SUBJECTS: Robodebt, Coal, Climate Change, Voice in the Constitution
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: I'm joined by Labor's NDIS spokesman, Bill Shorten. Bill Shorten, welcome.
KARVELAS: Let's just start on that issue. We will get to your portfolio issues in a moment. Do you think a Labor government should allow new coal fired power stations to be built?
SHORTEN: I don't think we should be using taxpayer money and most of the experts seem to say the only way there will be any new coal fired power stations is by the taxpayer underwriting it. No, I don't think that should be the case.
KARVELAS: I know you're against taxpayers underwriting it, but if a business case could be developed and a business could get it up. Are you philosophically opposed?
SHORTEN: Well, first of all, we've got coal-fired power stations and they're part of our energy grid, but going forward, you know, I know that people like to debate about hypotheticals, but the only proposal which seems to have any legs at all is that the government will underwrite a taxpayer-funded coal-fired power station. That's the only proposition on the table and Labor wouldn't invest any taxpayer money in that.
KARVELAS: OK, but if business could get one up.
SHORTEN: It is a hypothetical and we know that one of the great stalling tactics of the climate sceptics of the government - and they did it to some effect in the last election - was, you know, putting up these hypothetical propositions. I agree with something that Zali, the previous interviewee, said. We have got to start thinking about the future. You and I know that this government is so divided that they have got to placate the climate sceptics with taxpayer-funded coal fired power stations and that's the issue and indeed today in Question Time, poor old Minister Birmingham is up the front trying to give one answer and then you hear Matt Canavan down the back interjecting it will be funded and you have got George Christensen out there contradicting other Liberals. The real issue is we’ve got a divided government that’s got no plan for climate change. We have this ongoing destructive debate we have really seen since 2013 on climate.
KARVELAS: Do you think Labor should support Zali Steggall’s bill?
SHORTEN: Well, at the end of the day Labor is going to develop its own policy. We welcome the  issue trying to be raised. She is saying that parliament needs to adopt this and not just individual MPs or a particular party. That would be good, but I think that the lesson from the last election and indeed, the lesson from the last decade has been until we get a Labor government we’re not going to get practical progressive change on climate. I'm sure Labor will engage with Zali Steggall. She is a good person trying to advance the case. In terms of the detail, Labor will work out its policy because the problem is at the moment under Morrison, he is more interested in papering together the cracks in their ranks and keeping the climate sceptics happy than doing anything. And that's even after the summer we’ve had.
KARVELAS: Do you think Labor should commit to supporting net zero carbon emissions by 2050. I know it’s something the Government has said it’s considering.
SHORTEN: Well we took that policy to the last election so that’s not new ground for us. Quite appropriately Labor's developing the policy that it will take to the next election and, to my regret, there is not an election this Saturday. Labor will sooner rather than later start outlining more of our principles. Has anyone heard a good argument against zero net emissions by 2050? But we’ve got to keep working on it. Again this is something I wish the government should work with the parliament rather than against the people.
KARVELAS: Should it happen earlier potentially?
SHORTEN: You have got to base it on what the scientists and the experts say. One of the pities of the election outcome which happened last year is we're now going to waste another 3 years in a muddle on climate change as a nation because the Government is in a muddle. I mean, that's the problem.
KARVELAS: Just on your portfolio, the Robodebt scheme gave the government $1.5 billion in revenue. Do you think all of that money should be returned?
SHORTEN: Probably most of it. I mean, the reality is, without over complicating it: Robodebt was a scheme introduced by the government at the end of 2015. They would assess whether or not a Centrelink recipient was eligible in a particular fortnight to a payment by averaging out the income they got all year. Just relying on a computer algorithm was a stupid idea. It doesn't take into account that sometimes people are unemployed and people are employed. This is farmers, students, single mums and pensioners. They have relied on a computer-generated program and we have said it was an unfair program, but what I've discovered in the last few months and now the courts have established, is it’s actually illegal. In other words, the government didn't have the power to just rely on a computer program without checking it before they sent the letter of demand out to vulnerable Australians. This is a scandal. I know we're almost so cynical about scandals, but this is a situation where the government of Australia, the biggest entity, the most powerful organisation in Australia has been unlawfully creating debts from citizens to the Commonwealth which were just invalid. Why don't heads roll anymore? You've got smiling Stuey Robert saying they’re just changing things and Scott Morrison – nothing sticks to him apparently. But what were these people doing for three-and-a-half years having an unlawful scheme? It is wrong.
KARVELAS: The email from the ATO’s general counsel was dated November 19th, that's when the legal advice said it is unlawful. Have you established whether that was the first time the government received the legal advice because they made changes on that day? Doesn't that mean they did the right thing?
SHORTEN: If you have been breaking the law for three-and-a-half years and then you decide to stop breaking the law does that make you good or bad? At best it makes you look stupid because you didn’t know you were breaking the law for three and a half years at worst it makes you negligent beyond belief. What happened on 19 November is the chief lawyer for the tax office says to the Commissioner of Taxation - effectively it was a smoking gun document-  which the document didn't want us to see, but we won the vote so it went out publicly. They said, "Hey, the Department of Social Security's lawyers have told us we can't do this." How embarrassing for the tax office. They go along taxing and doing everything and they have been told by the science brigade in the government, their lawyers that it is OK and now it is not OK. Only two things can explain this Patricia. One: the government were so greedy there they wanted to go after welfare-shaming-blame-the-poor-they-are-all-ripping-things-off and they didn't bother to check the detail. Or two: They did check the detail and they just didn't care. Either way it is an incompetent scandal and in this government where blame never sticks to the elected ministers, who is in charge?
KARVELAS: Well, this had a significant cost beyond the money that was recovered in terms of impact on people's mentalal health and wellbeing...
SHORTEN: You're right.
KARVELAS: Should they be compensated. What does Labor suggest?
SHORTEN: This government should stop arguing in court denying that it shouldn't repay people for whom it has improperly levied. They should identify everyone upon whom they have relied on this unlawful Robodebt scheme and just say ‘Sorry we took the money using the wrong power so we give it back to you’. And then if they think some of these people owe some money, by all means let's set-up the proof case. This caused real harm. For those viewers who never get a Centrelink payment, that's fine. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who is on Centrelink. It could be someone who is casually employed. It could be a single mum. It could be a farmer and you get a demand from the government saying, "You owe us money." Now some people will dig in and say, "That's not right." Maybe for a few people, they did. For a lot of people they are not in a psychologically great space or didn't have a battery of lawyers and didn't ring their local MP or lawyer and they just paid up. Others assume the government is right because in Australia there is people who just trust if you get a letter of demand from the government they must know what they are talking about and it is lawful. This scandal has a long way to go. Can you ever find anyone at home in the government? Old minister Robert my opposite number when it was put on him in Parliament said we're making refinements. Only this government, you know, Scottie from marketing government can say that we've decide to obey the law and call that a refinement. It is just the law, Scottie.
KARVELAS: What do you make of revelations that members of the senior advisory group of an Indigenous voice to government are being banned from proposing ideas on constitutional recognition. This is a Nine Newspaper story published this afternoon.
SHORTEN: I wasnt aware of it, but I worked hard on our constitutional recognition. If the government gets together experts and then doesn't want to listen to them well that's so breathtakingly arrogant of the government. What is it about the government that they think they are the holders of all knowledge in the world and anyone else has got an opinion which disagrees with them should be silenced, should down or ignored. I worked with Tony Abbott, I worked on this with Malcolm Turnbull and then we started with Morrison. So I have I have seen a lot of this debate. I know a lot of people weren't expecting the Uluru convention to come up with a voice in the constitution. But I and Labor formed the view that if that’s what indigenous Australians want well who are we to start second guessing it. I mean other people get consulted about changes affecting them. So it was a worthwhile proposition. The Uluru convention wanted to talk about truth telling and a Maccarata. I don't know why the government wants to cherry-pick the things they like and ignore everything else.
KARVELAS: The minister for Indigenous wants a referendum by June next year, but hasn't said what the question would be. Would you support symbolic recognition?
SHORTEN: I support recognition, but this government is not going to do it. Life is too short to waste time talking about things this government is not going to do. I'm not holding my breath. I think Ken Wyatt is coming from a good place.
KARVELAS: If it’s not a voice, if it’s just symbolic?
SHORTEN: All Australians make a decision on changing the constitution, but as a starting place if it’s talking about the recognition of first Australians, it is a pretty good idea to get their view. I know Ken Wyatt is coming from a good place, but I have seen the way the conservatives handle constitutional recognition. They keep pretending that we're going to give our First Nations people special rights, we're not, but what we are going to do is we're going to finally include them on the nation's birth certificate so I'm afraid this government has lowered my expectations to just about nil on whether or not they do anything on constitutional recognition.
KARVELAS: Bill Shorten, thanks for coming on.
SHORTEN: Lovely to chat. Let’s talk soon.