14 November 2023


SUBJECTS: Robodebt Royal Commission; myGov Advisory Board; NDIS Review; Foreign Minister’s comment on situation in Gaza

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Over a number of months we heard harrowing stories of people being unfairly and unlawfully chased for debts they didn't owe. The Robodebt Royal Commission, in the words of Commissioner Catherine Holmes, showed us how things can go wrong through vinality, incompetence and cowardice. She made 56 recommendations, which the government yesterday accepted or accepted in principle. So, what happens next? Bill Shorten is the Minister for Government Services and the NDIS and he joined me a short time ago. Bill Shorten, welcome to the programme.


KARVELAS: The government says these recommendations are not enough to prevent another Robodebt scheme. So, how do you stop it?

SHORTEN: Well, we've said never again. What we think to really be able to stop it is for the Coalition to accept the recommendations, to accept their misgovernance of the scheme, and show that they are remorseful about trying to invent a scheme which treated the less well off as second class citizens.

KARVELAS: One of the recommendations calls for legislation, reform and regulation to determine how automation in government services can operate, right? Because automation obviously really has incredible power to make these kinds of big mistakes. The government's accepted that, when will that be introduced and how would it work?

SHORTEN: Well, there's several bits of work already underway. Ed Husic is chairing a discussion, or has commissioned a discussion about AI in digital and also Jason Clare been doing that in education. What I'm doing in my own portfolio of Services Australia is I've just announced a new advisory board and the function of the advisory board is to help steer the rollout of MyGov, but inevitably that goes towards new ideas and how algorithms affect people in Human Services. I've got ethicists and human rights experts on that, so, we will test future ideas with people before we implement them on people.

KARVELAS: How exactly will it change the way automation can be used, though?

SHORTEN: Well, in my case, my advisory board, I have Victor Dominello, the former Liberal Minister for Government Services in NSW. He's a compelling and strong leader. I have Simon Longstaff, the chair of the St James Ethics Centre. Ed Santow, former Human Rights Commissioner. So, it's about testing ideas with people. We are also investing in humans generally in the system. We've announced an extra 3000 people to help reduce the waiting times for payment processing and phone calls.

KARVELAS: In response to some of the criticism we've heard for instance, the government has accepted the principle that all recommendations will be implemented. A closing observation, though, from the report, called for significant changes to the Freedom of Information Act around what documents are labelled Cabinet in confidence and all of that, but that's not been embraced by the government. Why is that something that you see as different?

SHORTEN: I think the Royal Commission went to 56 specific recommendations, we've agreed with them or we've agreed with them in principle. This last point you make was an observation made by the Royal Commissioner in closing, questioning the use of Cabinet in confidence for many documents. Cabinet in confidence government is something which Labor signed up to and we're not changing that, and to be fair, it wasn't a specific recommendation in this Royal commission either.

KARVELAS: Okay. In response, you have said that Centrelink call centres will get an additional 3000 workers, which is, it sounds like a big amount. How will you recruit them and how will you deploy them?

SHORTEN: We've already started recruiting. I think the horrible HR jargon is onboarding.


SHORTEN: and we're onboarding the first 800 now, we we're going to recruit them from all over Australia and the jobs will be all over Australia. Lots of these jobs will be in Queensland and Western Australia, in the regions, not just Melbourne and Sydney.

KARVELAS: Earlier this month, the Senate hearing heard up to 180 workers are leaving Services Australia every month and nearly one in five workers said they were planning to leave in the next year. So, what impact will that have on services?

SHORTEN: I want to help lift the morale at Services Australia. When I became the Minister, I realised that morale at Services Australia was down. The people were good, but post Robodebt, government cutbacks, the morale was down. So, what we've managed to do since then is outline a roadmap for the future rollout of myGov, we've introduced thousands of extra jobs to deal with natural disasters and that hit on the claim system and now generally reducing waiting times. We're also getting in some of the best and brightest to be our advisory board. So, I think we can lift morale, we've also made changes to make workers safer at work.

KARVELAS: Minister, if I can sort of change to another section of your portfolio. The NDIS, new research shows the scheme could be driving high rates of autism diagnosis. But just to be clear, this report isn't peer reviewed, but you must be across it. Do you think that's the case?

SHORTEN: I don't know if it's exactly the case. I do know that people with autism would be the largest cohort on the NDIS, it's north of 200,000. I think this demand was larger than anyone foresaw. We want to make sure that the scheme is getting to the people for whom the scheme was originally designed and if people require support, maybe have a diagnose of autism, but it doesn't impair them so much they need a lot of support, then we've got to have a discussion how we can provide some foundational services for people to be included in the community, but doesn't mean they have to be headed always to the NDIS.

KARVELAS: Australia has a higher prevalence of autism in children than other countries. You'll soon be releasing a full review of the NDIS, does it look at that?

SHORTEN: The review will undoubtedly look at early intervention and what's the best way to help kids with developmental delays? What's the best way to make an intervention early on, which accelerates the child's chances of having a better educational experience in the school system. So, I think early intervention is one of the sweet spots for the NDIS to make changes to people's lives.

KARVELAS: Why haven't you released the review yet?

SHORTEN: Because it's been given to the states and it'll be discussed at National Cabinet. Once it's discussed at National Cabinet, then we'll release it. The report was prepared for the state and federal governments, and the states are key partners in the delivery of disability services in Australia. So, it's good that they get consulted.

KARVELAS: Yeah. It's interesting you say it's been handed to the states. That's where some of the, if I can be frank, argy-bargy is going to happen, isn't it? Because you've long been saying the states have surrendered kind of their role. Can you give me a sense of how that is dealt with in the report?

SHORTEN: The report comes from the point of view, what's the best interest of a person with disability on the NDIS? It comes from the point of view of how do we make the system more human, less bureaucratic, and how can we help weed out some of the inappropriate practises, the poor service providers, some of the price padding which goes on. So, that's what's driving it in terms of what we do with each of the sections, we'll see what the states say. They're crucial generally, but so is every level of a government. The trick in Australia, if you have a disability is that you get support at the level that you need it at. The NDIS shouldn't be the sort of only golden ticket for disability services in Australia. So, we've just got to have that conversation and that's on all of us. It also goes to encouraging employers to employ more people with disability. Disability is not a particular program's responsibility, it's a national responsibility.

KARVELAS: Just before I let you go, Minister to another issue, very much not in your portfolio. You are a former Opposition Leader and you've spoken about other issues as well. Over the weekend, Penny Wong said she wanted to see steps towards a ceasefire in Gaza. Do you support that?

SHORTEN: I think it's unexceptional what the Foreign Minister said. We're in very close step to the United States and other Western nations, we've called for a humanitarian pause, but we completely recognise that Israel's dealing with Hamas who don't want to negotiate. So, the idea that we want an enduring peace, as Penny said, of course, is what we want. We all know we're a long way off that and Hamas should be prevailed upon by world opinion to hand back the hostages, to say that they're going to stop trying to kill Israelis and destroy Israel.

KARVELAS: Last night on Q&A, there was big discussion about this. You know, I hosted the show, so I'm obviously pretty across some of the things that were said. Nasser Mashni, who's the President of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, said that the hopes for a two state solution ended years ago. Is there a new phase of this now?

SHORTEN: No. I don't think it's impossible to get the two peoples to live side by side with safe borders.

KARVELAS: The idea that there should be one place where everyone has equal citizenship?

SHORTEN: Oh, no. Our policy's been to support a two state solution.

KARVELAS: Why, though?

SHORTEN: There was a policy we developed many, many years ago about respecting the security of Israel and the right of Palestinians to have a say in control in their own land. I don't think that's a radical policy.

KARVELAS: No, but it's clearly not one that everyone agrees with. You're a Melbourne too, and you saw the protests over the Friday night in Caulfield. The protesters have since apologized but there's a big debate about the way that this is playing out on the streets. How do you view it?

SHORTEN: Yeah, it would be good if. I mean, I respect that people have got a point of view and a deeply held point of view, and I recognise, I too share the distress at all the scenes from October 7 on… in Gaza. I think, as community leaders in Australia, we've got to dial it down a bit. I actually think that we shouldn't be importing a conflict somewhere else onto our own streets. I think the bullying in the Caulfield neighbourhood by those youths of the other point of view, I just thought that was just the wrong message. What we want in this country is cohesion, I think Australians look at these scenes, these are Australians who might not know much about the Middle East and just, they're bewildered, and you certainly don't want to import those arguments here.

KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us, Bill Shorten.

SHORTEN: No worries. Thank you.