22 April 2021

SUBJECT: Morrison Government still chasing Robodebts.

LEON BYNER, HOST: Thanks for being with us. Of course, we'll be happy to take a lot more calls, but before we do that, I want to get on to something that's been a bit of a rope around the neck for a number of governments, and that is this business of what's called Robodebt. I know that Centrelink don't like that expression, but basically, it's a debt that's generated by a computer algorithm. And of course, you might remember the time we had a lot of people ringing us and telling us that they've got these debts, which they don't understand why. There might have been a handful that were legit, but many were not. Anyway, what's happened is that Services Australia have been copping a bit of flack over the vanishing of these debts. But the debts have not actually been set aside, they've just kind of disappeared, which advocates argue are giving welfare recipients false hope, causing confusion and distress. I caught up with Bill Shorten, Bill Shorten, thanks for joining us today. I can remember, easily two years ago, that you and I talked about Robodebt. This was these form letters going out, algorithm letters to people, many of whom didn't have a debt at all. Now, the debts have apparently been set aside, but there are still concerns that some people might end up having to pay them. What's the latest?
BILL SHORTEN, MEMBER FOR MARIBYRNONG: I think it's very concerning that the Government is simply suspending or quarantining people's debt, but not with the purpose of cancelling them, but just withdrawing them from sight. The biggest problem with the Robodebt scheme that you just mentioned is that it has trashed trust in Centrelink. It's not fair on the Centrelink frontline staff, but the Government is yet again manipulating digital information with no explanation to the people who it affects, which is just really dehumanising.
BYNER: Wasn't there an agreement some time back that a lot of these letters, these algorithm letters, were inaccurate and sent to people who had no debt. Wasn't there action taken then to fix this?  
SHORTEN: Well, the Government issued something like 470,000 illegal debts against nearly 400,000 people. But it took individual complaints, it took whistle-blowers, it took administrative appeals tribunal judges, it took Labor to help organise a class action to stop the Government breaking the law. But throughout this whole sorry process, no one in the Government has been accountable for the largest illegal debt raising against its own citizens in the history of the Commonwealth. 
BYNER: So where do we stand now with this?
SHORTEN: Well, the court, the Government finally settled late last year, a year after it knew what it was doing was illegal - only because its senior politicians and public servants are going to have to go into court and explain their illegal behaviour. So, the court has now written to everyone they can find through Centrelink. On May the 6th and 7th, the court will hear if there’s any objection to the class action resolution. They will look at the apportionment of costs. They'll get an update on who's been paid. So, May 6th and 7th hopefully will be the final chapter, at least in recompensing people. Some people I'm sure the Government hasn't been able to find, and there'll be some people who still haven't received their money. I think, though, most people have received most of what they're owed. 
BYNER: This is a shambles.  
SHORTEN: It’s an omni-shambles.
BYNER: I mean, if people have paid money, and some have because they didn't want to get in trouble with the state and they shouldn't have, can they be guaranteed that they just sit there and they'll get their money?
SHORTEN: I think the court will be updated about how many people have received the money. My concern is there'll be some thousands of our fellow Australians who are off the Government grid. You know, they're just they don't have a MyGov record anymore. And this Government, having taken their money, can't find them to give it back to them. Hopefully, that will be a small number, will all become clear or May the 6th and 7th. But it is fundamentally disgraceful. That's why Labor said if we're elected, we intend to have a Royal Commission into this maladministration of this scheme. Do you know in Holland, for a much smaller amount than our Government got wrong, the whole Government resigned.  
BYNER: Yes, I saw that.
SHORTEN: But this Government - you know, Christine Holgate, like her or not, she gave four watches of about 3,000 dollars each as executive presents to senior executives. And Mr Morrison was like an Old Testament prophet, saying she must go, and she must resign. I wonder why he is mysteriously silent on 1.2 billion dollars being illegally raised from nearly half a million Aussies. But of course, he was the Minister during some of this process and he was the Treasurer and now the Prime Minister. So, it's one rule for other people and another rule for himself.
BYNER: So, there's been a class action on this, hasn't there? 
SHORTEN: Labor helped organise a class action. That's the only way people have got their money back. Let me be very clear. A lot of people were complaining about it, but it's taken a class action, and frankly, the whiff of personal accountability, the threat that some of these people will have to turn up in court and explain what they did or didn't do and why they ignored the warning signs. The only reason people are getting their money back is because some of the designers and inventors of the scheme didn't want to sit in court and explain how they got it so horribly wrong. 
BYNER: Look, I’ve got another point here. Services Australia haven't ruled out that the debts could return to people's accounts. Now, how can that happen when we seem to have had what is a clearance as to, no, wrong fix it? We're going back to the start again. 
SHORTEN: Well, I think Services Australia need to explain the legal basis for the actions that they're taking. But the whole thing is that bureaucracy and this Government are not above the law. What is the legal basis upon which they make the invisible and then can, abracadabra, make them visible again for people? They need to explain what's going on and they need to explain to each individual. If you had a bank account, be it a mortgage or a deposit in the bank and the bank said, we can't tell you if you owe us a debt or not, and then they choose at some future point to bring this debt back to life, you’d be off your brain. But somehow, because it's the Government dealing with what's perceived to be second class citizens, not that they are, people receiving Centrelink, they think they can treat these people as puppets just to be pulled this way and that way. 
BYNER: So, Bill, what happens now?
SHORTEN: We're going to ask the government what is going on here. And to be fair, so are other politicians and so are the other smaller parties. The Government's got to start following the law. And they've also got to start maintaining this contract with people who receive Centrelink. Centrelink is not charity. It's a right. If you fall on hard times, it's the safety net. But the idea that you or I or anyone couldn't know transparently what the Government says we owe them is, to me, just the horror show starting all again of Robodebt.
BYNER: Bill, thank you for joining us. And I can confidently suggest that you'll stay with us on this, because people want to be updated.  
SHORTEN: Yeah. And hats off to Adelaide’s own Steve Georganas, he's been a very diligent guardian on this matter. And if people think they're owed money, they should raise it. And if they're worried the Government is not telling them the truth, they should raise it too.  
BYNER: That’s Bill Shorten, making some very important clarifications. And I've got to say that Steve Georganas, we deal with him a lot, as you know, and he's a can-do bloke. So, I don't care what his politics are. That is of no interest to me. Could be for you, but we just worry about the results. So, we'll keep you well posted. And if you've got an issue, I still think there are a handful of people who've got Robodebt issues. If you have talked to Steve, federal member, he’s Adelaide’s federal member, he can sort it out for you in a whisker.