Thursday, 3 December 2020
Matters of Public Importance
Pensions and Benefits
Today the matter of public importance concerns the government's failure to take responsibility for its illegal robodebt scheme. It is remarkable and it is a sorry state of Australian politics that the current government has no-one at all responsible for one of the biggest government social security scandals—indeed, scandals—that this nation has ever seen. I speak, of course, of the $1.2 billion robodebt scandal. I'll just explain briefly, for the benefit of those who are listening to the parliamentary broadcast, a little bit about robodebt and then what the government knew and failed to do, what they ignored from external legal experts, the harm it has caused and now the government's remarkable contortions of the truth as they seek to rationalise this fundamentally unlawful scandal.
I'll begin with robodebt itself. The amount of social security payment to which a recipient in Australia is entitled is calculated on the basis of reported fortnightly income. In about late April 2015 the Commonwealth, through Services Australia, introduced an automated debt-raising and debt recovery scheme known as the online compliance intervention system—sadly, better known as the robodebt system. It was then social security minister Scott Morrison who took credit for this new development.
The robodebt system divided the annual income received by a recipient of social security benefits by the data obtained from the Australian tax office. The essence of it was that they averaged a person's annual income according to tax data and gave it a notional 14-day average, for each of 26 fortnights. They assumed that the social security recipient received this notional income every fortnight, and, where there was a differential between that and what the social security recipient reported in a given fortnight—when perhaps they had obtained work and then, for another fortnight or another month or three months, they were unemployed—the government said, 'Well, if the tax office says this is what you get notionally every 14 days then, if there's a discrepancy between what you as the recipient told Social Security and what the tax office computer says, we will raise a debt against you.' At the same time, they took out any human oversight. So, once the tax office raised the red flag, it was treated as more than a red flag; it was treated as something that had to be disproved—not disproved by the government, who were making the allegation, but disproved by the person who, they said, had inappropriately received the social security payment. That is the robodebt.
They characterised the notional amount allocated by the tax office and said, 'This is true,' and if a social security recipient, due to the vagaries of work or whatever, had a different amount—bang—the social security recipient was deemed to be at fault, and that recipient, going back many years and through bank records, had to desperately try to prove to the government they hadn't claimed money falsely. This is robodebt.
The problem is that the government discovered that robodebt was wrong—not, as the current minister says, sometime late last year. They discovered it was wrong, really, from when the first notices started going out. What the government had done is unjustly enriched itself. It had breached its duty of care. It said it had powers under the Social Security Act to raise debts against our own citizens which it simply didn't have. They didn't have the power.
They were notified as early as 2 January 2017 that there was a problem. I say today—and I challenge the minister to contradict me—that documents exist that prove that Minister Alan Tudge was warned in January 2017 that one-third of the debt notices were wrong and that Minister Alan Tudge was told that, out of a sample of 5,290 robodebts, 90 per cent of them were wrong. They were told that debts had to be reduced. I challenge the government, if it is claiming to be at all truthful, to assert that their senior officers weren't told on 7 January and 8 January. I challenge the government to prove that documents do not exist which show that, on 23 January 2017, on 24 January 2017 and on 25 January 2017, documents weren't raised saying, 'There is a problem here.' Again, on 1 March, the minister was informed. Again, on 15 March, the government was informed of the need to change the system. On 24 April, Minister Tudge became aware of recommendations to change the system. He never sought to contradict that.
I challenge the government to say that they were never told on 22 April of criticism by Professor Terry Carney that the scheme was illegal. I challenge the minister to prove that no document exists that on 18 September the then Minister for Human Services, Paul Fletcher—and what government minister hasn't got their sticky fingerprints over this scandal? I challenge them also to prove that they didn't know of 76 Administrative Appeals Tribunal decisions made by 50 different tribunal members. I challenge them to prove that they were unaware of it. I challenge them to prove that they're unaware of the operation of section 8(f) of the Social Security Act which says that the government must take notice of decisions of the Administrative Appeal Tribunal.
This is the scandalous nature of this government's neglect and incompetence—its class war against Centrelink recipients. Whenever a vulnerable person—and they knew these were vulnerable people—had the wherewithal or the resources to support the activists to get it to the AAT, this sly, cunning and mendacious government would settle the claim at the door. Boom! No worries. They had a litigation strategy never to test the legality of their actions because they wanted to rake in the money from the weak and vulnerable. What they would do, though, is settle it. What they should have done is one of two things. If they had a flood of decisions saying that it was unlawful, they should have modified their policy. Alternatively, if they didn't think that the decisions were right, they should have appealed them. They did neither. They ran a cynical, disgusting, mendacious, crooked scheme where they just hoped that they'd shut the people up who had the capacity to get through the system and appeal. They never changed what they were doing, and they never actually appealed the decisions that said that what they were doing was wrong.
The other thing that makes this government mean class warriors—picking on Centrelink recipients and treating them as second-class Australians—is that they knew that this scheme was causing harm. I challenge the government to say that they don't have documents and voice recordings of desperate people ringing up Centrelink operators saying: 'I don't know what to do. I'll take my own life.' I challenge them to prove that, because I say the documents exist. I can give them the dates. I know that one of the documents was about a call to Tamworth. I know that another one of the documents relates to a call to Queanbeyan. I know. The reason I know is that they're in the pleadings of the class action. And why do you think the government settled the claim? Because they never wanted this evidence to get out. That is why Labor is pushing for a royal commission. The government knew that people were suffering great trauma and great harm.
Let me go briefly to the defences of this government. Minister Robert is doing to the law what Houdini, ultimately, did to escape artists—giving them a bad name. He says that it wasn't unlawful; there was not a sufficiency of law. What gobbledegook! What half-twisted logic is that! 'There's not a sufficiency of law.' You can just see, down at the criminal bar in Melbourne and Sydney, all those defence lawyers saying: 'Your Honour, my client says what he did was not illegal. There was just not a sufficiency of law, your Honour.'
Then they go on to say something even worse, and this will horrify people listening. When we assert that robodebt can be a trigger for people to self-harm and worse, he says, 'Oh, we get suicide calls and threats of self-harm every day.' Well, Minister, you may well, but not everyone complaining about Centrelink is having their complaint or their threat of self-harm triggered by illegal actions of the government. Yes, there are vulnerable people, but not all vulnerable people are complaining about actions which are triggered by the illegality of this government.
So the government knew. The government acted unlawfully. They had no legal remit—no power to do it. And then this government told bald-faced lies, saying, 'Oh, we've been doing it for 30 years.' It's bloody rubbish to say it's been going on for 30 years—excuse my language. What rubbish! I'm calling those lies out, and every time you hear it you know the person saying it is lying. It was the online compliance scheme boasted of by our own hose-holding Hawaiian Prime Minister. And the worst thing about all this? No-one's responsible. 'What a coincidence! Deidre Chambers!' Scott Morrison, Alan Tudge, Paul Fletcher, Christian Porter, Stuart Robert—