Senate debates

Monday, 9 August 2021

Matters of Public Importance

Prime Minister

4:21 pm

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

I congratulate my colleague Senator Urquhart here in the Senate, who is doing a sterling job as the whip—a lot more than is required normally. Senator Urquhart has really hit the nail on the head in terms of one of the big concerns that people in Australia should be worried about, and that is this Prime Minister's refusal to take responsibility and to be accountable, and his displaying day in and day out, in front of that microphone that he graces with his presence, that he is more concerned about passing the buck than actually coming clean with the Australian people. It's that real talk that Senator Urquhart, for the great state of Tasmania, understands. She talks to her constituents. She understands the pain and suffering that's going on in that community. Happily, they're not locked down in COVID reality as we are in Sydney, but this is how people are perceiving this Prime Minister: a man who is incapable of telling the truth, who wants to pass the buck and who can't come clean with the Australian people.

We've seen this time after time. The Prime Minister's inability to accept responsibility for any of the failures and policy stuff-ups that have littered his three years in office is now becoming extraordinary. It's a mounting list of permanent denials and failures, and there is self-aggrandisement for his version of reality, which just doesn't match what's happening to people. He was asked about the car park rorts. What did he say? He said, 'The minister makes that decision.' And, when he's asked about the top 20 marginal seats and a list that was in his office, he makes a comment like, 'Oh, I refer to my previous comments.' A man who's telling you the truth doesn't say, 'I refer to my previous comments.' He actually tells you: 'No, I didn't see that chart. I didn't see that colour coded chart.'

This Prime Minister cannot tell the truth and is obsessed with covering up his disgraceful tracks that reveal, for those who can see it—because we're up pretty close and personal here in the Labor Party; we can see it day after day—a constant failure to actually own up to the truth and to govern with integrity. His answer to sports rorts was, 'Oh, no, that didn't happen.' Then he takes Bridget McKenzie's scalp and sits her outside for a little while, but he has brought her back into the game. Everyone knows 'sports rorts' was a rort.

Mr Morrison's answer to the alleged rape allegations in the ministerial wing: 'I've got no idea about that.' He's at the microphone, spouting off what he wants to say, but the minute he's asked a hard question this is the man who runs. He runs and hides and has the support of his entire party, who continue to accept him as leader, despite the shameful behaviour that we see. He was asked about the bushfires. He was called on to respond for Australians, and what was his response? 'Mate,' as he says, trying to be your friend, 'I don't hold a hose.' There's a lot that mate doesn't hold. He doesn't hold his role in any high esteem. Otherwise, as the Prime Minister of Australia, he would not be running from the truth. He would not be engaged in permanent cover-up. We see with this Prime Minister a craven refusal to accept even the most minute criticism of his responsibility. It is absolutely shameful and it harms the spirit of this place. Australia needs a leader with integrity, now more than ever. Instead, we have this micro-middle manager of myth, who heads out on a Friday afternoon to do a press conference in what's often described by those who have been around this place a long time as the hour when you take out the trash, hoping that people don't notice what's going on.

I've already mentioned just a couple of the rorts—the sports rorts and the alleged rape in parliament. There have been car park rorts, and there's so much more deception. But today I really want to focus on the robodebt failure, which is a disgraceful cover-up that continues to this day. Everyone knows what robodebt is, but this government and its senior advisers and senior representatives of the department tried to convey that they didn't understand what robodebt was. Everybody knows what it is. It's where this government ripped off the Australian people, creating and sending them illegal invoices. That is what happened. It's been a failure from start to finish. They tried to use terms like 'legally insufficient' to cover up the morally unthinkable—that the government would serve illegal debts on its own people. They are still trying to hide from the reality of what they did and the cover-up and the stench of what robodebt was.

For people who are listening to this debate across the country, perhaps driving in a car or maybe tilling on a machine, or stuck at home, unable to move around because of the failures of this government to roll out the vaccine in time, I want you to understand what a public interest immunity claim is. That's when the government says: 'It's not in the public interest to know what's going on. We need to keep this secret.' One of the things they wanted to keep secret was everything to do with robodebt. We know from inquiries that they knew it was illegal at least three years before they pulled up on it—at least three years. We know that the public interest immunity claim was made by the then Minister for Government Services as far back at 24 January 2020. So when the government makes this claim it means, 'We don't have to answer, because it's not in your interests to know.' They reiterated that claim again on 29 July 2020, and the minister sent a letter to the committee saying that they would not release legal advice relating to this income compliance program—that's the nice name they have for robodebt—or on a very broad range of matters related to the PII claim. The letters went backwards and forwards to the committee, dated 13 August, in response to Senate orders. So the Senate itself required the same information. That was last year, October 2020. The minister not only decided that he was going to stick with the PII claim; he expanded the claim. Then the minister went on to assert that disclosing the content of any legal advice—to the Australian people, to the Senate or to the committee that was overseeing the matter—even the date that the legal advice was given, would have the potential to prejudice the Commonwealth's ability to defend litigation. The Senate has rejected their claims, but the government don't care. Mr Morrison doesn't care. He's on for the cover-up every single time, every single day. He cannot come clean with the truth; he cannot tell the truth to the Australian people.

They said that they couldn't do anything until the class action was settled. The class action was finally settled, and that means the government actually, finally, under the jurisdiction of the law in a court, had to admit that the they had illegally sent debts to Australian people. The government acted illegally. They settled it. Some people got their money back, but lives have been lost in the middle of this and they're never coming back. And all of this terrible action by this government was covered up and continues to be covered up to this day.

The committee overseeing robodebt has tabled three interim reports on its inquiry. In two of those reports, tabled in February and September, they rejected the claims that the material should be withheld from the Australian people and recommended that the Senate itself order the government to produce the information either to the Senate or to the committee. The committee has also recommended that the Senate order the Minister representing the Minister for Government Services to attend the Senate and make an explanation of why the government continues to rely on the public interest immunity claim, which has been rejected by the Senate. The Senate adopted that recommendation on 11 February and 2 September 2020, and on 6 October the minister did come in and provide an explanation of why the government thought the cover-up was such a good idea.

I can tell you that, as of today, the robodebt black box still continues. The court case is settled. There is no reason for a PII to continue. The government needs to come clean, bring the information to the Senate as requested and stop disregarding the Senate, which oversees the government for the people of Australia. The public interest immunity claim is just another tool of cover-up by this government, which, as Senator Urquhart so wisely said, is more concerned about passing the buck than coming clean. (Time expired)


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