Thursday, 11 June 2020
Matters of Public Importance
Pensions and Benefits
I have received a letter from the honourable member for Maribyrnong proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The damage caused by the Government's unlawful income compliance, or 'Robodebt' program.
I call upon those members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
Australians listening to parliament should be aware that this government and its predecessor coalition government have since 2015 been running an unlawful compliance campaign against hundreds of thousands of Australians on Centrelink. The reason why this unlawful scheme is worth the attention not just of the victims of robodebt but of all Australians is that this scheme and the conduct of the current coalition government go to the heart of what drives them. This is a scheme which can be best described as 'the ends justify the means'. The scheme was introduced with much fanfare by the government in 2015 and then again in the 2016 federal election. It was this very Prime Minister who, as Minister for Social Services, said in May 2015: 'We're going to track down people who are not doing the right thing, who are owing money to the government and therefore the taxpayers, and we are going to finally get the money back off them.
In 2016, during the federal election, the government announced:
A re-elected Coalition Government will:
Some welfare recipients make genuine mistakes—
No one who genuinely needs social welfare … and who is honestly disclosing their employment income … will be worse off under our commitment.
Never have words never been so true.
Fast forward to 2019. This robodebt scheme has been around for four years. Labor MPs, probably even coalition MPs, community groups, advocates and individuals received notices of debts raised by the Commonwealth, many of them unfair; they simply weren't owed by the recipients to the Commonwealth. But this didn't stop the Commonwealth extrapolating their wages information and saying, 'Because the tax office says that over a year you theoretically earned X dollars, therefore you weren't eligible for Y dollars in a given fortnight.' This is at the core of what was wrong about the scheme. There is currently no Commonwealth law on the statute books which authorises the government to rely upon a single data point and then issue a letter of demand against its citizens. That law does not exist. It is unlawful.
This government tried to do what it normally does when it gets caught out: say, 'Well, Labor did it first.' This is not true. There's no doubt that income-tracking data can help raise a red flag to say, 'Is there an issue here?' But what you would then do normally, and what respectable conservative and Labor governments did up to 2015, is say, 'If there's a red flag, if the data shows an anomaly, we will get a trained professional in Centrelink to go and check the data.' But this government saw the human part of the human services component as irrelevant. They were so greedy to chase and prop up false budget surpluses that they saw vulnerable Australians and said, 'Righto, we think we can get away with picking on the poorest and most vulnerable in Australia, and no-one will notice.' Unfortunately for this government, a senior member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, Terry Carney, made a decision on 8 March 2017 that the government couldn't rely on just extrapolating a single data point. He didn't make that decision only on 8 March 2017; he made it again in another matter on 20 April 2017, and again on 25 August 2017, and in two cases on 7 September 2017. The independent review tribunal for the Social Security Act said that this scheme was unlawful.
Today I listened to the Prime Minister cry what I have to say were crocodile tears, saying: 'Well, I'm sorry. Of course we only ever want to do what's lawful.' But this government has known for over three years, through a decision of the independent review tribunal, that this scheme was unlawful. Maybe the government doesn't agree with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, but it has options. It can either accept what the AAT says and change its practices, which it didn't do, or it can say, 'We don't agree with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal's finding that it's unlawful, and we will appeal it,' which it didn't do either.
This is a government for whom the end justifies the means. They calculated: 'We will take a proportion, and just settle up matters. If people have the capacity to complain, get to lawyers, get to advocates, get to MPs and complain, we will settle them up. But we are going to keep doing the measure which is unlawful.' So for three years they continued doing something that they knew wasn't lawful. This is really where the government's culpability needs to be explored.
On the Social Security Act, the government says there's no duty of care to social security recipients. What it has to do, if it says there's no duty of care, is say: 'The review process can be relied upon. That's why they don't need a duty of care.' But this government ignored the review process and also failed to deliver a duty of care to the people upon whom this government relies to actually do the right thing.
This is the heart of the robodebt scandal. It caused countless grief. We MPs, advocates and individuals saw the trauma. When the government of Australia issues you a legal demand saying, 'You owe us money', that is confronting. Some people just paid up—as you would. But other people are vulnerable. There were students who, with a debt, couldn't get a job. There were people who wanted to go overseas but could not fly overseas because the Commonwealth said, 'You can't go until you pay your debt.' There are people who are vulnerable. I agree with the minister on people with mental illness: there are lots of things that can trigger it, and it is a complex matter. But I can't agree with the minister that he can conclude, therefore, that because mental illness is a complex matter this robodebt didn't have a triggering effect on vulnerable people. There was psychological trauma.
The government says, 'Please tell us if there are problems.' They were told for years. They were told on A Current Affair last night. We have spoken to families who believe that the robodebt letter of demand and the process triggered self-harm and worse. These are real matters caused from a government's unlawful actions. We have seen the gradual retreat back. The government said in November of last year, 'Hmm, we will make a refinement to robodebt.' It's not a refinement, Minister. When you are doing something unlawful and then you choose to be lawful, that is more than a refinement; that's not a simple jump to the left or hop to the right. You've decided to obey the law which you were tasked with managing in the first place.
In this government there's been a parade of human services ministers over the time and social security ministers—too many to remember, but we will. The point about it is: if they knew that it was unlawful, why didn't they act? Why didn't they take a step? If it was unlawful, why didn't they check in the first place? Why didn't they ask the basic questions: is this lawful? Can we do this? The AAT, the only protection at law for Centrelink and social security recipients said, 'Stop. You must look at this.' The AAT is the only mechanism which people have had up to the class action, up to the Victorian Legal Aid Commission running its groundbreaking case in 2019. That was the only protection people had.
The government are so cynical, so sure that they could just settle up matters quietly. They are so cynical that they just ignored their own watchdog. The watchdog had no teeth. They just ignored it. If there were some people who had the wherewithal to complain and were lucky enough to have the resources, they just paid them off. This was a very mercenary calculus. This was a very arbitrary exercise in crude and thuggish stand-over fundraising by the government on the most vulnerable Australians. This government knew what they were doing was wrong. Even now they still seek to justify and delay and prevaricate. They knew in March 2017. The minister was finally dragged, kicking and screaming, his fingernail marks on the marble of the Federal Court, saying, 'In 2019, we're going to pause.'
Since 19 November last year to 29 May this year, the government have held on to $721 million of unjustly and rich money. They're still collecting the interest on the money, money they haven't been entitled to for 4½ years. Why did it take them from November to May of this year to decide to refund? The plot thickens. We know from leaks which were given to The Guardianexcellent sources, The Guardian had in this case—that the government was considering what to do in February. This government has unjustly enriched itself at the expense of the poorest people. What we need to recognise here is this is a scandal. The greatest shame of all is we don't know how much it will cost taxpayers and we can't even find out who's responsible but, be sure, we will. (Time expired)
We have heard Labor's hyperbole and it's now time to hear the facts. Income averaging has been a longstanding practice of successive governments, going back decades, to support the raising of social welfare debts. It is important to remember this is a practice implemented and used by the Labor Party when in government.
Ms Plibersek interjecting—
I am coming for you, Member for Sydney; you just wait! It's also a practice that is accepted as appropriate and lawful for the AAT in numerous cases, as recently as 2019, and when the previous Labor government used those methods. Indeed, from 2007-08, when Labor came to power, a program was called—amongst many things—the 'pay-as-you-go debt scheme'. Labor in government started to put together a range of collection methods using income averaging. In the 2008-09 budget, Wayne Swan's first budget, Labor included the following paragraph:
The Government will increase the number of assessments of people receiving payments through Centrelink, where data-matching with the Australian Taxation Office suggests the need for such a review. The reviews will seek to identify people who have failed to declare, or may have under-declared, income or assets to Centrelink. This measure will reduce overpayments and will lead to the recovery of amounts already incorrectly paid.
… … …
The measure will provide net savings of $589.2 million …
The 2008-09 budget paper goes on to say:
The Government will increase the number of assessments of people receiving payments through Centrelink, where data-matching with the Australian Taxation Office suggests the need for such a review.
I've had the department go back and check the debts raised in two years, on a random sample of 500 per year, firstly in 2009 and then in 2011, when the member for Sydney was the human services minister. In 2009, 16.8 per cent of all debts—and debts in that year were about 22,000—were wholly or partly raised through income averaging. That's 16.8 per cent of debts in 2009, of approximately 20,000 debts, that were insufficiently raised. In 2011, when the member for Sydney was the human services minister, some 25,000 debts were raised, and, based on a random sample of 500 checks, the number of debts raised wholly or partly through income averaging had increased to 24.4 per cent.
We have accepted that income averaging is insufficient to raise a debt, but the point is that this is a longstanding practice and it was sped up and increased by Labor from 2007-08. The member for Sydney presided over 24.4 per cent of debts being raised wholly or partly through income averaging, which goes to explain the press release that the member for Sydney sent out on 29 June 2011. It reads:
A new data matching initiative between Centrelink and the Australian Taxation Office is expected to claw back millions of dollars from welfare recipients who have debts with the Australian Government.
Why would you need a data-matching initiative with the ATO? The ATO doesn't produce fortnight-by-fortnight data, which is required for welfare; it produces annualised data. Why would the member for Sydney put out a press release in 2011? Because 24.4 per cent of the debts taken from the sample of debts that that member raised during that year were wholly or partly from income averaging.
Ms Ryan interjecting—
The member for Lalor calls out 'wrong'. These are facts, Member for Lalor. You can yell from the back bleachers all you like, but the bottom line is that the use of income averaging at large scales began in 2007-08 and grew to 16 per cent in 2009 and to 24.4 per cent in 2011. Then the member for Maribyrnong, out here waving his hands and taking hyperbole to a whole new level, in this press release says:
… the tax garnishee process had been carried out manually once a year for the past 15 years and involved a significant amount time … The automation of this process will free up resources …
The Labor Party began the automation of debts using income averaging—fact. That's where it began. The minister at the time was the member for Sydney, and her own press release from 2011 shows that income averaging is not only a longstanding practice and process; it is something that the Labor Party began.
On 15 June 2010, the then Minister for Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law, the member for McMahon, stated:
It is important that the Government explores different means of debt recovery to ensure that those who have received more money than they are entitled to repay their debt.
Now we know what the different means were. It was income averaging, wasn't it, Labor Party. The Labor Party, all pure and light, is saying, 'Oh, no, income averaging only started under the coalition.' No, it didn't. It's only the coalition that has called out to say income averaging is not sufficient. That begs the question, Member for Sydney: when 24 per cent of the debts raised—
Opposition members interjecting—
I wonder what advice the minister at the time received. I wonder what input the minister received to start collecting 24 per cent of the debt through income averaging. I wonder what input subsequent ministers in the Labor administration had. It's this government that has taken the point to say that solely using income averaging is insufficient, even though the Labor Party followed this practice throughout all their years in government. Indeed, on 9 May, the then opposition leader, Bill Shorten, stated in response to a question on Labor's support for income compliance: 'We want to make sure that people aren't receiving welfare they're not entitled to. No-one gets a leave pass on that.' Thanks, Member for Maribyrnong.
And yet, the Parliamentary Budget Office's 2019 post-election report of election commitments, released in June 2019, confirmed that the Labor Party had made no provision in its welfare costings for the revision, scaling back or closure of the income compliance program—none at all. Indeed, Labor's social security policies that they brought to the 2019 federal election did not include the reversal of what they're calling robodebt. Labor's own budget plan banked the savings of the income compliance to fund their election commitments. The hypocrisy of those opposite! They started using income averaging at scale, kept it on scale for income averaging through the time of their government, jumped up and down about income compliance and yet, in their own election policy costings for 2019, banked all the savings. The level of hypocrisy does not get any greater than that.
As a government, we take responsibility for upholding the integrity of the welfare system seriously. The income compliance program was developed to make identifying welfare overpayments more efficient. It assisted with reviews where customers didn't respond or fully engage with requests to clarify discrepancy between income reported to Centrelink and that to the ATO. In November last year, I announced that changes were being made to the way debts from welfare payments were raised as part of that program. From that time, debts were no longer raised wholly or partially using average ATO income data—a practice that had been going on since 2007, and a practice that those opposite used extensively. We've announced, from July this year, Services Australia will refund all the payments made on debts—
Ms Ryan interjecting—
In May 2015, the now Prime Minister announced the scheme that would become robodebt. I have the media release here with his name on it. Under his new scheme, the Prime Minister said that the government would 'track down suspected welfare fraud and noncompliance'. Those words have not aged well, because instead of tracking down actual welfare fraud and noncompliance, thousands of law-abiding Australians have been falsely accused and treated like criminals by their own government for almost five years.
In 2016, when he was Treasurer, the now Prime Minister joined forces with the now Attorney-General to announce a dramatic expansion of their illegal robodebt scheme. I have a copy of that press release too. Its title is, 'The Coalition's plan for better management of the social welfare system'. I don't think they were trying to be ironic. In it the now Prime Minister promised that no Australian who honestly disclosed their income would be worse off under the expanded robodebt scheme. Those words have not aged well either, because the Prime Minister's illegal robodebt scheme has left many thousands of honest Australians worse off—not just financially worse off; this scheme has destroyed lives, and, in some instances, it may have cost lives. And it took until today for this Liberal government, led by this callous and cowardly Prime Minister—
I withdraw, Mr Deputy Speaker—to offer a partial and qualified apology for foisting this scheme on Australians. The Prime Minister continues to cower behind his false statement that he continued a practice which commenced long before 2015. We had the same false statement repeated just now by the hapless Minister for Government Services. Let me be very clear: this is a false statement. The Prime Minister's illegal robodebt scheme was unprecedented. This Prime Minister started it in 2015. And it was a mistake. It was no accident.
For at least three years, the government has known that the Prime Minister's scheme was illegal. But, instead of fixing it, the government covered it up. On 8 March 2017, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal held that the robodebt scheme was illegal. The government did not appeal that decision. On 20 April 2017, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal again held that the robodebt scheme was illegal. The government did not appeal that decision. On 25 August 2017 and twice on 7 September 2017, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal again held that the robodebt scheme was illegal. The government did not appeal those decisions either. And those are only the decisions that we know about. The government refuses to tell Labor or the Australian people how many other AAT members have told the government that the robodebt scheme was illegal. They say: 'it would be an unreasonable diversion of resources' to locate that information. How convenient!
According to this government, spending many hundreds of millions of dollars to harass law-abiding Australians over debts they did not owe was a 'reasonable' diversion of resources. According to this government, paying private debt collectors to harass law-abiding Australians over debts they did not owe was a 'reasonable' diversion of resources. Apparently, leaking the personal information of a struggling single mother, including her relationship history, in an effort to smear her because she dared to publicly criticise the robodebt scheme—that was a 'reasonable' diversion of resources. But being upfront with the Australian people about the Prime Minister's illegal robodebt scheme—that would be an 'unreasonable' diversion of resources.
The truth is: the government has known for years that the Prime Minister's robodebt scheme was illegal. The truth is that the government has known for years that the Prime Minister's robodebt scheme was harming Australians. They were told time and time and time again. They covered it up. And now they want everyone to 'move on'.
Well, Labor will not be moving on. We will hold this Prime Minister and his grubby government to account. Australian taxpayers will have to foot the bill for the Prime Minister's $1 billion extortion racket, but it is this Prime Minister and his government who will forever wear the shame. And, no matter how long it takes, they will be held accountable.
To those opposite: the minister who spoke earlier has outlined a lot of these issues and what the government is doing to address them. The Prime Minister, in question time, addressed a number of these issues and made particular statements which have been asked for many times.
But the reason that not only this debate but the debate around our social services policy is so important is quite simply that governments of all stripes, regardless of which side of the chamber they are currently on, do take serious responsibility for upholding the integrity of Australia's welfare system. We are serious about holding up the integrity of the welfare system. One of the reasons for that is quite simply that this is $180 billion, every single year, to support Australia's social safety net, and we know that there are over 950,000 Australians that have 1.6 million social welfare debts that total $5.3 billion. This is and has been a very significant part of every budget of every government of every stripe, for many, many years. In fact, the average Australian makes a contribution of some $7,610 of their income to our welfare system. That's just over nine per cent of their earnings, so it is significant. So there must be oversight, and there is oversight, and Australians expect that oversight to continue.
Mr Deputy Speaker O'Brien, I know that you know, as my neighbour, as the member for Wide Bay, that our region does it tough. The average income in our region is approximately $33,000 per year. It really is not that high. So one of the important parts of this debate, in my view, is that we outline what the government is doing to ensure that as many people as possible do not need Australia's social welfare system and that we can keep as many people as possible in jobs, particularly in our regional areas, where jobs are difficult to find—and even more so now in the current corona world.
There was a story today from Matt Killoran in The Courier-Mail where he outlines the government's JobKeeper program in a lot of areas in Queensland, including our area, Mr Deputy Speaker. In Bundaberg we currently have 1,604 businesses on JobKeeper, and there are 1,361 in Hervey Bay, 167 in Childers, nine in Torbanlea and 63 in Burrum, for a total of 3,204 businesses on the government's JobKeeper program. This is keeping Australians in work and providing them with an opportunity. Those individuals who are not eligible or otherwise are not getting the JobKeeper payment have the jobseeker payment available. They have that opportunity as well. So this government is doing everything it can in these very difficult circumstances to ensure Australians have the dignity of being able to pay their bills and maintain what they need to, until they can find a job or their business comes back to life in a post-corona environment.
I note that the Treasurer also announced in recent days an extension of the instant asset write-off. I want to congratulate the member for Flynn, Ken O'Dowd. He rang me and he rang the Treasurer and every other minister that I know of, talking about this particular program, because it's important for the businesses in his region. It gives them cash in their pockets. They can write down assets of up to $150,000 that they've purchased, and what that means is that they can help keep more people employed. So this government is doing everything it can in the current corona pandemic to keep Australians employed, engaged and connected to their workplaces. We will come through this. In my own portfolio, we know the resources sector has been a shining light in the economy. It will continue to be that. It will continue to employ Australians. It will continue to grow.
Just in response to those opposite, I say once again that all governments of every stripe have oversight on what is the biggest single area of expenditure for federal governments. It is a significant contribution. It will continue to be so. We are proud, as all individuals in this House are, that we provide a safety net for Australians, but it does need to have oversight. It does need to be monitored.
We continue to make tough decisions. That is going to be the reality of life as we move forward in a post-corona environment. We will continue to create jobs through JobMaker, as the Prime Minister announced at the National Press Club address. Why is JobMaker so important? Why should the Australian people trust us? Because we have done it before. We have made commitments about how many jobs will be delivered by this government, and we have delivered them. We made commitments in 2013, and we have delivered them, and we will continue to do that.
I want to start with some figures here today. I want to start with the figure of 370,000 people who were wrongly indebted. There are 470,000 debts, worth $721 million—so far—to be paid back. One of the most important figures of all is that of 2,030 deaths of people after receiving a robodebt notice. The Minister for Government Services—and, with respect, the previous speaker as well—want to come in and argue the merits of collecting overpaid debts and the merits of income compliance. With respect, this MPI is not about the merits of income compliance. This MPI is about those figures, the direct result of the government's damaging scheme known as robodebt, which has since proven to be illegal and unlawful and which, as the Labor members who spoke before me have outlined, is purely and wholly the responsibility of the Minister for Government Services and the Prime Minister.
There are some widely publicised cases—I have reams and reams of newspaper articles here—of people who have lost their lives, of the anxiety, of the fear, of the stress, of the damage that the robodebt scheme caused in people's lives. But I want to talk about the ones in Cowan. I have here 16 cases, and this is a mere snapshot, a tiny, tiny snapshot, of the number of cases that my office in Cowan dealt with involving people who received unlawful debt notices from this government and, in detail, the consequences it had for them, their lives, their livelihoods, their families, their mental health and their wellbeing.
Jordan, 22 years old, is an apprentice who took time off work for a knee operation. He was given a debt of $6,000. It wasn't until his mother came to us and queried his debt that we realised—and it subsequently came to pass—that it was a debt that was wrongly raised. This was after months of stress caused to this young man and his family. There is the story of Joseph, a 75-year-old pensioner, whose son is overseas, but Joseph continues to get debt notices for his son. It's caused him incredible stress. It's just really, really hard to sit with somebody who's received a debt notice, who has terror and fear about what's going to happen to them, who feels like they are being strongarmed and harassed, and who comes to your office and, in tears, speaks to you in detail about the impact that this has had on them. This is not about the merits of debt collection. This is not about the merits of income compliance. It is about those people. If I'm able to pull up 16 cases just like that in Cowan, I'm 100 per cent certain that every member in this House, every member that represents an electorate, could pull up at least 16 cases of people who have come to them.
I will tell you about Pauline, who is not in my electorate but in the electorate above mine, which is held by a very senior member of this government. She got nowhere when she approached his office, so she came to me. Her daughter has Cushing's disease and mental health issues. The robodebt raised against her daughter has taken a huge toll on her physical and mental health. We've helped Pauline to appeal the decision, and we've been successful in that. It just goes to show the lengths to which people have to go under this government, who continue to treat Australians with contempt. (Time expired)
What is clear from this MPI today is that the rehabilitation of the former Leader of the Opposition has a long way to go if the best that he can muster is attacking a method that was good enough for the Labor Party to use when they were themselves in government. It is important to debate Australia's need for a fair and sustainable welfare system. It is one of the core responsibilities of government and it is one that the Morrison government takes incredibly seriously. We must remember that, pre COVID-19, we had the lowest level of welfare dependency in 30 years. Our view is that this should be a safety net, and the most important thing is to get people back in jobs.
Opposition members interjecting—
I hear the interjections from the Labor members opposite, 'Not now.' Quite right—not now—because guess what we've done? As Australians, we're in trouble through COVID, as businesses had to be shut. This government has stepped up and provided appropriate support for them, and, because of that support, the OECD has ranked us No. 3 in countries that have come through this crisis in the best economic shape. We could only do that because we had a balanced budget and strong economic management before COVID hit. The Labor members could not have done it, because if they were in the same position they would have had $387 billion worth of extra taxes because of the person who has brought this very motion. Labor would have had taxes on tradies' utes, taxes on retirees, taxes on housing. Labor members would not have been in a position to provide the support to Australians that they needed during the COVID crisis.
We have in Australia a $180 billion safety net to support Australians every year. Australians expect us to be strong custodians of that money. It's their money. It's not the government's money; it's the Australian people's money. On average, every Australian puts in $7,610, or nine per cent of their earnings every year to support their fellow Australians. When they reach into their pocket and provide that average of $7,610 for every person, they expect that money to be used responsibly. They expect that, when somebody owes a debt to the Commonwealth, that is followed up in a reasonable and compassionate manner. Every Australian expects that. Labor members have previously expressed that desire, so that is what we will do: be responsible custodians. We will follow up debt where it is owed to the Australian people and the Australian taxpayers. The minister made it clear that the income averaging that was used in this particular scheme was used by Labor themselves to raise 20 per cent of the debts that they themselves chased. The charge of the opposition was simply that this government continued to use the principle that Labor members themselves were using extensively.
Another point is that I really must take umbrage at the member for Cowan's and the Labor MP's overt simplification and politicisation of the terrible issue that is suicide and mental illness in this country to try to score what is obviously a blatant political point. They are trying to conflate two issues: reasonable and responsible debt recovery on behalf of all Australians in order to safeguard our welfare system and our safety net, which is the envy of the world, with the terrible issue of suicide and mental illness. Those who suicide and suffer from mental illness do so for a number of reasons and in a multitude of circumstances, so to simply take one statistic and point over here to robodebt is an absolute nonsense. It's a simplification of the very complicated issue of suicide and mental health. Labor MPs should be ashamed of trying to use that to score a cheap political point when the real issue is about managing the money of Australians appropriately to provide what is a very generous safety net. It is the responsibility of government to manage money on behalf taxpayers. That's something that the Morrison and coalition governments do better than Labor MPs, and they know it. Australians will always trust a coalition government to manage their money more than they will Labor. (Time expired)
It's somewhat galling to sit here and listen to the member for Ryan talk about the ability of the government to manage Australians' money and taxpayers' money when, indeed, it will be taxpayers' money that pays out the class action that this government will have to foot to these people who have been so illegally treated by their own government. As it would turn out, I've got a fair bit of experience in communities that haven't been treated well by their government and who've had to seek a class action to seek redress, but I can talk about that later.
It's also somewhat galling to sit here and listen during question time to the minister for human services—now there is an oxymoron!—talk about sensitivities around robodebt and cautioning the House about grave outcomes when we kept raising the possibilities of what was going on with real people who were coming to our offices. As the member for Cowan said, they were sitting with us and saying: 'I've got a debt from the government. I'm being strongarmed by debt collectors. This is such a terrible situation, and I just don't know how this happened. I didn't do this.' Well, do you know what? They didn't do it. They have been exonerated by the AAT. The fact is that law-abiding citizens were labelled by this government as 'rorters', 'fraudsters' and 'leaners', as I recall. You were going to 'sort them out'. You were going to make sure they paid their fair share. They wouldn't be rorting your wonderful system! Well, it seems as though the system wasn't quite as watertight as you thought.
It's quite interesting: robodebt does sound like something from a sci-fi. The member for Maribyrnong said, 'The government took a step to the left and then a hop to the right'. Well, let me assure you: this was the full horror show bearing out before all of us. It has become the stuff of nightmares, a grim reality that's seen debts raised against people who were informed it was their responsibility to prove the debt didn't exist. More often than not, they didn't even know it had been raised. The last time I checked, Australia was still a democracy and the premise that you are innocent until proven guilty was still something that our legal system relies upon. That didn't happen during this debacle. There was no consultation, there was no compassion, and, for many, there was nowhere to go.
When I saw that number—and, again, the member for Ryan stood there asking how we could conflate the deaths of 2,030 people with robodebt. That information was given during a Senate estimates committee. So, indeed, those links can be drawn. This scheme had a terrible impact on the lives of those 2,030 people but also on all of those others whose lives have been indelibly impacted by this callous disregard and lack of respect.
I find it so interesting that members on the other side stand there and say that they had the queues at Centrelink right down. Unfortunately, now, due to COVID, those queues are going to be right back up. I can tell you: some of those people have never queued for Centrelink in their lives and have never had to deal with a government department. Despite the minister's little jingle last sitting, when he said, 'Just give us a buzz; just give Centrelink a buzz,' I ask: who on earth has ever 'just given Centrelink a buzz' or tried to get onto myGov to try and do this? It's incredibly difficult, because you just can't get through. I bet those people who've joined those queues recently, who may be more adept, in some respects, and may be less tolerant—and some of them are less vulnerable—will not cop what this government gives out in relation to that. So it's just as well that the minister has finally realised the error of this program's ways. I note that mealy-mouthed, Fonzie excuse for an apology by the Prime Minister today. I saw that some news outfits are reporting that he's apologised. I tell you what: if that's an apology, he's got a long way to go on that.
It is indeed just so difficult when you meet people—and I just want to briefly shout out to Sandra and Larry, two people in my electorate. You know your stories. I'm not going to repeat them again in parliament, because I know how traumatic it was for you, but we've worked to help you redress that. This government needs to do the work to redress the terrible robodebt that it brought upon you.
I think there's a bit of a point being missed here by those on the other side. Most of the rules, laws and regulations that sit within our modern society are built on the foundations of those that have gone before. We had the shadow Attorney-General in here speaking just before. And, in fact, we know well that, in the law system, so much faith is put in the rulings that were before us. It's called tort law. It's the same, though, with tax law. It's the same with business regulation. It's the same with workplace safety and conditions. It's the same with sporting codes. We don't sit down at the beginning of a football season, throw the rule book out and start again. We actually start with last year's rules, and we amend.
So it was the same with this program of debt recovery. The government sat down at ATO and used the mechanisms that were there before it. The Minister for Government Services has been through that program and delivered all those quotes from the previous ministers, who said, on the establishment of these systems, how tax averaging was going to be used as part of the measuring mechanism. It was exactly the same. What changed was the computerised world—we went electric, we sped up the show, as all government departments should be doing. We've probably been laggards really—when I say 'we', I mean governments generally—in adopting the new technologies and rolling them out. In this case they were rolled out to the debt recovery system, which in turn meant that many more people actually came into contact with it. That's what changed. That's what lifted the tempo. It's what lifted the ire in the community, because there were so many more contacts coming than there had been previously.
The ruling of the Federal Court eventually was that this mechanism was wrong, but we were using an existing mechanism. What was different was the number of contacts and then the amount of debt that was recovered. So it was questioned and taken to court, and the court made that ruling. There are a lot of other instances of this kind of thing, and this House should be very aware of a quite recent one that springs to mind with me. It involved section 44 of the Constitution, where the system was alerted and a case was taken to court questioning a member's right to be sitting in this place, by dint of their nationality. They were found to be in default. The fact that there were quite a number from each side of this place would suggest that this was a ruling that was just ignored or was in the background or people weren't paying attention. It was accepted practice. But, when it was pointed out, things had to change. They changed dramatically. We had a number of by-elections. Well, so it is with the debt recovery system. When it was pointed out, things had to change, and we've made changes.
Yes, of course it's been proved to be now an illegal system on which to assess this kind of debt in the first place, but it was based on the foundations of what had gone before. Governments of course have a responsibility. We're spending $180 billion a year on social services, on welfare support. It is around 40 per cent of the national budget. We can't just give money away willy-nilly and never actually police that. We have to find out that people are entitled to it. We know we have $5.3 billion outstanding in debt at the moment. What would others suggest—that we just ignore that? Of course we have to keep going. We'll have to redesign the system and use new mechanisms, but don't think that we're going to sit down and not actually chase down moneys that are owed to the taxpayers of Australia because they've been come by by mistake, sometimes by intention. It is our job. It is the job of whoever sits on this side of the House to ensure that taxpayers' money is looked after, that it's spent wisely, that it's not wasted, that it's not taken illegally. So we will continue to pursue overpayments. We will continue to pursue those who have taken from the system wrongfully. We will have to use a slightly different system. We understand that. For those who have been picked up wrongly, that is wrong, but some of those who were picked up will have been in the wrong as well. (Time expired)
This government has no idea when it comes to the harm to individuals caused by this public policy failure. During the last few months of pandemic and bushfires, we've seen more than a few failures—the failures in the childcare package, the failures in the JobKeeper program, the failure to support our university sector, and the list goes on and on. Today we stand here talking about the doozy of them all, the mother of all stuff-ups—robodebt. Robodebt wasn't a mistake. It wasn't the result of something being imposed on the government by an emergency or a pandemic. Believe it or not, it was actually planned over a long time and it was something they had a pretty good idea was illegal. They issued debt notices at the rate of 20,000 a week, but every one without human oversight.
Robodebt is in a league of its own. If it were the Olympics it would be the performance scoring the perfect 10; it would be the Nadia Comaneci of illegal administrative blunders. But, unlike Nadia, our government has come crashing through the floor—to the tune of $721 million to be paid to 370,000 clients. The actual debt levied is about $2.1 billion since 2015, and up to $1.5 billion may need to be paid back. This saga has caused misery and stress for thousands of Australians who feel like they're being bullied and treated like criminals. I'm not surprised they're continuing with the class action against the government. They have my whole-hearted support. And how coincidental it was that, in the last sitting week in May, this government moved to refer the class action industry to a parliamentary inquiry despite the fact that law reform bodies have all examined it and found there is little wrong.
Talking about misery and stress, Department of Human Services data shows that 2,030 people have died after receiving robodebt demands. Nearly one-third of these people were classified as vulnerable. At least some of those deaths were caused directly because of those demands. People were tipped over the edge by robodebt letters—people like the 19-year-old single mother who took her life after receiving a $9,000 debt; Rhys Cauzzo, a 28-year-old florist and musician who took his own life on Australia Day 2018 after receiving an $18,000 debt notice; and 22-year-old Jarrad Madgwick, who told his mum he received a $2,000 debt letter and two days later his body was found. They each left clear evidence that the debt demands were instrumental in their actions. These are the human faces of a government-made disaster.
This government was warned about the illegality of robodebt as early as March 2017. They received advice from the Solicitor-General in September, according to documents filed in the class action, and the ATO was certainly advised in November, by the bureaucracy, that the scheme was unlawful. But it took the brave Deanna Amato, with the support of legal aid, to win a Federal Court decision late last year to make the government stop raising debts using averaged ATO income data. But between then and now the government didn't pay back the money to victims. Victims are still waiting. The government didn't apologise for the hurt and stress robodebt has caused, despite the head of Gordon Legal saying that no apology would be used against the government in future legal proceedings. Remember, the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General, both former ministers for social services, were key architects of robodebt. Minister Robert isn't the only villain in this tragedy. They should all apologise fully, and publicly, to all robodebt victims.
But what has the government learned? Nothing. Firstly, according to the minister, the millions of dollars in refund administration costs is going to come from existing department resources. That means literally that, in using internal resources to repay some welfare recipients, they are going to punish many other recipients—with worse response times and worse services over the months to come. Secondly, according to media reports, the government has failed to rule out legislation to legalise the averaging of tax office income data for future debt recovery. There should be an independent inquiry, a royal commission into this disgraceful saga. May it never, never be allowed to happen again.
When it comes to their hard-earned income and tax, Australians rightly expect the government will spend their money responsibly. Given that Services Australia makes $180 billion worth of payments a year, it's reasonable to expect that the government will work to ensure that this money is spent diligently and that overpayments are prevented and recovered. Currently, over 950,000 Australians have social welfare debts totalling $5.3 billion. Not only does the government have obligations to taxpayers it represents; it also has a legal obligation to pursue recovery of these debts. For this reason, debt recovery processes have been a feature of Australia's welfare system for over 30 years through successive governments—Labor and Liberal alike. The Income Compliance Program was developed to make the identification of welfare overpayments more efficient. Income averaging was used in instances where customers did not respond to or fully engage with requests to clarify discrepancies between income earnings reported to Centrelink and the Australian Taxation Office.
This policy was introduced by Labor. When the Minister for Government Services, Stuart Robert, was presented with new information in November last year, he took immediate action to pause all debt recovery activity because of the insufficiency of information surrounding debts raised through the ATO income averaging system. I applaud Minister Robert for acting swiftly and transparently on this matter. From July this year, in good faith, the government will begin repaying debts to affected Australians, acknowledging that income averaging from ATO data was not an accurate enough means of gauging income. Services Australia will progressively refund all repayments made on debts raised wholly or partially using the system since 2015-16. Approximately 470,000 such debts have been identified. Refunding of eligible debts will commence in July, with the majority of refunds completed by November 2020. Refunds will also be will be made on any interest charges and recovery fees paid on related debts. The total value of refunds, including fees and charges, is estimated at $721 million.
Services Australia does tremendous work to assist people facing difficult circumstances and has an extensive network of support providers to care for people in times of crisis and vulnerability. The government does not want people to feel they are in a situation of helplessness and that help is not available. That is why mental health and suicide prevention are and have always been key priorities of this government. The Morrison-McCormack government is continually taking action to help Australians who experience mental health problems, especially throughout the difficult circumstances imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month the government announced an additional $48.1 million to support the National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan. This investment builds on approximately $500 million for mental health and suicide prevention announced by the government since 30 January, including $64 million for suicide prevention and $74 million for preventive mental health services and a significant proportion of the $669 million telehealth package to support MBS subsidised treatments provided by GPs, psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals—very important in Mallee and other regional centres.
I would like to take this opportunity to highlight the work of Services Australia during the pandemic and the government's actions to effectively double the jobseeker payment via the $550 coronavirus supplement. I know that many people in my electorate of Mallee have benefited from the jobseeker and JobKeeper programs. Data from the Grattan Institute has shown that job losses experienced in Mallee were nearly the highest in Victoria in the month of April. The government's economic response through jobseeker and JobKeeper payments as well as household support payments of $750 have been vital to people that have been affected by the pandemic and have meant that vulnerable Australians have a safety net in this difficult time.
The average Australian makes a contribution of $7,610 of their income to our welfare system, or just over nine per cent of their earnings a year. The Morrison-McCormack government will not lose sight of the fact that Australians contribute more than a month of their working year to support the welfare system. It is important that the government provides the right amount of money to the right people at the right time to ensure the integrity of Australia's welfare system into the future.