LEON DELANEY, HOST: Today the Royal Commission into Robodebt has delivered its final report and the contents, as expected, are pretty scathing. About 1,000 pages and a list of 57 recommendations. Joining me now, Federal Minister for Government Services and the NDIS Bill Shorten. Good afternoon.
BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Good afternoon. Leon. Thanks for joining us today. I'd like to start with recommendation number one. It's there, right at the beginning of the report and it suggests that the Agency should design policies and processes with emphasis on the people they are meant to serve. Now isn't that what most people would consider to be what they call a no brainer? Isn't that what any good government should be doing anyway?
SHORTEN: Absolutely. A lot of the recommendations, I think the fact that the Commissioner felt the need to have to write them down shows how alarmed she was at the evidence. She heard about the, what I termed, the pathology of lawlessness in the previous government.
DELANEY: The other thing that has attracted a lot of attention today is the decision by the Commissioner to include a sealed chapter, which is not part of the public report. But it's been forwarded to the Governor-General and various different agencies naming people to be referred for civil or criminal prosecution. Now we don't know who's in there, but we do know that a number of figures have come out of this report not terribly well.
First and foremost, the former Prime Minister Scott Morrison was found to have given untrue evidence. He was also found to have allowed Cabinet to be misled. Now, that suggests as Prime Minister, he was either ignorant and incompetent or possibly dishonest and deceitful. Which one do you think it was?
SHORTEN: Well, I don't want to defame the man, but the commissioner's reports are scathing. This is a Prime Minister of Australia who a Royal Commission, independent of government, has given a very poor assessment of his time as the Minister for Social Services and the written commentary about whether or not she believed what he was saying. It's humiliating.
DELANEY: And it wasn't just the former Prime Minister. Other senior figures were also depicted in a less than favourable light. Christian Porter apparently could not rationally be satisfied of the legality of the process. Alan Tudge according to the Commissioner, engaged in an abuse of power and Stuart Robert's claim of swift action has been questioned by the Commissioner. Although I note that Stuart Robert has subsequently issued a statement this afternoon welcoming the report and claiming credit as the Minister that worked hard to get the legal advice and closed down the compliance scheme. What do you make of that?
SHORTEN: Well, that last comment is bordering on delusional. Mr. Robert gave, and I pinned him in Parliament on this. He said that he thought there was a problem and he got legal advice. And then what I exposed in Parliament is he waited four and a half months for the legal advice. And in the meantime, he gave the most remarkable testimony in the Royal Commission where the evidence was what he said it was okay to say things, you know, absolutely not to be true to the public and under the rubric of Cabinet solidarity. Um, no, I think the Commissioner’s prose is tight, elegant and damning.
DELANEY: Of course, at the heart of all this are the thousands upon thousands of victims of the scheme. And I know you've actually had a lot of contact with some of those victims. And sadly, the families of some of the victims who took their own lives. Have you been able to speak with any of them today?
SHORTEN: Yes, I have. Um, you know, this Royal Commission has been a journey, and I've been on it with Jennifer Miller and Kath Madgwick. They had sons Rhys Cauzzo and Jarrad Madgwick. They received Robodebt notices, their mothers have told me. And then not long after that they took their own lives. They felt gaslighted by the former government. Their truth was denied. So, nothing, can replace the fact that they've lost precious loved sons, but they do feel a sense of vindication.
They have had their faith in the system, a little bit restored by the forensic examination by Justice Catherine Holmes, the Royal Commissioner. But they're stressed. It's been a tough day. It reminds them of things, but they're strong women who and their families put in a position they never should because the previous government was running an unlawful scheme. The Commonwealth of Australia is not a milk bar. It's the biggest economic institution in the nation and for them, for the biggest, most powerful organisation in Australia, to chase the vulnerable, unlawfully was such a gross abuse of trust. It's a real issue and there were real costs in it. So, I've spoken to whistle-blowers today, Leon, they all feel a little bit better. I mean, I'm very mindful, though, of using generalisations because the whole thing is a shame and there's the lessons for future governments of whatever political stripe.
DELANEY: Yeah. And of course, that does bring us back to recommendation number one, designing policies and processes with the emphasis on the people they're meant to serve. Also prominently featured in the recommendations, though, is the concept of consultation. Both consultation with peak advocacy bodies and also consultation with frontline workers who the Royal Commission revealed had been endlessly attempting to sound the alarm bell with their superiors. And yet they were shoved aside.
SHORTEN: Leon you would have thought this stuff was as basic as a fish swimming. Um, I know I've visited, I've been a Minister for just over a year. I visited 35 separate Service Australia centres; I always hold meetings with the workforce. I now write directly to all 30,000 public servants monthly. Talking to advocates, well, we're all advocates, so we should be willing to listen to them. The advocates provide an audit role which lets you know what's happening, which is bad before it becomes even worse. And I've met with I name some of the advocates, but I've been meeting with them, and they tell me things and we've just got to work on it. The fact that there were so many red flags over four and a half years, is as shocking as the fact that the government dreamed up an unlawful scheme to begin with. But the red flags were there. I was just looking at some statistics. Did you know that there were nearly 20,000 individuals who internally appealed these Robodebts within the government? There were 4,339 matters went to the external court system, the AAT. There's 713 mentions in Hansard – that's the parliamentary record of debate. The Liberals didn't even call it Robodebt, so it was by opposition and crossbenchers. There was, a literature search shows tens of thousands of articles written on this issue. There was the million dollars paid to Pricewaterhouse for a report which we never got. So, there were more red flags here than a rally. And yet the government for four and a half years, to put it bluntly, gaslighted the nation and its citizens, and said that nothing to see here. Just move along, please.
DELANEY: It does kind of prompt the question with so many red flags, how is it that so many senior figures in the government from the Prime Minister, well, at the, even before Scott Morrison was Prime Minister, obviously there was Malcolm Turnbull in charge of the whole show. But from the Prime Minister down, so many senior government officials were insisting that there was nothing wrong. How could they possibly go on for so long under that delusion with so many red flags waving?
SHORTEN: That was dishonest, I don't know how they could. At a certain point, when do you realise that it's not a few isolated matters, that it's not even a trickle, not even a stream... it's a full-on tsunami. It takes a special kind of arrogance and disinterest, but, you know, they were searching for mythical rivers of gold, mountains of gold, which weren't owed by people. And it suited their political rhetoric to somehow treat people, you know, the dole bludger rhetoric that people on welfare are second class citizens. It just, they divided the country and they said this was a group of people receiving welfare who are out there getting inappropriate benefits all the time. The whole scheme was unlawful. I regret to say that Mr. Dutton today has said, well, if people owe debts, then the debts have got to be collected and I think that's fine. But that actually shows a complete ignorance of what this is about. None of these people owed any debts. It was an unlawful scheme. They still don't get it.
DELANEY: Yeah, the scheme was unlawful, and the calculation of the debts was woefully inaccurate because of the methodology being inappropriate. And it's as simple as that and straightforward as that. There's a lot of other issues that have been covered obviously, we can't talk about all of them, but the Royal Commissioners report does recommend increased power for the Ombudsman. It recommends changes to the legislative process to ensure legality of programmes and it has also suggested there should be a review of the structure of the public service and particularly within the social services system. So, you know, is there a structural deficit, or a structural problem in the system?
SHORTEN: There was clearly a problem with people seemed to forget. There was a memory loss issue that the Royal Commission exposed, people didn't remember... everyone said someone else told them something. So, I think there was a lack of responsibility and overarching leadership. A lot of those people, not all of them, but a lot of them, have now gone. There's new leadership, I can reassure Australians Service Australia, DSS, the National Disability Insurance Agency, for example.
The structure of government, we need to examine the Royal Commission's findings and talk to people. The aim of the government, I think, is in between two to three months to give a response to all 57 recommendations. So, I guess the jury's out to me about what is the best structure. But one thing's for sure, we've got to put humans back into human services, Services Australia, and we've got to always… and I must also just put in not an ad, but just a statement on behalf of the 30,000 public servants who do work in Service Australia… a lot of them were very brave. A lot of them resigned over working in this unfair regime. A lot of them tried to blow the whistle. They were ignored. I'd just say to people going into Service Australia offices today or on the phones or whatever, that deal with them. The people at the front line are doing a really good job and let's not tar everyone with the same brush. This was the failure of very senior leadership and an unquestioning sort of gung-ho-ness to just chase the debt. But a lot of frontline people, you know, they raised, they were concerned, and they did the best they could. They were set up by their leadership as much as the victims were.
DELANEY: Indeed. Bill, thanks very much for your time today.
SHORTEN: Good chatting, Leon.