BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES: I move:
That this House:
(1) accepts the findings of the report of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme regarding the former ministers involved in the design and implementation of the scheme;
(2) expresses its deep regret and apologises to the victims of the unlawful robodebt scheme, and to front-line Centrelink staff; and
(3) commits to ensuring this cruel, unlawful chapter in the history of Australian public administration is never repeated.
The reason why I'm moving this resolution and the government is supporting it is that we believe that the nation and the parliament cannot move on without accepting a genuine account of what went wrong.
It was Justice Murphy of the Federal Court in the resolution of the class action who described robodebt as a shameful chapter in the social security laws of Australia and a massive failure in public administration. The royal commissioner, Catherine Holmes, said, 'It's remarkable how little interest there seems to have been in ensuring the scheme's legality, how rushed its implementation was, how little thought was given to how it would affect the welfare recipients by ministers and public servants on a quest for savings.' She also said, importantly:
Where I have made findings against individuals that were liable to cause real damage to reputation … I have not reached those conclusions without a high degree of satisfaction about the evidence.
I'll come back to that point in this resolution.
The Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme was established on 25 August 2022. The final report was delivered on 7 July 2023. There were 46 days of public hearings and more than 100 witnesses. I also state importantly at the outset that the commission applied rules of procedural fairness. Individuals liable to be affected by a finding were given a fair and impartial hearing before any such decision was made—indeed, they got legal aid support. In her conclusion, Commissioner Holmes said the royal commission illustrated what:
… can go wrong through venality, incompetence and cowardice.
I thank the royal commission for doing their duty.
First, I want to talk about some of the victims' stories in robodebt. There was one lady who chose to be anonymous. She was a refugee and not literate in English. When she got the debt notices, she hid her own children, afraid that the authorities would come for them. There was Anjuli, pregnant and living in a refuge after escaping domestic violence. She was working three jobs to keep afloat. She was told she had a debt and, even though she had reported her income correctly, it got garnished. At the grocery store, she had to leave groceries at the till because, when she went to pay using her own money on her card, the money had already been taken out of her account. Maddy received an $8,000 debt while studying at uni. She was so overwhelmed that she actually attempted to take her own life.
There was another young single mum who said: 'I cried myself to sleep for two weeks thinking about where my daughter would go if I went to jail. I contacted her father for financial help. He then applied for shared custody of the daughter. To say robodebt ruined my life is a complete understatement.' Kathleen Madgwick told how her only child, Jarrad, took his own life after receiving a robodebt notice. Jennifer Miller gave a profoundly moving account of her son Rhys's experience of the scheme before he took his own life in 2017. Ms Miller said she went to her son's apartment in Melbourne and found debt letters hanging on the fridge along with a drawing of a person shooting a gun in their mouth, with dollar signs coming out of the back of their head. For the record, his debts were later reduced to zero. I say sorry to the victims, and we want the parliament to say sorry to the victims.
I say sorry to the frontline staff, and we want the parliament to say sorry to them. The staff at Services Australia were victims too. Their concerns were dismissed. They were given code of conduct violations for trying to speak up. They had to console robodebt victims contemplating taking their own lives. I got an email the other day from a grateful Services Australia worker thanking the government for the royal commission. She wrote: 'It was a really distressing time to work in the Public Service then. I felt embarrassed and ashamed about where I worked. It also went against my values, the reasons I was working there. When I questioned senior management, I was made to feel like a second-class citizen.' There was Colleen Taylor, who actually stood up to the then departmental secretary, Kathryn Campbell, saying:
… as a Compliance unit, we should not be the ones stealing from our customers.
At the royal commission she said:
There were so many people complicit in it that I think we all have to hang our heads in shame for what was being done to people … it was just horrific.
I'm also sorry to the advocates. You were underfunded, but you fought tirelessly on behalf of the most vulnerable. I include Genevieve Bolton, Katherine Boyle and Catherine Eagle. They told the coalition what was going on. I include the Not My Debt campaign and ACOSS. They warned the coalition government over 4½ years that the averaging process was wrong, that the automated process was unreliable and that it was wrong to have victims chasing up former employers for info. Victims had to borrow money to pay debts. There were domestic violence victims and homeless getting debts. I also acknowledge many backbenchers, including Senator Rachel Siewert from the Greens, many Labor people and some coalition backbenchers, who spoke up at the time.
I acknowledge the economic costs that the royal commission has identified. These economic supermen of the coalition made us believe there was a $4.7 billion mountain of gold which had been stolen, effectively, by the others, those on welfare. There was not a $4.7 billion mountain of gold. It did not exist; it was fool's gold. Instead, the Federal Court found that the coalition, using robodebt, unlawfully raised $1.8 billion of debt against no less than 434,000 Australians. The robodebt scheme was budgeted to save $4.7 billion for taxpayers. In the end, it has cost a billion dollars, not counting the money refunded. What a shocking waste of money in pursuit of a war on the poor.
There were warnings ignored, and this really does go to the heart of lessons of robodebt. As one wit said on Twitter, 'There were more red flags than a May Day parade.' But the coalition government repeatedly ignored warnings. This is a very important point. If you create an unlawful scheme and you, for whatever reason, miss that it's unlawful, that is inexcusable. What is even more inexcusable perhaps is when you are warned by tens of thousands of internal reviews, thousands of AAT matters and hundreds of AAT decisions. When you are warned by legal academics or when you are warned by the parliament—parliamentary committees, the crossbench, Labor—it shouldn't take Madeleine Masterton, a student, Deanna Amato and the Victorian Legal Aid Commission to stop robodebt. They're the people who actually stopped robodebt, and the class action was the final nail in the coffin of robodebt. It shouldn't have taken whistleblowers from within the service.
The royal commission also made findings about ministers. For the record, coalition ministers—the best and brightest of a generation of coalition politicians, they would say!—said this on 140 occasions, after which I stopped counting: 'I don't recall. I don't remember.' There's a new collective noun for amnesia: it's called a coalition cabinet! There was Mr Morrison. I did say earlier that the royal commission had to be satisfied to a high level. This is not just someone in a press conference judging the Prime Minister; this is a former chief justice of the Queensland Supreme Court. The royal commission found that Scott Morrison misled the cabinet and failed his ministerial responsibility, and it rejected part of his evidence as untrue. It says:
Mr Morrison allowed Cabinet to be misled because he did not make that obvious inquiry. He took the proposal to Cabinet without necessary information … He failed to meet his ministerial responsibility to ensure that Cabinet was properly informed about what the proposal actually entailed …
That is not what any self-respecting member of parliament, much less someone who has held the great office of the Prime Minister of Australia, would want said about them, but it has been said. It has been put. Mr Morrison had the chance to make an accounting of what he said, and he just failed to convince an impartial inquisitor of the royal commission.
There was poor old Senator Marise Payne. The royal commission said about her evidence:
This series of disparate and unsatisfactory answers would have the makings of a child's nursery rhyme if it were not so serious.
No more needs to be said. On the former Minister for Human Services, Mr Alan Tudge, the commission said that he abused his power:
… Mr Tudge knew that at least two people had died by suicide, and that their family members had identified the impact of the Scheme as a factor in their deaths. Nonetheless, Mr Tudge failed to undertake a comprehensive review into the Scheme …
… … …
It was all the more reprehensible in view of the power imbalance between the minister and the cohort of people upon whom it would reasonably be expected to have the most impact …
On Christian Porter, the former Minister for Social Services, the commission found:
Mr Porter could not rationally have been satisfied of the legality of the Scheme …
The member for Fadden, who extended the doctrine of cabinet solidarity, giving permission to lie to the public about 'facts' that you know are untrue, rejected that as errant rubbish.
Then there was Michael Keenan, the Minster for Human Services, who I actually think came off less bad than some of the others, but Professor Carney, who was an eminent AAT member and, for the best part of 40 years, a professor of law, gave five decisions in 2017. He said, 'This is unlawful.' When it was picked up and put in the media and when our own Linda Burney raised this very point in 2017-2018, the minister dismissed Professor Carney with that trademark coalition arrogance. He just said 'What does the opinion of a former member of the AAT matter?' What arrogance. When you become a cabinet minister, it doesn't make you smarter than everyone else. You don't get a uniform that makes you better. They ignored this advice.
Given what's been said about the victims, the cost and the ministers, what's been the response of the opposition since the royal commission? Well, Mr Morrison said he doesn't agree with it. He dismissed the real harm it caused as 'unintended consequences'. The dangerous minimalism of dismissing the consequences to nearly half a million people and breaking the law for 4½ years is 'unintended consequences'. Then we had the Leader of the Opposition. I think he was a little ambiguous. He said the member for Cook gave a very strong defence, but the point about it is he just says he put a very strong case. We are still in the dark about whether not the member for Dickson actually agrees with the member for Cook or just thinks he's doing a strong job defending himself. Time will tell. We had the member for Bradfield create a new, creative scheme and proposition that public servants would be innovative and creative. This is jeopardised by the royal commission.
But I must say that not all coalition members have reacted with the same sense of denialism and lack of repentance. I acknowledge the words of Senator Dean Smith on the Q&A show. He gave straight one-word answers: 'Yes. It was wrong.' I don't mean to embarrass him, and his own words speak for him, but the member for Menzies, earlier in the week in the Federation Chamber, I think wrote the blueprint for how the coalition should handle the issue. I hope me quoting him is not the kiss of death for his career, because he does deserve a career. If you listen to the member for Menzies, you might just have a chance one day of getting back into government, because his words were very good. He described the scheme as 'illiberal, unfair and incompetent' and he went to the issue of how an opposition can't regain the confidence of the people unless it looks inwards at what mistakes it made. I commend people to go look at those words.
This resolution is not about Labor versus Liberal, it's about those who think that robodebt was illegal—unlawful, a shame, a stain, a war on the poor—and those who are so emotionally bound up in defending their term in government that they just can't hear anything else, and that is a challenge.
In conclusion, we commend this resolution, and we commend this resolution because the narcissism of robodebt needs to be replaced by the ethos of servant leadership in government. Ceasing the scheme after 4½ years is not enough. The royal commission is not enough. What Australians want to hear from the political class, the people privileged to represent them, is a promise that it was wrong—not just unintended, not just a chilling effect on the creatives in the Public Service, not just a strong defence by the member for Cook. The people of Australia deserve better than the coalition's response. This was a breach of trust. The Liberal Party once stood for the rights of the individual in terms of the state, but, in a Frankenstein-like reversal of roles, they actually stood in the last government for the rights of the state against the individual. True conservatives believe in the rule of law, and the previous government was a government of lawbreakers. It is time to apologise to the victims, time to apologise to the staff, time to show real repentance for the illegality of your actions.
BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Just in reply to the conclusion of this debate, I do feel it is appropriate to respond to some of the comments made by the Member for Bradfield and Deakin. What we've seen in response to the initiating resolution which says that we accept the findings about the Ministers, that we think that we should apologise and we think that we, this Parliament also, believes that we should commit to making sure this never happens again. Is the response from the Opposition's been their own amendment which, you know, they're entitled to do self-evidently. But I just want to go to the core of their arguments criticising this resolution, and it does go to whether or not the lessons of Robodebt have actually been learned by the Parliament.
The Member for Bradfield is very punctilious with his words, so I listened to some of them. Essentially his proposition was that the public service came to the Coalition government with this proposal. But what that glosses over, quite deliberately in a calculated fashion, is the Coalition government were interested in whether or not they could track down what they thought was a mountain of welfare fraud. This was deeply in the DNA of the previous Coalition government. This sense of unfairness, that somehow people on welfare were getting something they weren't entitled to, they created this straw man that somehow there's a lot of money being siphoned out of the welfare system by welfare recipients.
And they thought that they could turbo charge welfare compliance, drop out human oversight, reverse the onus of proof, and this would lead to rivers of gold for their budgets. The Royal Commission exposes the fact that there wasn't a mountain of gold there. This was like that explorer in the 1930’s in Australia, Lasseter, who went looking for the imaginary vein of gold, but it never existed. The problem is, though, all Lasseter did is he harmed himself. He disappeared. But this was not a consequence free proposition by the government. What they did in their rush to have a war on the poor, to demonise people on welfare as second class is, they took away their rights. They reversed the onus of proof. It is truly ironic that the Member for Cook bleats about, he feels that his onus of proof has been reversed onto him now the Royal Commission has listened to him and formed a view. But I just wish that he and his colleagues had shown some of the empathy they feel for themselves, for everyone else. Essentially once the Coalition triggered this runaway train of illegality, and they're saying, well, it’s just the public servants.
Then the Member for Bradfield then glosses over four and a half years, and we stopped it when we saw it was wrong. It's as if they were never told. It was as if the AAT never existed. It was as if there weren't 19,000 internal appeals, 4500 external appeals, at least 500 cases identified by the Royal Commission, where decisions were made on the use of income averaging. It's as if Price Waterhouse never gave them a report which they paid $1 million for. It's as if Clayton Utz never gave them a legal opinion in 2018, telling them of the severe problems with the legality. What we have is a Coalition in opposition who haven't learnt the first lesson of losing an election. You've got to show some contrition to the voters. Not on everything. You don't have to abandon all your legacy. But sometimes when a nation changes the government, the party who was in government, who now is in opposition, needs to reflect. What are some ways that we can demonstrate we actually hear some of the lessons? Now, those opposite are masters of using a word and pivoting off the word to create a totally different meaning. I mean, the Member for Cook said that the consequences, he regrets the unintended consequences. What a minimisation that must be. What a sense of cold comfort that must be for the victims. Oh, your harm was an unintended consequence. Now, if you're just one person, you might say, oh, okay. But there wasn't just one person who had unintended consequences. There were tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. They were coming into Coalition backbenchers’ doors to - For these masters of language also then seek to demonize the royal commission so they say it's not their fault.
I mean, what is the point of being a Coalition Cabinet Minister if every time the public service tells you to do something, you say, thanks, where's my limo? Where's my lunch? That is not the job. The job of a Cabinet Minister is to interrogate the proposals. But here you would get them - the Coalition's defence is essentially we are glove puppets of the public service. But then they move on to say when it was wrong, we stopped it. That's just an outrageous lie and I'm calling it out as a lie. There were so many warnings on this, it's ridiculous. And then they say they stopped it. It's a bit like a pyromaniac setting fire to the bush and then when the fire brigade puts it out, said, well, without me, it couldn't have been put out.
The point about it is it was Deanne Amato and Madeleine Masterton. Remember those names. These are Australians who showed more commitment to putting down this scheme than the Coalition combined, and the Victorian Legal Aid Commission.
I mean, as for the Member for Deakin's contribution, what a dishonest farrago of words. He couldn't even mention the Robodebt once. Like, for him, he's just beamed it out. But then I also noticed the assault on the Royal Commission itself, and I've got to stand up for the Royal Commissioner. The Member for Deakin, you know, bagging people for being politicians. Well, it takes one to know one, my friend. But he says hand-picked. Well, yes, the government appoints a Royal Commissioner, but hand-picked. There's just that insinuation that we're all friends. That is not right. And the Royal Commissioner has dealt with, she's seen it all in the witness box. And that's why she didn't believe Scott, the Member for Cook.
But then they get into this what I think is the most shameless and incorrigible attack. Sorry, the Greens made a contribution, but as usual, they spent more time attacking us than attacking the Liberals. So, I'll treat that sniper fire with the with the amount of time it deserves. That's it. But we get to the attack by the Coalition saying, it's just politics. It's politics. It's political. Oh, the Member for Maribyrnong, he's political. Yeah, you got me. I'm a politician. But actually, I want to confirm one thing. My word, it's political and my word, it's personal. But not in the way that you, those refugees from the last cabinet of the coalition government would insinuate. It's personal and it's political to Labor because you hurt a lot of people. For years we sat in opposition, and you tucked your very important thumbs behind the very important lapels of your jacket, and you said, we believe in the rule of law. Well, actually, you didn't. You hold yourself out in this cloak of sanctimonious conservatism. We are the party of the law. It's in the conservative DNA to be the party of the law, respecting the law. But you didn't.
You know, when you say you believe in the rule of law, the klaxon goes, the buzzer goes, wrong. If you believed in the rule of law, you would have checked if the scheme was legal. If you believed in the rule of law, Mr. Morrison, when he saw in his first submission - the Member for Cook. Oh, good point. I'll call him the Member for Cook. You would have believed the Member for Cook; he got a submission saying you do need to change the law. And then in that marvellous, magical world that he lives in of invisibility, the next submission says no legal change required. Member for Cook is far too smart to question his luck. Just goes on, fantastic. That obstacle magicked away. If you believed in the rule of law, you'd have listened to the art. If you believed in the rule of the law, you would have paid attention to being a model litigant. The model litigant requirements of the Commonwealth say that when you've got a series of decisions, you better report it to someone. On no less than 424 cases identified by the Royal Commission, these former masters of the rule of law just never noticed. When you get a bad decision and a series of bad decisions and a conga line of bad decisions, you are obliged to either appeal the decision because you think it's wrong or change your policy. But you took the not brave way. The cowardly way of ignoring it.
Like. There is no satisfactory answer to that in the minds of the Australian people. So, it is personal to us. Because when you demonise people on welfare, when you don't give them the same legal rights, when you ignore all the warnings, when you gaslight the victims, when you attack the advocates, when you use the power of your office to look up personal files to attack the critics in the media, when you take the pay as a Cabinet Minister, when you lecture for year upon year upon year, we're going to get these people and then it's wrong, then to gaslight the Royal Commission. Yes, we are the messengers, and you can shoot us all you like.
If I was being really partisan, I would hope that you keep doing exactly what you're doing because at the moment, the way the Coalition is handling this Royal Commission, with a few notable exceptions, the way you're handling it means you've learnt nothing, and you'll repeat the same mistakes again.