Thursday, 27 February 2020
Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Simplifying Income Reporting and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Consideration of Senate Message
Labor supports these changes in principle. Implemented well, they will make the social security system more accurate and eventually make it easier for people to report their income. This bill is now returning from the Senate after two Labor amendments were successful. The first amendment was a 12-month review of these changes. This is important to ensure implementation is done properly and that the government gets this right, because we simply don't trust them to get it right without scrutiny. The second amendment which was successful will ensure that income is attributed over fair and reasonable social security reporting periods that won't disadvantage social security recipients. It will prevent any kind of deliberate averaging strategy that will leave social security recipients worse off.
However, a third Labor amendment to once and for all end robo-debt was not successful. My colleague the member for Maribyrnong will expand on this. The Liberal government was given a choice: pensioners or another robo-debt. They chose robo-debt. And, as I said, the member for Maribyrnong will expand on this.
For three long, anxious and frightful years, the Liberal government pursued thousands of innocent Australians with false or inflated debts. For three years, this Liberal government defended a system that it knew to be illegal.
Over the course of the debate of this bill, Labor proposed measures to protect our pensioners, workers and students from another occurrence of the government's robo-debt scheme. I remember when news first broke of this disastrous and terrifying robo-debt scheme. I remember the first constituents who contacted my office, some of whom we are still assisting to this day. We were contacted by thousands of frightened Australians from all over the country, and this happened in everyone's office. Many were constituents from government electorates. These were pensioners, workers and students, driven to their wits' end by this cruel and malicious government. Many were simply too scared to challenge these false debts—so scared that they gave up and gave in, even though the government was plain wrong.
In this bill, Labor had proposed some very simple, practical and reasonable amendments to ensure that the Liberals' disastrous robo-debt scheme never occurred again. All we asked was that the government take some responsibility and ensure oversight and human intervention to prevent another robo-debt. They voted down the amendment. In so doing, the government refused to prevent social security debts being raised solely on income averaging. It was this income averaging that led the government into error in the first place.
The government refuses to accept the statutory duty of care to ensure debts are accurate. Why is it so controversial for the government to accept this duty of care? The government refuses to ensure human oversight over debts before they are issued. Why is this so much to ask of the government—to ask for human oversight? The government even refuses to use all available powers, resources and data at its disposal to verify the accuracy of the alleged debts. The government wants to go out there and send out social security debts to some of the most vulnerable people in this country, and yet it won't stand by the accuracy or veracity of these debts. The government has demonised pensioners, workers and students, and that is simply unacceptable. But, in voting down Labor's practicable and reasonable anti-robodebt measure, the Liberals now place pensioners, workers and students at risk of another robodebt. They deserve better from this government and this Prime Minister. 130,000 Australian workers are either not earning enough income or not receiving enough hours of work to get off Newstart. They deserve better. The thousands of students working hard and studying hard, the members of Australia's future workforce—they deserve better. For the tens of thousands of innocent Australians who have been subjected to the terror and anxiety of the Liberal government's robodebt scheme, they need to know that the government will be better than this. In reality, the Liberal government is refusing to rule out another robodebt.
As I said, two of Labor's amendments were accepted, the review, and the 'fair and reasonable' social security reporting periods. However, the third and most important of our amendments was not accepted, and I know that we'll be hearing more about this. The government has chosen the potential for another robodebt crisis, and it was a crisis, particularly for those people that were victims of robodebt.
Labor will support the bill because it's an attempt to try and make data collection more accurate and to make sure that Australians get the safety net entitlements that they deserve. But we've got to recognise that our vote for this is more a triumph of hope over experience. This is the government who, when it introduced new technology, gave us the My Health Record. That was a flop. We had the 2019 myGov outage, with technical difficulties that brought down the entire online government service portal for a day. There was, of course, Michael McCormack's one job, the census of 2016. That didn't end so well. But the king of all digi-disasters has been robodebt. So, whilst we support the recording of more accurate information through this legislation, our expectations of this incompetent, bungling government to execute it, I think, are an attempt at hope over our long-lived experience.
But robodebt is what has prompted this legislation. We are surprised and disappointed that, in the Senate, the government voted against just relying on the averaging of ATO data over a year to determine whether or not a particular fortnight's benefit to a Centrelink recipient is valid. That is the cause of the robodebt problem, and this stubborn government still can't admit its fault. But, for the education and edification of government members, the robodebt issue is a real issue: 600,000-plus notices were sent out by the government on the basis that it had the power to do so when, in fact, it didn't. How on earth did we get to a state of affairs in this nation where the government sends a letter of demand to hundreds of thousands of Australians but it doesn't have the legal authority to do so? How on earth did we get to a set of circumstances where no-one is responsible for this mistake? This is not a mistake which is victim-free. Thousands of Australians—tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands—feel the stigma, the humiliation and the desperation to try and find money that the government asserts it overpaid them when, in fact, the government didn't even have the right to ask for the overpayment—or, indeed, refund—which, in many cases, wasn't valid.
This is a government who conducted hundreds of thousands of transactions with its own citizens when they didn't have the legal power to do it. Wake up, government members! Are you so arrogant and so hubristic with the rorts that you committed before the last election that you can't even own making a mistake? Once upon a time, ministers would have resigned if their departments had acted illegally against hundreds of thousands of their citizens to unjustly enrich themselves. And if the government members who haven't bothered to acquaint themselves with the robodebt scandal think that words like 'unjust enrichment' are an exaggeration, they're not. The government's lawyers concede there was enrichment. But what is truly remarkable is—having broken the law, having put hundreds of thousands of citizens through a process that they were never meant to be subjected to, was unfair and caused harm—the defence that the government lawyers are using to justify the illegal actions and to justify not repaying the money—that is, that they don't owe a duty of care to Centrelink recipients. This is a morally bankrupt government. It's a government that lied and cheated at the last election, in terms of the rorts we're hearing about. And now they don't even care about their duty of care to their own citizens. Shame on the lot of you!
I heard the member for Maribyrnong's comments. I'm going to rule them in order at the moment, but I would remind the member for Maribyrnong of the Speaker's ruling on referring to programs and activities as opposed to governments.