Senate debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021


Centrelink's Compliance Program; Order for the Production of Documents

3:15 pm

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

O'NEILL () (): I've seen the movie with the repeat and repeat and repeat pattern in it—Groundhog Day, I think it's called. Sadly, that's what it's starting to feel like here in this chamber, with a government that is so profoundly committed to misleading the Australian people and to hiding the truth of their shameful behaviour that they have the gall to show up here—now for the fifth time—and say that it is not in the interests of the Australian people to know what it was that this government found out about the laws when they concocted robodebt.

It is amazing, Senator Wong! It's hard to believe that this minister could come in here and, heartlessly, cruelly and without any care, stand up and say to the Australian people: 'You don't deserve to know. It is not in your interest. It is not in the public interest to know how we stuffed this thing up so badly.' That is despite the fact that over a million people were served with illegal debts by this government and despite the fact that people suffered unbelievably, as they were being hounded by their own government and by legal debt collectors for debts that they didn't even owe. Here we are, and it is the fifth time that this government has had the gall to stand up and say: 'You don't need to know how we concocted this scheme. You don't need to know. It doesn't matter what the legal advice was; it doesn't matter if it was good or bad. It's fine; we're through this now. Turn the page. Move on.'

There are people who aren't moving on. There are people whose lives were shattered by what this government did. There were families that broke apart under the financial pressure of debts. A debt in the amount of $18,000 arrived at the door of a family that was doing the right thing. They found themselves with a letter of debt from this government—an illegal letter—informing them of a debt found to be illegal. Such letters were received by families, and they just broke apart under financial pressure. And this minister, for the fifth time, is coming in here and saying, 'You don't have a right to know about our legal advice and how we constructed this dodgy scheme that has been found to be illegal.' It is not an argument that makes any sense. It is not an argument that holds an ounce of integrity. But it is a reveal—and it's a very powerful reveal—of a secretive, deceptive government that has a mountain of mess behind it, that's trying to cover it up and that doesn't want us to pay attention.

I've made a promise to a few people about things that I'm not going to allow to be left. This is one of them. It involves personal conversations with people this government can never repay. I'm speaking about two amazing women who spoke to me in the course of this inquiry. Their names are Kath Madgwick and Jennifer Miller. Each of them, in separate reports, reported to the newspapers that their sons—Jarrad Madgwick, who only reached the age of 22 years, and Rhys Cauzzo, who reached the ripe old age of 28 years—were so overcome by the pursuit of a false and illegal debt pushed on them by their government that they could not see a way out of it. They could not see a way forward. And those two mothers grieve their sons because their government impacts on people's lives. This isn't a game! This isn't a debating society where we come in and pretend. What we do here has real and powerful impacts on the lives of people—and, sadly, on the deaths of people.

Shamefully, this government constructed the robodebt scheme. With his hands in the Treasury, Mr Morrison decided that this was a great little scheme that he could cook up where he could get back money from the Australian people. Then he would be able to go out and make an announcement—Mr Announcement!—and say that he had saved this much money. In doing so, he chased the Australian people down illegally. This claim from the government that a public interest immunity should apply to this piece of information, the information we requested, simply cannot be allowed to stand. I alert all those senators from the government who are in here and anyone who is listening that the Senate has made its wishes clear on four occasions already. It says that it rejects the government's PII claim; it said, 'You do not have sufficient evidence and sufficient justification to avoid coming clean.'

I just want to read out a little of what happened to these people. It's from the evidence received from Victoria Legal Aid. Ms McRae said: 'I acknowledge at the outset that I'm on the land of the Wiradjuri people and I'll put on the record this comment from Letecia':

Robodebt feels like a bullying system that affects people who are the most vulnerable.

A lot of people don't know their rights or have the capacity to defend themselves when given an incorrect debt. I don't think it's right that Centrelink comes after people for debts without being sure that they owe money, especially when it's people who are in need of support who go to Centrelink in the first place.

That's the voice of people who are caught up in this.

We have pages and pages of evidence. There is evidence from teachers: a semiretired teacher who took up a bit of casual work and never, ever had any problems with the law or with government. He had never been on welfare, but he was hounded for his illegal debt, which the government actually had to undo in the end, for three years. People talk about the shame that they felt when this letter arrived. They should have the right to believe that their government would never do this to them.

So while the government makes haste to move on and while the government continues to come in here, ignore the will of the Senate and refuse to reveal the documents upon which Mr Morrison concocted this scheme, it continues to insult every Australian, to whom it should be apologising. If this government had any conscience at all it would be stepping forward and saying: 'This is where we got it wrong. This was the legal advice we had. This is what went wrong and it doesn't match with what we've found out. This must never happen again.' But that's not what we're going to hear from a government which feels it's entitled to rule, no matter how badly it does the job. And you can't get much worse than raising an illegal debt against your own people and driving people over the edge. Robodebt isn't a thing to forget, robodebt is a thing to remember. The advice that the government received—or, perhaps, even worse than that, if there was no advice and it didn't receive proper advice—needs to become known so that the mistake that was made by this government is never, ever made again.

We've had this level of refusal to respond to questions at every stage of our inquiry. In hearings, we've asked for facts, we've asked for evidence and we've asked for information, and, once the government initiated its first public interest immunity claim, it has just continued to roll out the same claim over and over again. Amongst my papers here, I actually have the latest letter that has just come in from the minister. It's not dated—because they just photocopy the same letter every time they receive a request. It's contemptuous. It's a contemptuous response to a genuine request from the Senate, on not one occasion now but five! The minister's public interest immunity claim—and, sadly, we're getting a few of these from people—is one of the worst ones that I've ever seen. It smacks of self-indulgence and a refusal to take seriously this action by the Senate to get to the bottom of this matter. And, I can say, I will not allow this to rest, because too many Australians got done over by Mr Morrison and his scam plan. We will not allow that to go uncritiqued and misunderstood. We need to know what went wrong. We will pursue this. (Time expired)


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