PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
BILL SHORTEN: Yesterday, after five years, Prime Minister Morrison finally apologised for his unlawful Robodebt scheme. It was five years in which up to one and a half billion dollars was unlawfully taken from hundreds of thousands of Australians. It was five years in which mothers lost their sons, in which many vulnerable people suffered unlawful hardship. It is a good thing that Mr Morrison has apologised. But if he's truly sorry, he will today pledge to repay the unlawful Robodebt debts to people straight away. And if he was truly sorry, Mr. Morrison would pledge not to reboot Robodebt. Not to try and revive Robodebt Debt 2.0 by the back door. Repay the money. Don't reboot Robodebt. Happy to take questions
JOURNALIST: Will Labor rule out using income averaging when it next forms Government?
SHORTEN: There is no way that we will be asking to people to pay debts to the Commonwealth without obeying the law. We will use the law as our guide. We won't use some made up, concocted illegal scheme.
SHORTEN: Well, the way they've done it, it's clearly unlawful. What we're going to do when we come up with the policies is say, what is the law? This is what you expect government ministers to do, to make sure what they’re doing is legal. This is a massive scandal. Can you imagine a set of circumstances, you couldn't have written five years ago, that the Turnbull or the Abbott or the Morrison government is going to create an unlawful scheme, send out letters of demand without any legal basis, raise up to one and a half billion dollars, unjustly enrich itself, and then spend five years denying that they're breaking the law. And even now, as important as the apology was yesterday, if it's a fair dinkum apology, if it's a walk the walk apology, Mr Morrison will not reboot Robodebt another way. And Mr Morrison will repay the money which his government has unlawfully robbed from Australian people, vulnerable people, and pay it back straightaway. Not next year. Not some point in the future. But if the government's taken people's money unlawfully, and they’ve said they have, pay it back now, that’s what you’d have to do if positions were reversed.
JOURNALIST: What do you think about taking JobSeeker payments from protestors?
SHORTEN: Oh listen, I think the bigger challenge around JobSeeker is when the hammer falls in September. You know, we talk about the unsung heroes of COVID-19, that's the frontline staff, I think, genuinely the nation has really stepped up and responded well, but what worries me and what worries a lot of Australians is that a lot of people who lost their jobs, a lot of businesses who closed their doors, they've taken one for the team. They haven’t lost their jobs or their business hasn't lost its income because they've been bad at their job or their business, but they've understood the importance of the public health emergency. And so therefore, they’ve lost their income. I think it's important that we don't just rip JobSeeker away from millions of people who are suffering economic hardship not because of their own actions, but because of a virus which came from overseas.
JOURNALIST: Just to confirm, are you against taking away the payments from people who will protest this weekend?
SHORTEN: I don't think it's the main issue, but I also just want to talk about protests. I did say that Australians have been amazing. You know, they've given up attending weddings, funerals. They can't go to their sport, the theatre or music. There are a lot of people have paid a big price for the public health emergency. So whilst I am an absolute supporter of drawing attention to the issue of black deaths in custody, whilst it is the right course, it is the wrong timing. I think a lot of Australians who have sympathy for the diabolical situation, and their awareness is again being raised by what’s happened in America, I think I would say to the protesters, everyone else on a range of other matters they consider to be very important, and I'm not saying this isn't important, they've done the right thing and I ask the protesters not to attend, because, frankly, let's get through the public health emergency, the fundamental issues of importance, but without jeopardising the good work that we've done so far.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Shorten, the supplement, the Coronavirus supplement is due to end September 24. Do you believe that there should be a transition scheme and put in place, given the number of people who are likely to be on it at that point?
SHORTEN: I think it's important that we have that discussion. The reality is, if the hammer just drops on September 24, there are millions of Australians who've taken one for the national team. Their jobs are lost, their businesses are shut, their takings are down. We can't just simply abandon these people. The consequences of the virus don't stop on September the 24th. They will roll on, and ricochet around. So I think we've got to have a proper national conversation to not leave millions of people who are unemployed or using government support for no other reason than a pandemic from overseas has come to our shores and changed our way of life. These are the unsung heroes of the pandemic. And we can't just simply abandon them and say no longer our problem.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, just on Robodebt. You blame getting rid of the Robodebt method, but what about the government's new method for measuring income? Would you keep that as is, or change it?
SHORTEN: The trick is that when you accuse a citizen of owing government money, double check it. Make sure that you're not just relying on one proof point. Of course, it goes without saying that if you owe the government money you should pay them. But the government, if it owes people money, it should pay them too. Were you aware that if you owe the government money beyond a certain point, they can charge you a general interest charge of seven and a half per cent. So, you owe them a thousand dollars, they can charge you up to seven and a half percent additionally. Do you know what this sneaky, unlawful Government’s done on Robodebt? They’re saying that the money which they’ve unjustly taken over the last four years, oh, sorry. What did that Stuart Robert say? My bad. Well, what he's doing is they're going to pay the money back at some unspecified point. But all the people who have the government unjustly enrich itself, the government's not saying it's going to pay them interest, even though these people never have the use of the money for four and a half years.
JOURNALIST: So if Labor was to use income averaging, you would have multiple proof points?
SHORTEN: You have to. That’s the law.
JOURNALIST: Some of the people who were issued with bills during that period may genuinely owe a debt to the Government, should the Government still go after those people?
SHORTEN: People who owe the government money obviously should pay them. But let's be clear, that's not what's happened here. For four and a half years, nearly five years, this government whistled up an unlawful scheme - and you the media were very conscientious from almost day one, reporting the unfairness of it, and that there seemed to be a large error rate - but as early as March 2017, the protection which is in place in the Social Security Act, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, started handing down decisions saying this Robodebt scheme was unlawful. Now, what the government should have done at that point is either changed its scheme or appealed the decision to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. But they took the coward's way out. They did nothing. They were on notice for the best part of three plus years, by the independent tribunals, this was unlawful. And did they stop doing it? No. They kept taking the money unjustly. This is a shocking scandal. It's an abuse of government power. When ordinary people get a letter of demand from the government, they assume, oh, maybe the government's right. When other people get a letter from the government, we don't know their personal circumstances, but life's complex. If you're vulnerable, living on the margins, getting a letter of demand and being chased by debt collectors can be enough to tip you off your axis into self-harm or worse. So I am pleased that Labor extracting an apology from the government yesterday. But if the apology is to have any meaning for the hundreds of thousands of people who were subjected to this hardship, a commitment not to reboot Robodebt, and a commitment to pay people now. I mean, after all, if you owe the government money for four and half years, do you think you can just simply tell them you’ll pay them in a year, or two years’ time or an unspecified point in the future? No way.
JOURNALIST: What do you make of streaming services like HBO and Netflix, removing or temporarily removing racist films?
SHORTEN: Oh, I don’t run those streaming services, that’s up to them.
JOURNALIST: With the debts, the Government is currently not recovering any debts while the Coronavirus pandemic is going on, I think it’s September/October they’re starting again, what do you want to see done differently when it starts back up?
SHORTEN: You’ve got to put the human back into Human Services. You know they've increased the number of people during the pandemic by about twelve thousand working in the system? If they want to have a system which means that people aren’t being ripped off by their Government, they need to put more people back in the system. I also think they need to explain who was responsible for Robodebt. You know, these days, if the government wanted to give you a novelty cheque for a sports grant, you'd have a conga line of conservative Ministers at the presentation. But we’ve had several Ministers for Human Services, several Liberal Prime Ministers, several Liberal Treasurers and no one is responsible. I mean, when the Administrative Appeals Tribunal was belling the cat, saying this is an unlawful scheme, why did no one pay any attention? It’s a shocking dereliction of duty.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, Andrew Laming has suggested that those who are attending a rally this weekend should give back their welfare subsidies in terms of JobSeeker, what do you make of that, and Mathias Cormann’s actually left open the idea, he hasn’t shut it down?
SHORTEN: Yes, I was asked about that earlier Jono, but again, to be really specific, I don't think the protestors should attend the protest. You know, do not pass go. I think that the issue is crucial. It is shocking that there's been 450 black deaths in custody in the last 30 years since the Royal Commission did its findings. Shocking that no one is responsible. But in this period of the pandemic, we as a nation have asked all of our citizens to put up with a fair bit of hardship. People lost their jobs. Businesses have had to close. People haven’t been able to go to the funerals of loved ones, they’ve had to put off their weddings, their travel. I would just say to the protesters, I get your cause, but let's just get through this public health emergency, because what I don't want to do is see some people cause mischief and make the timing of them attending the protests in the public health challenges overshadow the very important issue which we do need to address.
JOURNALIST: Were Mr Laming’s comments irresponsible, or inappropriate?
SHORTEN: I tend not to make a habit of commenting on Andrew Laming. It’s just quicker that way, isn’t it?
JOURNALIST: When she you like to see state borders reopen?
SHORTEN: When it's safe to do so.
JOURNALIST: Is July a good timeframe?
SHORTEN: I’m not a professor in epidemiology, I’ll just listen to the experts, I think the Premiers have done a pretty good job, an excellent job really and none of this has been easy. I said in Parliament yesterday, that I also acknowledge that the Federal Government's done its part. I mean, the fact that Australia has 120 fatalities is tragic. But when you look at the images of morgues around the world, in first world countries and other countries, Australia has done a pretty good job and that’s been a collective effort. So I'm not going to start sort of trying to nitpick and unravel at the last moment. Obviously, the sooner borders open, the better for our economy, but by the same token you want to make sure that everything is done safely.
JOURNALIST: Scott Morrison made the point yesterday that Australia has no history of slavery. You were almost Prime Minister yourself, what do you know of the history of blackbirding?
SHORTEN: I'm aware blackbirding did occur. I mean, Mr Morrison also I think said Matthew Flinders circumnavigated Australia, didn’t he. Listen, maybe he’s got other things on his mind , but you know, that our history is good, it's bad and it's ugly. And we've still got contemporary issues to deal with, with black deaths in custody, the fact that the skin colour in Australia shouldn't be a predictor of whether or not you go to university or to jail. But we need to work on these matters together. And certainly I, and I know Anthony Albanese and Labor, are committed to meaningful reconciliation, a Voice, a role in the Constitution, meaningful equality and we've got a lot more to do in this country. And I think the best way we do it is by working together. Thanks everybody.