAS: When would you like to see it done, so that people can vote in the Victorian branch?
SHORTEN: As soon as possible.
KARVELAS: Realistically, what sort of timeframe can they do it in, do you think?
SHORTEN: Well, I'm not privy to all the issues that have to be resolved, but I'm sure that Steve Bracks and Jenny Macklin want to get this matter resolved as quickly as possible. In fact, I'm sure they do.
KARVELAS: You're a very senior Victorian. You were Opposition Leader. Did you have a hunch about this branch stacking? Did you know it was going on?
SHORTEN: Oh, not the revelations we saw on the television.
KARVELAS: But you’d heard the rumours?
SHORTEN: No, no, no. If you if you think if you think rules are being broken, you report them. But the point about the revelations is that they've been done out of public sight, out of public, gaze haven’t they.
KARVELAS: But to benefit that particular faction?
SHORTEN: Well it was to benefit particular individuals, I suspect. Listen, we're going to find out what happened there. And I'm very supportive of that process. I'm very supportive of restoring integrity to our membership roll. I'm hopeful it's done in the most timely manner. But I also just want to say to those thousands of Labor Party members and activists, I know that 99 percent of you are doing the right thing. I think you've been let down, I say, to Labor voters, we're focussed at the state level with Daniel Andrews’ agenda, nationally with Anthony Albanese. We want to get to the bottom of Robodebt. We're fighting a very tough byelection, Eden Monaro. We're going to keep standing up for working people.
KARVELAS: Thanks so much for joining us.
SHORTEN: Thank you.