Thursday, 3 December 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 Government's failure to take responsibility for its illegal robodebt scheme.
I call upon all those honourable 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—
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—
The ministers—I beg your pardon. The current ministers are all involved. They got Christine Holgate to resign for $3,000 watches. This mob should resign in shame. (Time expired)
It's a pleasure to respond to the waffle that our comeback member for Maribyrnong, in his pitch for the centre of the front bench, has just delivered to the House, notwithstanding that Labor's own lawyers, Gordon Legal, have acknowledged that the settlement is not an admission of liability, does not reflect any acceptance of the allegations that the shadow minister has been rolling out and does not reflect any knowledge of unlawfulness.
However, the shadow minister does make one particularly good point: we should go back and understand the history of how we arrived at this point. That history is reflective. On 15 November 1990, the Hawke government introduced a piece of legislation into the other house: a data-matching bill. The minister at the desk, Senator McMullan, introduced the bill by saying:
We expect that by matching data it will be possible to detect where a person has provided inconsistent information to one or more agencies and is thereby receiving incorrect payments … The advantages of matching data on income, family structure and tax file numbers are enormous.
So who was the minister at the time in the Hawke government? Graham Richardson, the fixer himself. You can't make this up. Hawke and Richo began it. I've got Graham Richardson's media release from 30 years ago, and here's what it said:
The Federal Government tonight announced further measures to detect incorrect payments in the income support system.
It is planned that the changes will involve:
The press release continued:
"The Government has stopped hundreds of millions of dollars in incorrect payments. The level of voluntary compliance has also … improved," the Minister said.
The Government now plans to use newly developed technology to close … significant loopholes …
In the Senate, as the debate continued, going through to 18 December 1990, we find that Labor guillotined the debate, so quick they were to get this bill through parliament.
We then learn what the situation was in 1994 from letters I've tabled in the House previously—not just the letter from the ISIS computing system which shows it was drawn on as the base document but also a letter to an individual saying:
I am writing to you about your Newstart Allowance.
The Department of Social Security … compares its records with those of other government agencies under a program called the Data-matching Program.
It goes on to say the following:
If you do not reply we will use the Tax Office's information about your income and we will write to you about how much money you need to pay back.
Let's unpack that, because you can't deny the fact. Let's unpack it for a second. Here is the background. Let's unpack it.
Opposition members interjecting—
We know that income support payments are determined on a fortnight-by-fortnight basis but the ATO use annualised data.
So in 1994 this letter tells me if this citizen did not reply to this letter, the government of the day—in this case the Keating government—will use the tax office information which is not fortnightly, it is annualised. The tax office doesn't have fortnightly information, it's only got annualised. We will use this annualised information about your income and we'll write to you about how much money you need to pay back. How in 1994 could the Keating government write to someone about how much money they had to pay back on their Newstart fortnightly by using the ATO's income data? They did it by income averaging. Hence, why income averaging, which is the basis upon which the Commonwealth has reached agreement with Labor's lawyers and which this MPI is about, goes back 26 years. That fact is not in dispute, and the documentation shows it clearly. Hawke, 'Richo', Keating—that's the genesis of data matching; that's the genesis of using averaged ATO information.
Then it continued. In 1998 the 1990 bill was updated. The Data-matching Program (Assistance and Tax Amendment) Bill 1998 No. 2 replaced the 1990 bill. And what did Wayne Swan have to say about it on 25 November 1998? He said the bill:
… seeks to make the data-matching program a permanent feature of the social security system, and the opposition welcomes this.
The Data-matching Program (Assistance and Tax) Act of 1990 gave effect to measures announced in the 1990-91 budget. Now, of course, the government does not seek to highlight that fact. This Labor initiative introduced a method for detecting inconsistent payments—
Swanny in 1998 said:
This Labor initiative—
Oh, it goes on, shadow minister opposite. Let's go to the budget paper 2009-10. Let's have a look at what it says.
The Government will increase the number of compliance reviews that Centrelink undertakes, using information obtained from existing data matching programs …
We know from 1994 that all of this is based on averaged income data, because that was the basis by which reviews were done.
Then we've got 13 July 2010: the member for McMahon, who was then Minister for Financial Services, releases a press release: 'Centrelink reviews recoup millions for taxpayers'. 'In the 2008-09 financial year, Centrelink conducted 3.8 million payment reviews resulting in the reduction of 641,000 payments.' It continues. 'These reviews saved taxpayers $87.4 million a fortnight'—Labor boasting about reducing outlays by $2.27 billion. Let's have a look at those 2008-09 payment reviews: 898,000 on age pensioners; 874,000 on Newstart, 500,089 reviews on disability support pensions. I'm just getting started, the little gobby member opposite; I'm just winding up.
On 29 June 2011 the member for Sydney and the member for Maribyrnong put out a media release: 'New data matching to recover millions in welfare'. It starts:
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.
Claw back—that's the member for Sydney and the member for Maribyrnong on 29 June 2011, building on the data-matching initiative.
Let's go to Budget Paper No. 2 2011-12, which says:
The measure will provide Centrelink and the Department of Veterans' Affairs with the capability to match customer data with Annual Income Investment Report data—
Annual; not fortnightly, annual. Even here it is annual. They're comparing it with annual. The issue at stake is the use of averaged income from the ATO, and every step along the way we find the Labor Party using annualised data. Why? Because that's how the process has been done since 1994. For 26 years averaged ATO data has been used—a quarter of a century. This government simply continued a process that had started in 1994. It's this government that called it to account, it's this government that stopped the use of averaged annual income from the ATO and it's this government that said, 'This is not sufficient.'
In 2012-13, when the demise of the then Labor government was taking place, they continued:
… providing $41.3 million over three years to increase the number of data-matching reviews—
to expand where the reviews sit. And, if you look at the number, they did. Just going back to the 2010-11 financial year—the year the member for Sydney was at the desk—we saw that 24.4 per cent of debts raised that year were solely or partially using an average. That's a fact. In 2009, 16.8 per cent of reviews were done solely using averaging or partially using averaging, using computing, using automatic data-matching. Remember the letter from 1994, because those opposite say a human was involved. Well, if that was the case, explain why it said:
If you do not reply we will use the Tax Office's information about your income and we will write to you about how much money you need to pay back.
Explain that. This process has been going for 26 years. They know it, we know it and we stopped it.
How pathetic is it in this parliament that, when a government bungles a scheme to the tune of $1.2 billion and 400,000 Australians are impacted through no fault of their own, a minister in that government cannot simply rise to his or her feet and apologise for that? How difficult is that? We know that, if it weren't for this MPI today and the hard work of the member for Maribyrnong and every single federal Labor member who stood up and sided with the victims, it would have been this minister who would still have been collecting Rolex watches and not paying his NBN bills. He is laughing as he leaves the chamber, to the disgust of the victims he has overseen.
We know it is the member for Maribyrnong who has led the charge on this issue from the minute he became the shadow minister in 2019. In August, he started the conversations with the victims. He started raising it in this parliament. It was Labor who uncovered this unholy mess made by this government. Time and time again, when it comes to the question of who was on your side, the answer is, 'Not Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his team.' So let's contrast that with the government and how the Prime Minister, the Attorney-General and the now minister have handled this issue.
I want to go to this outrageous claim that somehow this began under Gough Whitlam or Malcolm Fraser or some nonsense that this government is perpetrating. Let's look at the facts. When this scheme was introduced, there was an averaging tool to look for debts. Labor demanded secondary proof points. There was human intervention and human oversight. This government and this minister have used robodebt in an unchecked, out-of-control algorithm, with all the safety guards and human oversight removed and a guilty-until-proven-innocent burden of proof put on the person accused.
So what do you think it is? Yes, under Labor, around 20,000 debts a year were raised. What do you think that figure rose to when robodebt was unleashed? Was it 50,000 a year? Was it 60,000 a year? No, it was 20,000 debts unleashed a week. That's how this government made a mess of this scheme. Under persistent questioning by Labor, in and out of the parliament, the minister—even today, when given the chance—has still said, 'We will not apologise.' How insulting that is to the 400,000 Australians who did absolutely nothing wrong, who were in fear because they were falsely accused. I bet they won't have the guts today—all the speakers who drew the short straw to speak on today's motion. I bet none of them are going to get on their feet and apologise for this. They all had people coming into their electorate offices. I know they had the phone calls. They had the pensioners. They had the disability support pensioners. They had all of the vulnerable Australians contacting their electorate offices, worried about the thousands of dollars that they didn't owe. They would have secretly made the representation and got them off, but none of them are going to have the guts to get up in the parliament today and apologise. Not one single person has the decency to apologise to those Australians.
We need a royal commission into robodebt. The government must listen to what the victims and the advocates want for justice for their voice to be heard. The government must answer questions. When did they know robodebt was illegal and why didn't they stop it instantly? Who was responsible and what consequences will they face for this mass robbery of Australian people? What was the legal advice the government received and was it wrong, non-existent or simply ignored? We will not let this issue be swept under the carpet. It is a $1.2 billion national disgrace. You may think it hasn't happened, but out in the community people have been hurt as a result of this government's actions. Stop lying to them. Stop hiding from the truth. Start standing up for the victims and give them some justice.
I really appreciate this opportunity to rise and provide some commentary around this particular social services mechanism and, importantly, what it means for people on the ground. I made the point just recently in this place that I personally have been a recipient of government welfare. My personal circumstances were such that my wife's mother was diagnosed with cancer on the far side of the country. My wife and kids moved straightaway, because she was given only 12 months to live with terminal cancer, and I didn't have a job to move straight into. I hadn't actually considered it at all until somebody said to me: 'Hey, Vince, you know you'll be eligible for the dole'—as we then colloquially referred to it. I took the view that this would be for a short period and, like all of us, we'd paid tax. For my wife, the kids and my mother-in-law that was very welcome. I would encourage any Australians who have faced personal circumstances not of their making and need to rely on welfare until they can get a job not to feel ashamed, but then to look forward to getting back and going and getting a job, as I and millions of other Australians have, and continuing to contribute to our wonderful society.
Social welfare is extremely important. That is why we have a safety net. That is why, as a government—and I know that the opposition and everyone in this place agrees—we need to look after those people who are vulnerable, particularly at certain times in their life. However, I have been personally deeply disappointed in what the Leader of the Opposition has sanctioned and the member for Maribyrnong has led. It is an argument, which has been prosecuted quite poorly, that there is somehow a direct, unbroken and singular link between suicides and this particular social welfare mechanism. That is irresponsible and it is harmful. I would estimate that every single person in this place, on all sides of both chambers, has in some way been touched by suicide, and I reckon I'd be right. So I think it is irresponsible to try and draw a link and to accuse a particular government minister or even previous ministers of having blood on their hands. It is a disgraceful commentary, and I really implore that this come to an end.
The sense that I have that this is an irresponsible argument is also borne out by research. In fact, research suggests that the factors that contribute to someone taking their own life can be very complex and that there is no single reason why a person dies by suicide. In fact Mindframe's guidelines for communicating about suicide emphasise the importance of not implying 'that the death was spontaneous or due to a single event, as most people who die by suicide have underlying risk factors'.
I don't think anybody would argue that a lot of the people who are recipients of social welfare aren't doing it incredibly tough—they absolutely are. That is why we need to be careful about our language. We do need to talk about suicide. It's encouraging that we're talking more about mental health than we ever have before. For those members of my direct family who have and are suffering from mental health issues, we've come such a long way since particularly 15 years ago, when my own wife first presented at an Army hospital and said, 'I'm not feeling well; I think I might have depression,' and was told: 'You're a mother of two kids and you're in the Army. You should probably just get out.' I don't blame the medical doctor on duty, but it is incredibly unfortunate for treatment not to be provided; that exacerbates the circumstances.
So people are doing it hard. We are talking more about mental health, but we need to be responsible. We don't want people to have any sense that suicide is the solution to their problems. I make the request that we move on from the argument. We've heard arguments from both sides prosecuted about the mechanisms of this instrument. It's pleasing that the government has identified that the scheme was certainly imperfect and that it has been iteratively improved; that's what any responsible government would do. But again, in my closing remarks, I urge that we talk about the mechanics of the program and not about harmful links to suicide. (Time expired)
The Online Compliance Intervention scheme—it sounds harmless, but it is what we now know as robodebt. This heartless, illegal scheme has resulted in the most costly and biggest class action and settlement in the history of Australia—$1.2 billion in repayments and compensation to victims of this disgraceful, nasty scheme. This government's Online Compliance Intervention scheme has driven untold anguish into the hearts of countless innocent Australians. It has led to innocent Australians self-harming and tragically taking their own lives. This disgraceful scheme has happened under this government's watch. It is their responsibility.
The Morrison government has made a pretrial admission. It has admitted in this country's justice system that it was wrong and that it owes robodebt victims their money back and compensation. That is the Morrison government's legal position. But its talking points are a bit different. The government's first law officer offered these callous words to victims:
At the moment those moneys have been refunded. There will be an argument as to whether or not we undertake to try and recoup any debts using other methodologies. Such uncaring words, with no recognition of the carnage the Morrison government has caused.
The government's position is that they don't need to talk about robodebt anymore, that they don't need to talk about the current Prime Minister being the social services minister who hatched this nasty plan, that they don't need to talk about the current Prime Minister being the Treasurer who reached into people's lives and illegally demanded their cash, and that they don't need to talk about the current Prime Minister being the candidate who sold himself to the Australian public as the only economic manager strong enough to run a program like this.
The government hoped this automated payment collection system would collect billions of dollars from the poorest Australians. That was the expectation. When asked to defend the automisation, they claimed that Labor governments have used similar programs in the past. That is a lie. This government is the first government ever to introduce an automated system that shattered the presumption of innocence, and this government has maintained a delusional lie for years now that the robodebt program was fair, appropriate and legal. But robodebt is none of these things. It is an absolute disgrace that has hurt too many Australians.
About one in 60 Australians were part of the successful class action against the Morrison government, receiving a total of more than $1 billion in repayments and compensation. I've heard harrowing stories from my constituents in Corangamite—constituents that can't afford necessities because the government has thrown their finances in the gutter and constituents that hate their federal government for what it's done to their lives. Many find it extremely offensive that no-one in the Morrison government is taking real responsibility for this $1.2 billion scam—not the Minister for Families and Social Services, not the Treasurer, not the Prime Minister. So what we need is a royal commission to expose the truth. When did the government know robodebt was illegal, and why didn't they stop it instantly? Who is responsible, and what consequences will they face for this mass robbery of the Australian people?
This Morrison government must immediately enable an independent inquiry, a royal commission, into this robodebt scandal. We must move on. We must ensure the Australian people are never again exposed to such a callus, illegal scam overseen by its own government, the Morrison government.
We just heard from the previous member—I'm not sure what her electorate is, I'm sorry; it's one of those faceless no-name backbenchers—that there was no automation in the previous system under the Labor Party. Herein is the lie. The minister for the NDIS went all the way back to the 1990s. I don't have to go back to the 1990s to show that this program, that Labor calls robodebt, was something that they actually dreamt up. I can go back to 29 June 2011 when the member for Maribyrnong, who comes into this chamber beating his chest over this, and the member for Sydney put out a press release. In the press release the member for Maribyrnong said:
The automation of this process will free up resources and result in more people being referred to the tax garnishee process, retrieving more outstanding debt on behalf of taxpayers.
That's case closed. We just heard before that there was no automation in the system. I've got a press release here, from 29 June 2011, where the member for Maribyrnong talks about automating the process and how much money it will save.
Now the government has realised that the system was flawed. The government has realised that the system that had been in place for a long time—the automation of it instituted by the Labor Party—is flawed, and the Prime Minister, on 11 June 2020, apologised. He apologised in this House. He said:
And I would apologise for any hurt or harm in the way that the government has dealt with that issue and to anyone else who has found themselves in those situations—
in response to a question from the member from Maribyrnong. But we haven't heard any apology from the Labor party who instituted the program, who now stand up and pretend they that they had nothing to do with it, claiming that it is a lie. Fact check: press release, from 29 June 2011, with the member for Maribyrnong stating:
The automation of this process will free up resources and result in more people being referred to the tax garnishee process, retrieving more outstanding debt on behalf of taxpayers.
They came up with it! These people, these hypocrites, these people who have the audacity to preach integrity from the den of corruption, come in here and tell us that it is all our fault and we should hang our heads in shame when they actually came up with it. It was a scheme that existed under Labor. It was a scheme that existed under the coalition. And it is a scheme that we are now doing away with. But what chutzpah to come in here when they developed it. What chutzpah! And what absolute disgracefulness to actually point to suicides and say that those suicides were a result of this program. What a disgrace to actually allege that members of this House have blood on their hands. What a disgrace. That is what they do.
The previous member on our side actually said that there is quite a lot of research about mental health and suicide and they should not be—under all the research that's available, all the mental health guidelines that are available—claiming that one particular event has caused a suicide. We know that no one particular event actually causes a suicide. But that is what they're doing.
If they want to go there, if they want to get that personal and talk about who caused whose deaths, we can look back in very recent history to a little scheme that Labor dreamt up called the pink batts scheme, which did have a royal commission into it. The royal commission determined that people like Matthew Fuller, a 25-year-old who was electrocuted in Brisbane; Rueben Barnes, a 16-year-old who was electrocuted in Rockhampton; Mitchell Sweeney, a 22-year-old who was electrocuted in Cairns; Marcus Wilson, a 19-year-old who died of heat exhaustion, died under the program. It was determined by a royal commission that Labor did indeed have blood on their hands. The commissioner said:
In my view each death would, and should, not have occurred had the HIP—
the Home Insulation Program—
been properly designed and implemented.
That is the problem. These guys do not go through the detail. They didn't go through the detail when they instituted the automation of this. It's now up to our government to fix it—and fix it we have—and compensate, and we are. (Time expired)
US President Harry Truman used to have a sign on his desk saying 'The buck stops here'. If the Prime Minister had a sign on his desk, it would say 'I don't hold a hose'. In fact, no-one in this government holds a hose on anything or appears to care about the consequences of either maladministration or inaction. That callous indifference to consequence was on show again for all to hear in question time this week.
Members of the House will remember that last September we had an MPI debate on robodebt. In that debate I provided examples of affected Bean constituents and called out this terrible scheme. Today I speak again to call out this government's failure to take responsibility for its illegal scheme, a scheme that has done so much damage to so many families in Bean and across the country.
You can just imagine the minister responsible for robodebt ringing around trying to find some members to talk in the September MPI debate and defend this shameless scheme. He may have said: 'Trust me. We'll give you some talking points you can obfuscate on. Just go in the chamber, blame them, attack the member for Maribyrnong, take no responsibility, say it's a scare campaign and, if you want to go there, remind people on welfare that they should consider themselves lucky for the support of the tax system.'
I'm sure he got a few knockbacks from MPs, like the member for Bass, but the minister did find a few members who were willing and able. We had the minister himself try his rubbish we-all-collect-debt argument. He failed then and is failing now to take responsibility for this scheme. We had the member for Petrie, who spoke 'with pleasure' on this matter. Then we had the member for Barker, who too was 'pleased' to defend the scheme, saying that the pursuit of justice was nothing more than a roboscare campaign.
I apologise to the member for Petrie. It was one of your other colleagues though. Haven't those talking points aged well? I'm glad the member for Petrie didn't use them.
In contrast, I raised the case of a constituent of mine. The mother of a person with an intellectual disability had undergone a review of past income by Centrelink through the robodebt catastrophe. After receiving a threatening letter demanding a debt be paid the daughter passed the letter to her mum. Luckily, her mother appealed the decision on her behalf and demanded that Services Australia review all payments. I can update the House that the outcome of that stressful review was that Services Australia actually owed her. As this devoted mum said, her daughter was very lucky because she had parents who could appeal the case for her. I know that other cases have ended disastrously for the individuals involved.
To focus only on the Liberal members in the last debate lets the real architect off the hook for what has been described as the worst example of maladministration and callous indifference to vulnerable Australians. It was the member for Cook himself who instituted this process to collect what the government hoped would be billions of dollars of overpayments. It was this government that attempted to justify the practice by claiming that Labor had done similar in the past—a claim we hear again and again from the minister. A lie repeated remains a lie.
For years this government has been in denial about robodebt's fairness and legality, and its obfuscation does not end there. This week we even had the blocking of the tabling of a simple and saddening note from a mother of a victim of this scheme. I had hoped Mr Robert provided some more humble and sincere talking points for today's debate, but I was sadly disappointed. Since the last MPI the government has made a last-minute pretrial admission conceding that it owes robodebt victims their money back plus compensation. It is likely that the government owes victims of the robodebt scheme more than $1.2 billion. The settlement is some level of justice for victims who have been treated terribly by this government. The robodebt scheme has wreaked untold damage and harm to hundreds of thousands of people. As has been noted by many, the ministers responsible, all of whom are still in cabinet, and the public sector chiefs who oversaw it should be held to account and shouldn't remain in their positions. They shouldn't be simply reshuffled in coming weeks. This whole episode is a shameful moment in Australian history. We need a royal commission into this failed and damaging scheme to get the answers the victims, the parliament and the Australian community deserve.
Thanks to the member for Maribyrnong for raising this debate. I note that this week for me has been bookended by speeches on motions brought forward by the member for Maribyrnong. The first on Monday praised the workers of Services Australia for their hard work over the chaos of this year. In turn, I opened by praising the member for bringing forward such a heartwarming and bipartisan bill. Unfortunately, I cannot end the week with the same sentiment. This motion makes an assumption: that the government is shirking responsibility with regard to debt recovery. I don't think that's fair.
Obviously, all policies have consequences, but some policies have unintended consequences. I wish they didn't, but they do. Foresight would be a wonderful gift, but, sadly, neither party has it. When there are painful consequences, we must adapt to redress where those have happened, and the government has done just that. As of Monday, 406,889 people have had their refunds completed, with a total value of $707.7 million in refunds paid. That's about 95 per cent of people and about 95 per cent of refunds by value. The remaining five per cent is made up of a number of people who need tailored solutions owing to different conditions, like incarceration, and around half are simply waiting on people finishing their applications for the refund to be triggered. Aside from the responsibility to make this right, which we are doing, there is also a responsibility to acknowledge what has happened and apologise for any harm caused.
Both sides of the aisle here agree that the government shouldn't be defrauded and legitimate debts should be repaid. That is not a controversial statement and not the issue here. But, if the government has caused harm, hurt or pain to anyone, we sincerely apologise for that. On this point, I would like to quote our Prime Minister, who said these words in this chamber:
The business of raising and recovering debts on behalf of taxpayers is a difficult job, and it deals with Australians in many very sensitive circumstances, and of course I would deeply regret—deeply regret—any hardship that has been caused to people in the conduct of that activity. The government has many difficult jobs that it has to do, dealing with Australians in very sensitive circumstances, and that is true particularly at this time. It is our instruction that we would hope that all agents of the government, when pursuing the debt recovery option, would be sensitive to people's circumstances.
In relation to the particular gentleman that you referred to, that is a very distressing situation that you've raised. And I would apologise for any hurt or harm in the way that the government has dealt with that issue and to anyone else who has found themselves in those situations.
But the issue is the one of ensuring how the government can best do this, and, where there are lessons to be learnt here, they will be learnt, and that is what the Minister for Government Services is employing now. I'll ask the Minister for Government Services to add to the answer.
I would like to echo these words and sentiments of the Prime Minister today.
It's worth noting here that the government has taken a sympathetic view to debt recovery in this debilitating of all years. The government acknowledges the pain that many people have undergone this year and knows the impact this has had on the bottom line of many families' budgets. Recognising how financially difficult this year has been, the Australian government put in place a temporary six-month nationwide pause on Services Australia's debt-raising and recovery activity on 3 April 2020. On 25 September 2020 the government announced that this pause would remain in place until 30 October. Debt-recovery activity will now not recommence until February 2021. Delaying debt recovery until February 2021 will provide time for people to consider their circumstances and engage with Services Australia about their options, so they can understand these in a transparent way and have time to plan for the future.
To conclude, I would like to again reiterate our sympathy and deep regret to anyone who has been caused hardship, but the government is working to fix this and working hard to ensure that, in this most chaotic of years, Australians are supported by this government and the assistance schemes that we have created.
There is no easy way to say this, and it doesn't give me any joy, but the government is engulfed in scandal. From sports rorts to the Leppington triangle to the illegal robodebt scheme, this is a government with scant regard for public accountability and taxpayers' money. The defective robodebt scheme has caused unnecessary stress for some of our most vulnerable Australians, resulting in anxiety, poverty and suicide. For many years, the Morrison government has been in denial about the scheme's fairness and legality. And, at the last minute, this government made a pre-trial admission, conceding it owes robodebt victims their money back plus compensation—an admission that will cost taxpayers $1.2 billion. The settlement, for approximately 400,000 class action members, not only is the costliest settlement in Australian history but involves the most people of any settlement by any Australian government. This is gross malfeasance—complete and utter mismanagement of government services with no regard for people's wellbeing.
It is clear this case was settled so the government can continue to fawn over its most prized attribute: not being held to account. Coalition ministers across this House understand the implication of taking a witness stand. They can bluff and bluster on talkback radio, give their mates at News Corp an exclusive one-sided drop, walk away from a press conference and gag debate in this House. However, the minister for human services and the government services minister knew they could not do any of that if they were in the witness box to answer for this illegal and unfair scheme. Those officers in this House sat here pretending robodebt was above board, arrogantly denying it had ruined lives across the country. For months, the Minister for Government Services denied the scheme was unfair, inaccurate or illegal. When the minister put the scheme on hold, he said it was only a refinement, affecting a small cohort. That small cohort is over 400,000 desperate Australians. How many people does the government have to drive to anxiety, poverty and suicide before they publicly acknowledge their mass robbery of the Australian public? The minister went on not to apologise to the victims of this nasty scheme, even after having many opportunities to do so. I acknowledge the member for Bennelong for having the guts to apologise this afternoon. But for many of those opposite 'sorry' seems to be the hardest word to muster. It's a tough ask for this government, perhaps because they need to bring back the empathy coach for all ministers.
The Attorney-General, who calls the scheme 'legally insufficient', those opposite and the spin doctors in the ministerial wing might have been impressed with bitter, empty, legalistic gobbledegook. Terms such as 'legally insufficient' and 'refinement' are familiar terms used by the government. Here are a few more terms: lazy, callous unfit and negligent. Deflecting scrutiny and avoiding accountability are all hallmarks of this government, unfortunately. At every level, this scheme has had the current government and its ministers overseeing the implementation. The Prime Minister must explain what the consequences will be for ministers, including the members for Fadden and Aston, for their involvement in the single greatest social security scandal in this nation's history and the subsequent cover-up.
Surprising no-one, those opposite reverted to their usual excuse: it's all Labor's fault. However, a similar Labor government program used secondary checks, human intervention and oversight. In his contribution, the minister read a number of letters that were issued during previous Labor governments. Although the minister read the words, he didn't seem to understand the subtlety. When you wrote back to explain that it was not correct, a human being would have read that answer. They would have reviewed it, and the possibility of the debt not being needed would have been obvious. Not normally familiar with due process and accountability, the coalition government instead has used, unchecked, an out-of-control algorithm with no human oversight. The $1.2 billion settlement fronted by taxpayers is not accountability. The public want to know: When did the government know robodebt was illegal and why did they not stop it instantly? Who is responsible and what consequences will they face? We need to assure the Australian public that this absurd justice can never happen again, and anyone who attempts to denounce this fundamental call to action should be ashamed.