23 June 2020

SUBJECTS: Robodebt Royal Commission. 
TOM CONNELL, HOST: Labor will today call for a Royal Commission to investigate the Government's so-called Robodebt scheme. Almost five hundred thousand debts totalling more than 720 million dollars are being refunded to Australians after the Federal Court declared the scheme unlawful. The scheme matched tax and income reports to Centrelink to automatically generate debts from people, including many who didn't owe any money. While Labor originally introduced a similar scheme in 2011, it mandated that each debt notice be reviewed by Department of Human Services worker. The Opposition now wants an enquiry in order to provide clarity around automated data matching processes. And joining me live now for more on this is Shadow Government Services Minister Bill Shorten. Thanks very much for your time. These are big, expensive, sometimes painful processes to the people involved. So why is it needed? What do we find out new out of this?

BILL SHORTEN, MEMBER FOR MARIBYRNONG: Well, first of all, the Government for the last four years has run a big, expensive, painful, unlawful process for people. And the Government says well, they're fixing the problems well actually, they're not. They’re in court arguing, saying they weren't negligent. They're arguing that they haven’t unjustly enrich themselves. So they're wasting taxpayer money fighting a legal claim, which the courts already said is unlawful. But most importantly, what a royal commission does is it explains to us how it happened. I saw the Prime Minister just before on this channel saying, oh, we're fixing it. Well, there's a question he's never answered. Who's responsible? I mean, he just says it was like Labor four years ago in 2011. Well, that's not true. And he knows it. But there's been Ministers Morrison, Porter, Tudge, Minister Robert, they've all been in charge of this unlawful scheme, which has been unjustly enriching the Commonwealth with money that people never owed them. And we want to get to the bottom of why and how can we stop it happening again. And when did they know?

CONNELL: So when Labor holds this from what you've said there, you singling out Ministers, would those Ministers be required to take the witness box? 

SHORTEN: Well, that'll be up to the Royal Commission. I mean, hopefully the Government sees sense and does it in this term. But today, our leader, Anthony Albanese and I will be talking about the need to have a Royal Commission. It'll have sweeping powers to look behind the corporate veil of government incompetence. So whether or not the Royal Commission calls Prime Minister Morrison or calls Attorney-General Porter or Ministers Tudge and Robert will be up to them, be up to the Royal Commission. But this is a Government who had a pink batts Royal Commission which called former Prime Ministers, called former Prime Minister Rudd and former Ministers, and Robodebt has caused harm on a scale far greater than that scheme. So you'd have to assume that they'd want to hear from the ministers who were involved in the administration of this unlawful scheme.

CONNELL: Well just on pink batts in calling for this particular Royal Commission. We know what happened. We don't know the decision making. That was what the Royal Commission into the pink batts saga also looked into. So in hindsight, was it fair enough what the coalition Government did on the pink batts royal commission and calling that?

SHORTEN: Well you can't undo what's already happened. And there were terrible mistakes made in pink batts and electrical contractors did allow their young workforce into the roofs and we saw tragedy emanate, which is terrible. In the matter of this Robodebt scheme, I mean, they're not exactly the same. What's happened here is the Government for four years has been issuing debt notices unlawfully against hundreds of thousands of its poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Now, the Government, having been forced by a court to recognise what they've been doing is unlawful, what I want to know is why did it take a citizen and the Victorian Legal Aid Commissioner dragging this Government to court to find out a scheme was unlawful? Why did it take me and others helping agitate for a class action to force the Government to refund 721 million dollars so far, to three hundred seventy three thousand Australians? Why does it take ordinary people going to court? And what this shows is that the Parliament's broken. We asked question after question and the Government hides behind an argument, oh, well, it's in the legal courts and we've got legal privilege. The problem is we still don't know why the Government ran an unlawful scheme for four years. Why didn't the system sound an alarm bell that this was illegal? They had notice it was unlawful since 2017, but they just ignored it and carried on. 

CONNELL: Do you accept this is going to be seen by some voters as just continuing on the tradition of calling a Royal Commission that's awkward for the other side? It brings back memories, of course, of your own time at the trade union Royal Commission?

SHORTEN: Yeah, well, that's turned out to be somewhat different, hasn't it? In the light of recent events. Listen, in all seriousness, Robodebt’s a massive failure of Social Security law. The argument that a Government, that they shouldn't be held responsible for illegally issuing debts against civilians - they spend tens of millions of dollars, Tom, on debt collectors to collect illegal debts. They've had thousands of public servants working on this matter when they could have been better off working on other matters. And they've put hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians through a great deal of stress. Now, for some people, getting a debt notice from the Government, you know, they just reach into the pocket book and pay. But for many people on Centrelink, it's meant to be a safety net. It's not meant to be used as a source of individual poor-blaming and shaming. A lot of people found this very hard and it was illegal. Have we become so cynical or so inured to Government incompetence that when the Government breaks the law, we shrug our shoulders and say, oh, well, nothing to say here?

CONNELL: All right, I just want to move on to a couple of other issues before we go. You alluded to, I believe, Dyson Heydon obviously facing these sexual harassment cases, six young women working at the high court at the time. You said earlier today that the Government should look at, or it should be that his Companion of the Order of Australia should be revoked. Shouldn't we be waiting until any sort of legal process plays out before making such a decision?

SHORTEN: Possibly. But what I've also got to say to you is, this is the High Court has said that this behaviour is unacceptable. I'm as shocked as you and millions of other people. But these associates, these young women have positions where the Judge has great power, immense power. And the fact is that the High Court has apologised for his behaviour. There's surely got to be something here for people to consider. I mean, how do you keep an AC, and Australian honour?

CONNELL: But it’s still an internal investigation. So, you said possibly before. Should we wait until a legal process plays out?

SHORTEN: This is an internal investigation. But if you've ever seen this before Tom, in your whole time, well, then I'd be amazed. This is the High Court of Australia. No matter of harassment is ordinary or acceptable. But I don't know about you. Maybe this doesn't surprise me or shock you. I don't know. But for me, this fellow, how do we think there are no consequences? 

CONNELL: All right. I'm not saying it doesn't. It's a question of whether he's done anything or not, just talking about the legal process. But just one final question for you as well. Bill Shorten, Eden-Monaro by election. If we look at the history of this 100 years since a Government won a by election off an Opposition, you'd have to be expecting Labor to win this, wouldn't you? 

SHORTEN: I’ve given up predicting by elections a while ago. But, you know, we've got the best candidate, Kristy McBain. She's excellent. I think the bushfire regions have been forgotten. And if it wasn't for the byelection, do you think they'd be getting the visits from the Government? Also, I know the Liberals and the Nats are quite divided. And of course, what they're doing to Australia Post and diminishing and reducing the service of Australia Post in the regions is catastrophic. So we've got strong arguments, but nothing is ever in the bag until the votes are counted. It's a hard battle, all elections are, trust me. 

CONNELL: Given the history of that, though, if it were to be lost, would there be more pressure on Anthony Albanese's leadership? 

SHORTEN: No, what I think is that we are competitive, but I've been where Anthony's been in byelections and I think he's doing a fine job. And we've just got to keep putting our best foot forward in this by election. First of all, every byelection is different, but every byelection is difficult. No, I'm not going to say anything that says we think we have it in the bag, because I don't, I think it's a tough battle. But Kristy McBain is an outstanding candidate. And as I said, all those other propositions, the cuts to Australia Post, the Robodebt scandal, there'll be thousands of people in Eden-Monaro Government in-fighting. And, of course, the bushfires went through in December, January. But if it wasn't for this byelection, I wonder if they'd be getting the love from the Government they're now getting.

CONNELL: Bill Shorten, thanks for your time.

SHORTEN: Lovely to catch up. Tom.