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17 June 2021


SUBJECTS: Morrison Government’s billion dollar Robodebt judgement; climate policy.

ALAN JONES, HOST: I want to go back tonight to a major lingering sore that could find the Morrison Government in some strife. It concerns a lot of Australians, 430,000 welfare recipients wrongly accused by the Turnbull Government of misreporting their income, infamously known as the Robodebt Welfare Recovery Scheme. The former federal Labor Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, is now the Government Services spokesman for the Opposition. He instigated this case when he identified the appalling injustice done to people who couldn't defend themselves. Now, no one condones welfare cheats. We should never forget that money paid in welfare is money that someone else first has to earn. Unless, of course, you live in the current environment where it seems we can borrow limitless amounts of money to pay everybody who puts his hand out. That's called Coronavirus response, with debt spiralling beyond a trillion dollars. But I guess that's another story. I'm talking about this ruthless and impersonal way of pursuing welfare recipients, which was always brutal, and the methodology flawed. The background of this is pretty simple. In September 2019, Bill Shorten used his first post-election press conference to declare that he believed the Robodebt scheme was illegal. It used pay data from the Tax Office to pursue welfare recipients whom it accused of understating their income in order to claim more welfare. This all started when Scott Morrison was Treasurer. All these people who were victims of the scheme were accused of misreporting their income. The Government used averaged income data to pursue debt that individuals allegedly owed the Government, because they had allegedly over claimed on welfare. Using averaging income data, the Turnbull Government, Morrison as Treasurer, automated the process, 430,000 victims wrongly pursued. A class action against the Government was scheduled to begin in the Federal Court last November. I spoke at the time to Bill Shorten. He warned the Government would buckle; well he was right. There was one simple reason for the settlement. It was with our money, of course, and that is that Ministers, including the then Treasurer, are now Prime Minister Scott Morrison would have been called to appear. The Government has still not accepted liability, but last Friday, Mr Justice Bernard Murphy in the Federal Court handed down his final decision, a 1.9 billion dollar settlement to victims, saying it was quote, a shameful chapter in Australia's public administration and, quote, a massive failure for the Government. Bill Shorten joins me again tonight. Mr Shorten, thank you for your time. Has the Government yet accepted any liability?

BILL SHORTEN, MEMBER FOR MARIBYRNONG: Well, I'll let you and the viewers be the judge. The Government on one hand says that they haven't accepted liability, but they consented to the judgment of Mr. Murphy, which said that the scheme was unlawful. So, you try and work that out. On one hand, they go through the weasel words of saying, no, we were not liable. We never said that. But on the other hand, we will consent to a judgment which says that what we did was unlawful. And furthermore, if that doesn't convince you that they accept they've done the wrongdoing, why would they hand back 1.9 billion dollars? That's 1.9 billion dollars of admission of liability, I think, in the in the front bar of any pub.

JONES: Am I right in saying that when the class action looked like proceeding way back in September when I last spoke to you, the Government forked out 700 million to try and put these people off the scent. So that's 700 million has already been paid. Now there's another 1.2 million. Is that the way it is?

SHORTEN: Well, when we first said that we would have the class action, the Government laughed at me and said I didn't know what I was talking about. But then before the class action, it was issued, but before it had had some of its court hearings, the Government one Friday afternoon said, oh, by the way, in that class action we dismissed and pooh-poohed, we're going to repay 751 million dollars. So, you are right, in the course of the action they said are actually sorry, we've got 751 million dollars of people's money that we weren't entitled to and we're going to give it back to them.

JONES: Well, I mean, I don't understand all this. I mean, where has the Government gone wrong? I mean, that was a case in the Federal Court wasn't it, which led to the class action, and it found the practice unlawful. I mean, this is this average income data to pursue debt, not a valid basis. And it alleged the recipient had been overpaid and all the rest of it, which we know. But the Prime Minister last year in June apologized for any hurt or harm, I think his words were. He said he would deeply regret any hardship that's been caused to people. Then he says then he won't be offering a fresh apology to the scheme's victims.

SHORTEN: Yeah, I mean, can I just tell you, and just to your viewers who say, well, what's all this drama about, people, you get a welfare payment on a fortnightly basis. You could be a student. You could be unemployed for a month, for three months, or you could be a farmer, or you could be someone down on their luck. And then at other times in the year, you might get a job, which is what we want people to do. And what happened is the Government just decided to average their income over a year and say that every fortnight people get the same amount as every other fortnight of the year, which is clearly wrong. If you're in a regular employment, you're trying your best, but sometimes you're not fortunate enough to work, you don't have smooth income every week. So, the Government relied on this faulty evidence to assert debts. And 430,000 people were caught up in this dragnet relying on one computer algorithm. Now, these people, you know, we talk about apologies and eyes roll, Labor demand an apology, and Liberal demand an apology. The fact of the matter is that everyone I've met who went through the Robodebt actions where the Government unlawfully demanded people repay them, they don't want the apology. They just wish it had never happened. I mean, it's a big thing.

JONES: They were humiliated, weren't they? They were made dole bludgers and welfare cheats and so on. Have you spoken to two mothers, I think I'm right in saying, that two young men committed suicide?

SHORTEN: Yeah, I have spoken to their families throughout the process. Now, you know when people take their own life, it's a complex tragedy. There's always lots of things going on. And I'm not saying, you know, it’s the Government’s specific fault. But these families that are convinced - and these are the loved ones who surrounded these people, who took their lives - they are convinced that the trigger of being chased by debt servers, being chased by the Government for debts these people felt they weren't owed was unfortunately the straw that broke the camel's back.

JONES: And what do – you’re calling for a Royal Commission. You're not going to get it, of course, I'm sure you know that. But I mean, what would a Royal Commission achieve? What would you want to achieve through that? See who's responsible?

SHORTEN: Well, I think we've got to learn why did it happen? How for four and a half years can the Government unlawfully raise debts against its own citizens? Nearly half a million of them. You know, they've sort of said now it's happened yes, we accept it was unlawful. But how does a Government break its own laws for four and a half years and nobody's responsible?

JONES: Yeah, that's a very good point. Weren't there 72 different Administrative Appeals Tribunal decisions which said it was unlawful?

SHORTEN: Well, after the election, obviously, a bit more time on my hands, and I was given this portfolio and I started to just deep dive, I knew Robodebt had caused unfairness when I was leader and people complained about it and journalists. But, you know, I'm not one to believe conspiracies, but I discovered a pattern, that at the door of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, where the person who felt they were aggrieved had the wherewithal or the family or the lawyers to take the Government to court - it's a big thing to take your own government to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal - the Government was settling all the claims. And then I found 70 plus decisions of the AAT where they said the Government was wrong and the Government never appealed. So, if you were the Government and you never appeal beyond the AAT to the court, it's because they knew they didn't have the legal basis for it. So, they had a cynical litigation strategy, keep pocketing the money off the marginalised and the vulnerable. If you had enough go in you to sort of fight back, then you get paid your hush money and off you go, and they just keep doing it for four and a half years.

JONES: It's just astonishing stuff. I tell you what, just before you go, just before you go, that same question of the thousandth time, can Anthony Albanese win an election talking about net zero carbon dioxide emissions?

SHORTEN: Yes, he can because we talk about that, but many other issues as well.

JONES: You are kidding me. I told you that, what, two years ago, you cannot win an election - there we are, what's the date today? I told you on the 17th. It's good to talk to you.

SHORTEN: But just on that, Alan why did the whole G7 back it in? Why have big companies like BlueScope and Woolworths?

JONES: Because they’ve not leaders, they’re followers. They’re not leaders, they’re followers. Read my story in today's Daily Telegraph. Good to talk to you, Bill Shorten.

SHORTEN: I will, I’ll look it up. See you mate.

JONES: Bill Shorten, the Shadow Minister for Government Services. And we thank him for his time.