FRIDAY, 11 JUNE 2021
SUBJECT: Federal Court judgement against the Morrison Government’s unlawful Robodebt scheme.
BILL SHORTEN, MEMBER FOR MARIBYRNONG: Good morning, everybody. I'd like to hand over to the senior leadership team of Gordon Legal to talk about the Federal Court statements about the Robodebt class action. Mr. Peter Gordon, Senior Partner at Gordon Legal.
PETER GORDON, GORDON LEGAL: Thanks Bill. I'd like to take the opportunity to thank His Honour Justice Murphy of the Federal Court for today’s judgement, which has been for hundreds of thousands of Australians, a long time coming. I’d like in particular to endorse his remarks that this Robodebt system is a shameful episode in Australia’s history, one that should never have occurred, and which has caused untold suffering for hundreds of thousands of Australians. It’s to be borne in mind that when Gordon Legal started the action a couple of years ago now, it was derided by senior Ministers, including Stuart Robert and Christian Porter, as involving only a handful of people and being an absurd concept. And as His Honour has said today, it is one more indication of the importance of class actions in holding to account the biggest and most powerful of Australians on behalf, in this case, of the most vulnerable. There has been untold suffering for hundreds of thousands of people. And since the commencement of this class action, over 1.7 billion dollars of financial benefits has transferred from the coffers of the Commonwealth back to where it belongs, into the hands and pockets and bank accounts of Australians who have needed it most. We're very grateful to the applicants who were prepared to put themselves on the line. His Honour graciously acknowledged that Gordon Legal not only did this case on a no win no fee basis but indemnified [inaudible] which was a big decision for us in the context of an unusual and unprecedented claim brought before Australian courts. We were very pleased with the result. We endorse all of the remarks that His Honour made, and we will now set about the process of ensuring that everyone, the hundreds of thousands of people who are entitled to some compensation, repayment or clarification now enjoy the benefits of what’s been achieved and has been approved by the court today. Can I finally thank my team at Gordon Legal, including in particular, my partners Andrew Grech and James Norton, the two lawyers who lead this class action. And the number of young people that they led, doing long hours through the heart and depth of the COVID crisis of 2020, to get to this result today. It was an immense effort under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I'm so proud of the job that everyone at Gordon Legal did. Thank you very much, I’ll hand over to Bill.
SHORTEN: Thank you. You were just hearing from the senior partner of Gordon Legal, Mr Peter Gordon. First of all, I would like to thank Gordon Legal and their team of lawyers. Without this class action, the Morrison Government would never have admitted that the scheme was unlawful. Without this class action and six brave plaintiffs, backed up by their class action lawyers, the Commonwealth would have kept 1.7 billion dollars. The Commonwealth would still believe that its unlawful scheme was above scrutiny. This class action and the decision of Justice Murphy today closes the first chapter in the most shameful episode of Australian welfare law in our history. This is the largest compliance failure of a government body in Australian history 1.7 billion dollars of debt unlawfully raised by a Government against its own citizens, citizens who were at the margins, who were vulnerable, and most importantly, didn't over money. But in addition to the 1.7 billion dollars, there has been the countless cost which the Commonwealth is still hiding of the cost of repaying people from whom they unjustly enriched themselves. Another 112 million dollars on top of that, the cost of actually paying the money back. This is north of 2 billion dollars when you add up everything, the largest compliance failure in Australian history. But yet, the chapter of the class action is closed but the new chapter is now the call for a Royal Commission. The Government for four and a half years said this Robodebt scheme was lawful. Then, when faced with the prospect of Ministers giving evidence under oath in the court, they finally acknowledged it was unlawful. But their defence was, we were not bad - we were just stupid. Well, at what point does stupidity with taxpayer money, does abuse of office, become bad? And in this case, this is most definitely a Government who was both stupid and bad. No senior public servant has lost their job. No Minister has lost their job. In the Netherlands in the same time that this court action was underway, the whole Dutch government resigned when it was found that it was unlawfully raising debts against a smaller percentage and a smaller number of its population than has happened in Australia. Labor will pursue and persist with the call for a Royal Commission. Nothing less will satisfy the hundreds of thousands of Australians who had the stigma of their own Government sicking the legal Rottweiler dogs on their own citizens, claiming debts that were never owed. I would like finally to just issue a message to the hundreds of thousands of people who through no fault of their own, were unlawfully charged with debts that the Government didn't have the power to raise against them. This has been a traumatic period. People couldn't get jobs because of poor credit records. People had to deal with process servers. People suffered stigma. People suffered shame. People suffered mental health pressures and worse. I have met with families who believe that the pursuit of the unlawful debt against a beloved family member triggered them to take their own life. This is a shameful chapter in Australian history. Today, whilst all of the plaintiffs and all of the people affected would much rather that the Government never illegally took them on in the first place, this does at least provide some measure of closure. But it also highlights that the Morrison Government could not be brought to heel by the Parliament of Australia, it could not be brought to heel by the media of Australia, despite all of our efforts. It had to take individuals banding together to take court action for justice to be done. The parliament is broken. Now it is time for the Parliament and the Government to make amends by issuing a Royal Commission into this whole Robodebt scandal. And again, I thank the lawyers involved here. Without them, we wouldn't be standing here. Thank you very much, I’m sure Peter and myself are happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Peter, how do you think group members [inaudible] feeling right now?
GORDON: I think a lot of group members, in particular those that His Honour spoke about who’ve had suicides in their family, who’ve contemplated suicide, who’ve faced with the stigma of being welfare cheats, will feel that this is a very rough form of justice today, and I can understand their bitterness and resentment for the years of those sorts of feelings that they’ve been through. I want to endorse what Bill has just said in relation to the question of accountability here. There has been 1.7 billion dollars in financial benefits that’s gone back. And His Honour said, probably quite wisely, that faced between a choice between the choice of stuff up and a conspiracy, it's generally a stuff up. That's probably true, but it doesn't mean that sometimes it isn't a conspiracy, or it isn’t a knowing wrongfulness. We simply don't know, because as soon as there was the prospect of a courtroom in which Ministers would have to go into the witness box and be cross examined, now the Government have settled. So, I echo the call that Bill Shorten’s made for a Royal Commission. I think that there remain questions of Ministerial and senior public service accountability that are not resolved by today’s settlement. So, while I hope that the group members feel some justice and satisfaction to me, there remain unanswered questions that there's an obligation on the Morrison Government to answer.
JOURNALIST: Peter, regarding the compensation factor, how much extra will people be getting on top of refunds they’re either waiting for or have received?
GORDON: So, to qualify for extra compensation, they need to have paid money back to the Commonwealth as a consequence of the unlawful demands of the Commonwealth. And the amount of those payments will depend on the amount that has been wrongfully [inaudible] by the Commonwealth, the length of time that the Commonwealth has had it, and various other factors. So, in some circumstances it may be hundreds of dollars, and in other circumstances thousands of dollars, going out to hundreds of thousands of people.
JOURNALIST: Well, I just wanted to ask, you chose to settle instead of continuing the fight and getting people in the box and now the Government is not legally liable. Why not push?
GORDON: Well, you heard His Honour say that we have to frame a claim within the rubric of what Australian law would permit, and we brought an unusual claim in unjust enrichment and we brought a further claim in negligence. And there are technical rules in relation to that. And there are limitations in the ability of the Australian courts to depose witnesses pre-trial to obtain full discovery, and to get the question that you might get under some other court systems. You heard His Honour say that on the basis of what he saw, it wasn't a certainty that the negligence action would succeed. It was a stronger claim with respect to unjust enrichment. As lawyers, we have to act in what’s in the best interest of the group as a whole, taking into account the risks. And we did that, and you heard His Honour say that he was satisfied that this was a very good settlement for the group members as a whole. And that's a legal judgment that we have to make, which we're pleased that His Honour endorsed.
JOURNALIST: How do you tell that several hundred group members who aren't going to be getting a [inaudible] potentially? How do you think they feel? Sorry, there’s a several of hundred people who didn’t want the settlement and opposed it. What do you say to them?
GORDON: Well, those people who opposed the settlement have been given the right by His Honour to opt out. We endorse what His Honour did there, and those people now are free to bring individual proceedings, if they believe they can get a better result in court. That's a just result and a wise decision that His Honour made, and we're pleased that he made that decision.
SHORTEN: The Government will say that they've never conceded liability, but let's call this fiction out. And the reality is, does any Australian think that the Morrison Government would not be paying 1.7 billion dollars back, or writing off debts, if they thought that they were legally entitled to? Does anyone believe that the Morrison Government would be paying 112 million dollars in extra payments to people who'd suffered hardship? Does anyone believe the Morrison Government only chose to settle and pay up everything plus more because they didn't want their senior ministers, be it Morrison, Porter, Tudge or Robert in the witness box, or senior public servants. The Morrison government are going to keep arrogantly pretending that they did nothing wrong. I just wish they would face the hundreds of thousands of people for whom they unlawfully took action against and just tell them the truth. That they got it wrong, they knew what they were doing, and they shouldn't have done it. Thank you, everybody.
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