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11 June 2021

FRIDAY, 11 JUNE 2021

SUBJECTS:  Federal Court judgement on Morrison Government Robodebt scandal; impact of Melbourne lockdown
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Well, Bill Shorten is the Shadow Minister for the NDIS and Government Services, and he joined me a little earlier to talk about today's Robodebt judgement. Bill Shorten, welcome to the program.
KARVELAS: Is the judge's summing up the validation that those who suffered as a result of this scheme, what they've been looking for? Is this what they wanted?
SHORTEN: I think for the hundreds of thousands of our fellow Australians who were living on the edge in the margins and were unlawfully sued by the Government, I think what they really wanted is that the Government never behaved unlawfully to begin with. This is a second-best option, but it is validation for all of the arguments countless hundreds of thousands of people had with the Government. I mean, this is without a doubt is the worst failure of a compliance program in Australia's history. It is, as the judge said, a shameful, a shameful chapter of our welfare history in Australia.
KARVELAS: What's your response to Justice Murphy's observation that Robodebt was a bungle and there's little evidence to prove the Government knew the scheme was unlawful?
SHORTEN: What Justice Murphy said is that on the evidence he had in front of him, he tended towards it was a massive stuff up as opposed to a conspiracy. But that's why we want to have a Royal Commission. Because when does massive stupidity actually become negligent, reckless and bad? For four and a half years, the Government said that what they were doing was legal. They said it was legal after 29 different Administrative Appeals Tribunal decisions said it wasn't. They kept on saying it in Parliament and in the media and they rubbished me and others who said that it was illegal. So now they've said actually, well, maybe we were just stupid. Not bad. But the point about this is, no public servant has been held to account. No senior public servant, that is. No Minister is held to account. There is no business in Australia where if you were part of a 2-billion-dollar compliance fail, where you have to repay 1.7 billion dollars and another 112 million dollars in costs, and no one's responsible. This is a blame free Government. They are a joke and they are incompetent.
KARVELAS: Are you disappointed that this settlement allows the government to avoid any admission of wrongdoing?
SHORTEN: Well, part of me wanted to see those Ministers give evidence under oath and the senior public servants, but I think it was the very threat of that on the day that the case was to begin that forced them to pony up all the money they owed. But part of me also recognizes that only the Morrison Government believes their own spin on this, when they say they haven't admitted liability but by the way, here's 1.763 billion dollars back to 381,000 different recipients. And when they pay another 112 million dollars of taxpayer money because of the inconvenience they've caused, you know, hundreds of thousands of Australians, only they believe they haven’t admitted liability. Does any person currently breathing on the continent of Australia believe that the Government would have repaid this money if they weren't liable?
KARVELAS: Do you welcome the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg’s, well, he's addressed this issue and apologised this afternoon, reiterating previous comments that have been made.
SHORTEN: Listen, an apology is better than nothing, but for the people who have suffered the trauma, the stigma, the shame for the families who say that their own loved ones were forced to take their own life, triggered by the Robodebt, an apology is pretty hollow. It shouldn't have taken me going to Gordon Legal, Gordon Legal running a class action for the best part of two years, hundreds of thousands of people having to protest and sign up, for the Government to obey the law. Have we become so inured, so apathetic to this Government's incompetence and spin, that we just sort of say, oh, well, we know they’re stupid, their 2 billion dollar mistake, you know, their bad, let's move on. It is a disgrace. Whatever happened to the principle, if you make a big mistake, you own it. These guys and girls in the Morrison Government spent your taxpayer money and every other taxpayers’ money, fighting until the day they had to send their own people into court. Only when their own skin was on the line did they give a stuff about what they did to everyone else.
KARVELAS: Bill Shorten, you mentioned suicide, and that question was asked of the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg. He says the issue of suicide is complex and these are human tragedies. Do you believe this scheme was directly responsible for people taking their own lives? Because Josh Frydenberg really said that this was a sort of broader human tragedy issue.
SHORTEN: When someone feels that they have no other option other than to take their own life, that's clearly tragic and it is remarkably complex. What I won’t do, unlike the government, is pretend that Robodebt couldn't have triggered these matters. If you feel the whole world's closing in on you, if you feel that you just can't dig your way out of the hole that you're in and nothing seems to be getting better, imagine getting there and a letter of demand and process servers from your friends at the Morrison Government. It's just… what this Government says is that you can't prove that someone took their own life because of Robodebt. One, I would say I'd rather trust the family of the loved one than a Minister who's never picked up the phone to that family. And two, what I can't say is that there's no relationship, that when everything else is piling it on you and you get a letter of demand or you’re chased, or you have the stigma of the Government honing in on you, alleging you have a debt which you don't believe you have, how can the Government be so sure that that didn't trigger a terrible, catastrophic event?
KARVELAS: You mention didn't get a phone call. There was this sorry from the Treasurer today. But are you concerned that there hasn't been that that personal call from any of the responsible Ministers or the Prime Minister to these families?
SHORTEN: Yeah, I mean, the Ministers and the Prime Minister might say oh, we can't ring every person, we don't know every individual circumstances, and some of that's undoubtedly true. But what they can do is not implement an unlawful scheme for the last four and a half years. I remember when we launched the class action, Stuart Robert with his trademark grin, just mocking myself and Gordon Legal, saying there are no plaintiffs. Where are the plaintiffs, he thundered? Why is it only Mr Shorten and Mr Gordon fronting the cameras? Where are the plaintiffs? Well, he was wrong, wasn't he? It turns out that 628,000 members were part of this class. It turns out that 381,000 people of this class literally paid money to the Government that they didn't owe. There's literally hundreds of thousands of people who are affected. All this Government has ever done since day one is beat up on the poor, hand out fictitious numbers in budgets to make themselves look like economic supermen. All they've ever done is, they've never tried to tackle the tax rorts at the top end of town, but when it comes to running up the flag, there's people on welfare cheating. They've spared no effort. The problem is they didn't have any legal power to do it.
KARVELAS: Are you satisfied about this 1.7 billion dollars the Government is paying out and whether it will adequately reflect not just the money that was taken, but also the pain and suffering that obviously the scheme caused?
SHORTEN: I've spoken to people who were illegally Robodebted by this Government. Getting their money back or some interest is not the same as just trying to put the clock back, put events back before they happened. Everyone I've met would rather they were never hounded by the Government. But I do think this is a significant win. I do think it is significant. This is money, by the way, which isn't taxpayer money, but it's the money the Government illegally took from taxpayers. So, the Government's just letting people have what was rightfully theirs in the first place. But this is a win. The problem is we couldn't achieve it in Parliament. The Government just stonewalled with their numbers. We couldn't achieve it through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. There were many valiant attempts in the media to expose the problems here, but it took us to organise taking the Government to court. The only reason we've had this win is because when it came down to self-preservation, when Ministers might have to get in the in the witness box and explain that they're either negligent, stupid, or indeed just crassly unlawful, when they thought they would have to explain it, plus some of their senior public servants, only then did they return the money to people. But even today, Mr Frydenberg, who’s quite a pleasant fellow, says oh, we haven’t admitted liability. That's why people hate politics, it’s the weasel words. They've got 1.7 billion dollars admission of liability. The problem is that they don't take the blame for anything.
KARVELAS: Bill Shorten, is Labor prepared to wind back automation, not just in welfare, but other areas of Government Services like the NDIS, where, of course, it's being proposed? Is that the strategy you'll take if you were to win government?
SHORTEN: I can't say that we're not going to use computers, but what you can do is have proper human oversight. There's no doubt in my mind that the rise of use of algorithms and automation and artificial intelligence has been used for good in many places. But when it comes to welfare, it's almost created a digital workhouse. What it's doing is creating two classes of Australians. We are required to surrender our data as part of our legal obligations as citizens, in order to get benefits. But that information shouldn't be used to put people in the digital second class, into the workhouse, into the poorhouse. So, I think there needs to be a lot more thinking - and there is a fair bit around - but there needs to be a lot more thinking about how we have proper oversight of the use of artificial intelligence and computer algorithms. At the end of the day, it's not Services Australia, it's Human Services Australia. It's about people. And if people need the safety net, they shouldn't be made to feel like they're cheats and crooks and be treated as if they have to reverse the onus of proof and prove that they're not cheating the system before they get the benefit.
KARVELAS: Bill Shorten, what's your assessment of the impact this most recent lockdown in Melbourne has had on businesses and people? And what kind of support do you think people need to recover?
SHORTEN: It's been a difficult 14, 15 days for people. I am pleased that we're out of lockdown today. I think it's been, for some people who can work from home or have an ongoing regular job, it’s been okay. Not great, but it's been okay. I do worry, though, about businesses who are still going through hardship, the restaurants, the retail. But a particular area concern now for me is gymnasiums and fitness centres. Mr Morrison says there's not a hot spot anymore in Melbourne, but the point about it is, these gyms can't go back to normal. These fitness centres can't go back to normal. So, we've got that whole industry, for example, not just them. There's the travel agents, there's live music, but for a lot of people this the virus hasn't ended. So, I do think the Government now needs to do sector by sector start providing a bit more support. And I want to give a shout out to the personal fitness industry and the gyms, employs a lot of people, makes a lot of difference in people's lives, but they can't go back to normal yet. So, I just wish Mr Morrison could find a map and find where Victoria is, because we're still doing it hard.
KARVELAS: Funny you say that, because the Government's response to that has been that Victoria and the Victorian Government should step up for those businesses. They made the decision, they say, to lock down.
SHORTEN: Aren’t we just sick of the blame game? Of course, the Victorian Government should do things. No one’s saying that they shouldn't. But what I also know is that the bulk of tax paid by Victorians goes to Canberra. And we don't object, people don't like paying tax, but we do expect it to be there when we need it. And in something like this, when COVID hasn't finished, all those gyms pay tax, all the fitness trainers and personal instructors pay tax, all the people who use those facilities pay tax, but they're doing it hard. So, Mr Morrison's happy to take our taxes 365 days of the year. But when we've got the virus and when we lock down, he says, not my problem with that sort of trademark stubborn smirk of his. It’s like, why did he want to be Prime Minister if he washes his hands all the time of the difficult decisions?
KARVELAS: Bill Shorten, thanks for your time.
SHORTEN: Thank you, Patricia.
KARVELAS: The Shadow Minister for Government Services, Bill Shorten there.