Senate debates

Thursday, 12 August 2021


Community Affairs References Committee; Report

3:37 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I present the fourth interim report of the Community Affairs References Committee on Centrelink's compliance program, and I move:

That the Senate adopt the recommendation contained in the interim report.

This is a very important motion and report. It is the fourth report from this committee and it relates to public interest immunity and the government claiming public interest immunity yet again over specific issues related to the Centrelink compliance program commonly known by the whole of Australia as robodebt.

We have repeatedly sought information about the legal advice they obtained—and I'll go into that a bit more in a moment. The fact is they were using the court case as an excuse not to provide that information. That court case has finished now. Judgement has been passed, debts have been repaid—though not all that we think should be repaid—and compensation will be paid. The government has no excuse to hide behind now, and the majority of the committee agree.

Senator O'Neill, who I'm sure will speak when I finish my contribution, and other senators including me have sought this information repeatedly. The community needs to know. Not just the Senate inquiry but the community need and want to know what the government knew about a program that caused untold stress and harm. I will say it here again: it did lead to people—when people are reading this Hansard, please be aware of the sensitivity of this issue—taking their own lives. I know Senator O'Neill has spoken to family members, as have I. They are absolutely convinced that it contributed to their loved ones' passing. That program was abhorrent.

What advice did the ministers—there were a number that oversaw this program—seek? Did they seek to check that it was legal? Did the department? If so, when? Was it at the beginning of the program, before they went down this track? I'm sure what we will hear from the government is that this was money that people owed. Well, they didn't owe it, and the government should have checked before they started this robo, automatic process. They will also say: 'We didn't do it automatically. It wasn't robodebt. It wasn't automated.' That is nonsense. There was a clear change in the way these debts were collected. When did they seek that advice? You know what? If the government didn't seek legal advice, even bigger shame on them for not doing so to see if they could actually do this.

The particular matter that I'm tabling relates to their latest claim of public interest immunity. This has been claimed, as you know, on many occasions. But on this occasion, as I said, the excuse is not there. They are using, as you will see from the correspondence, the excuse that there may be future ones. If that were the case, they could deny giving people any information at any time. Not everybody who had a debt raised against them was part of the class action, so the government are using the excuse that there could be others. It's complete nonsense. This information should be publicly available. The Australian people deserve to know how this program started and whether the government ever knew it wasn't legal and just hoped they wouldn't get caught or whether they never bothered to check for a program that resulted in untold misery. It's not on. This place, I hope, will continue to chase the government over this issue. It's not just me. There are many, many people in this country who want to know these answers. So we will, all of us, keep pursuing this information.

I urge the Senate to support the recommendation that we presented in this report and have moved as an amendment. The report specifically goes through a number of points which I won't take up time in reading out, but basically it says the committee recommends that the Senate adopt the resolution requiring the production of documents. It talks about the documents that we want laid on the table no later than 12 pm on 24 August 2021, and it goes on to say:

In the event that the minister fails to table these documents, the Senate requires the minister to attend the Senate at the conclusion of question time on 25 August 2021 to provide an explanation of the minister's failure to table the documents.

We are very clear in what documents we want, including answers to all the questions that relate to legal advice and the Income Compliance Program, commonly known as robodebt—I'm ad-libbing there; it doesn't actually say 'robodebt'—which have been subject to the rejected claims of public interest immunity during the Senate Community Affairs References Committee's inquiry into the Centrelink compliance program. We want the executive minute to the Minister for Social Services, dated 12 February 2015, and we also want a letter confirming that the above responses relating to legal advice and the executive minute will be provided. We're also giving the government the opportunity to provide this information in camera, by the way. It's not as if we're being unreasonable. I don't think it's unreasonable to ask for the basis on which the government thought they had legal authority to undertake this illegal program. Please support this resolution.


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