Senate debates

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Matters of Public Importance

Pensions and Benefits

5:13 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Well, the time has expired on the misrepresentation of what robodebt is. It has run out of time. It has had multiple iterations over the last three years. It was wrong from the very, very beginning. I rise to speak on this very important issue in this matter of public importance debate, because what's been going on is the issuing of often erroneous discrepancy notices based on a very flawed system that asks current and former welfare recipients for thousands and thousands of dollars of alleged debt. It's such a failed system that, as I said, the government itself has made 'adjustments'—you could euphemistically say. Basically, the government has had to step back from the great shame of what it was it initiated. The government has backflipped on its own position after three years of defending this harsh and unfair robodebt scheme. Labor welcomes the removal of the two defining features of robodebt: the use of unreliable income averaging alone to substantiate a debt, and the outsourcing of the department's work to the customers to provide information to rebut an alleged debt, which we've been calling the reverse onus of proof. This thing was wrong from the very beginning, and a decent government would never have attempted to rip off Australians in the way that this government has, shamefully, done now for three years.

This afternoon, a court has confirmed just how wrong this government got it. Deanna Amato's debt was declared unlawful, because there was no basis in the Social Security Act for this government to raise the debt against her using the faulty income averaging that has been the defence of this government. They said, 'If the ATO uses an averaging system and it doesn't match exactly with the careful figures that were provided to Centrelink, we're just going to send out a debt.'

The bleating apologists on the other side who've said, 'Oh, there's human engagement at every level,' are simply not telling the truth. This is called robodebt for a reason. It's because they outsourced the responsibilities, as they do with so much of the government, to a machine, an algorithm. The consequences have been devastating. There was no basis, according to the court this afternoon, for Deanna Amato's tax return to be garnisheed. When she went to get what she thought was coming to her, it was gone, taken by this government in a manner that has now been declared unlawful. There is no boundary that this government will not cross. If you're down on your luck, they'll come after you. They'll absolutely come after you, not with a Robocop but with robodebt. The court found there was no basis for the 10 per cent interest penalty to be applied to her debt. Of course there wasn't. She shouldn't have got the debt in the first place, let alone an additional 10 per cent on top just for fun. So the government has to pay back the interest to Ms Amato. They have to pay back what they took from her that was not theirs, a debt that was generated by a machine that didn't do the work that good governments should do.

Mr Stuart Robert—the relevant minister for this Liberal-National Party government that is the architect of this scheme, which is exploitative of Australians—has made every effort to diminish the significance of this announcement by claiming that it's a small cohort and that there is no change to the onus of proof, and by reframing this as a 'refinement'—I've got to use the ultimate air quotes around it. It was illegal. Surely the government had enough resources to get correct advice about legality before they went ahead with this scheme. If they didn't, that is a gross failure by this government.

The minister has insisted that Australians wait to be contacted by the department rather than calling Centrelink to find out if they'll have their debt reviewed under the changes. 'Just wait,' he says. Does anybody on that side of the chamber, or anybody in the Liberal and National parties, understand what it's like when you are basically hand to mouth, trying to keep your family fed, clothed and housed, doing the right thing in an economy where your job is very vulnerable and reporting every hour that you work? Then all of a sudden the government sends a letter. It arrives. Probably around dinnertime you open the mail, and there you see it: $13,000 or $2,000 you owe the government. That's what it said. You can change the shape of the letter as much as you like, but, when Australians receive a letter from the government, who they should be able to trust, they rightfully freak out a little bit, especially when they've got to repay money that they had no idea that they owed and that, in fact, they didn't owe. That's what the court case said today: Australians did not owe that money.

It's bad that this has happened, but so irresponsible is this government—so unwilling to accept responsibility for the great shame of its daily failures of governance—that the minister is effectively misleading the public by trying to downplay the government's backflip. Human Services staff have been told that up to 600,000 of the 900,000 robodebts that have been issued used that terribly flawed model of income averaging. Six hundred thousand of 900,000 Australians are going to need a reassessment. God help us if they try to do that again with a machine! And this whole thing came about because the government thought: 'Oh well, we'll just stop the Public Service from doing their proper jobs. We'll just cut a whole lot of them out and use a bit of a machine to send out these notices. Hooray! More money for us, for our budget bottom line.' Now we've got 600,000 Australians who know that they've been ripped off by this government. They've done the very best that they could to comply. They've paid debts that really weren't debts.

And the government has no plan to adequately respond. In fact, they're saying: 'Just sit there and wait. Trust us.' Well, the trust currency has dried up. Every Australian who received a robodebt from this appalling Liberal-National Party government knows that they cannot trust this government. No-one would trust a company that generated a debt for a service you didn't get! No-one would trust a company like that, and they shouldn't trust the government that has done that either. People want refunds. It's a fair thing that they get their refund for a debt that they shouldn't have had to consider at all.

Australians want answers now. They want to know whether people in receipt of a debt notice are going to be guided through a formal review at Centrelink, and the time that that's going to take—how many times they're going to have to sit on the phone for hours. They want to know that they're going to have the best chance to actually have their money. Are they going to get a reassessment? Will everyone who has repaid a debt be alerted of the change? Are they going to be compensated—compensated for the harms inflicted by this scheme?

The Attorney-General, Mr Porter, acknowledged in his National Press Club address last week that the government had in fact received new legal advice in light of the Federal Court actions. And there are a number of questions that absolutely should be answered. Did the government fail to check if robodebt was legal before they actually created this rogue scheme? Did the government receive advice but ignore its own counsel and decide to proceed with unjustly enriching itself at the expense of the most vulnerable in our society—people who'd paid taxes all their life, who just needed a bit of help, and then found this government coming to chase them for a debt that they didn't even owe? Will the Attorney-General now apologise for robodebt? He refused to do so after the 2017 Senate inquiry found that the scheme was destined to fail and should be suspended immediately. Now the scheme has been finally reversed. How can the coalition expect Australians to trust them after they've inflicted this scheme on over a million people—some of them already deceased; some of them experiencing grave suffering because of this very scheme? How can Australians trust this government to look after the most vulnerable in society? They've ignored three years of clear evidence telling them to go back to the drawing board. How can the coalition expect Australians to trust them after they quietly called off their rogue robot only after facing Federal Court action that has proven it illegal?

This is a disastrous government, and it has inflicted great pain on the Australian people. The most vulnerable have suffered at the hands of those in this government, and they should be ashamed of themselves. (Time expired)

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