Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Centrelink's Compliance Program; Order for the Production of Documents
[by video link] I rise to speak on this very important PII claim and the minister's rejection of the request by the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs to table documents about robodebt, the scheme that harassed everyday Australians for debts that they did not owe. I want to speak briefly about these PII claims and about how they're being used to shield not only this minister but also other members of the government from accountability, from scrutiny, from transparency and from telling the truth to the Australian public.
What we know about robodebt is very dark indeed; it is a very dark stain on government accountability and transparency. Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, has been out there over the last couple of days and weeks talking focus group lines about the government needing to get out of people's lives. Every time the Prime Minister said that focus group line this week—that the government needs to get out of people's lives—it brought us all the way back to robodebt, didn't it? Because we know that Scott Morrison was the social services minister, the architect of this scheme. We know that he was the Treasurer who was planning on banking the savings from this scheme. We know that, as Prime Minister, he has instructed ministers to continue to hide the details that would give so much understanding and accountability for this scheme to the Australian public. At every step of the way, as social services minister, as Treasurer and now as Prime Minister, he has evaded the truth when it comes to the robodebt scheme.
The robodebt scheme was a scheme whereby everyday Australians were sent a letter demanding payment for a debt that they did not owe. We've heard harrowing stories, as my colleagues in the Senate today have detailed, of the effects of receiving a letter like that. I can only speak from my own experience, living in North Queensland. In the aftermath of the Townsville floods that had destroyed the city, people living in Townsville received these robodebt letters. It is a stain on our democracy that this happened at a time when the government knew that this scheme was illegal. That is why we are asking for these documents today, because we need to understand what the government knew. We need to understand what advice and information they were given and how they took that advice into their considerations when deciding to continue the scheme. When it comes to the most vulnerable Australians, this government has a legacy of leaving them on their own. But it gets even worse. The legacy has now become one of taking active steps to grind vulnerable Australians into the ground; that's exactly what this scheme did. It's exactly what the cashless debit card is doing right now. It is exactly what this government will continue to do, unless we know the truth about this scheme.
The PII claims, as the government has claimed, do seek information about legal advice, but some of the information the committee is seeking from Services Australia doesn't relate to the content of that advice. The government is refusing—the minister today is refusing, again—to provide information that relates to when the advice was sought. We can't even get a date from this minister. We don't know who provided that advice, and we're not able to understand the nature of that advice or how it was taken into consideration by the executive at the time.
These are questions that need to be answered, and there is a question about whether the Senate is continually being ignored by this government. The Senate has made a decision that this information needs to be public. The Senate has decided that this information is crucial for the public to understand, and the Senate has decided that the minister has continued to not make out a public interest claim, to not sufficiently explain the harm to the public of having this information released and to not sufficiently explain how general information about when advice was sought—nothing more than a date—would harm the public. That is what the Senate has decided. Again, today, we've had the minister refusing to deliver documents and information as requested by the Senate.
It goes to show that this is a government that will do anything to avoid accountability, to avoid transparency. In a situation where the government has done something so awful to its own people, something so awful that it has meant people have been affected mentally and physically—there are stories of people having taken their own lives because of this action—something so extreme and damaging, the response needs to have utmost transparency.
The degree to which this action was taken and the effect it had means that every effort the government makes in dealing with the aftermath of this situation should be to open up the books and let us see what they knew and when they knew it. The effects of this scheme and the extreme nature of the impacts of the robodebt scheme should, in itself, tell the minister and tell the Prime Minister that this is something they need to fess up to, that they need to make sure that every single piece of information is on the public record—now. They need to make that information available to people. That's exactly why the Senate has continually rejected these PII claims.
I want to bring us back to what the Prime Minister has been saying over the last couple of weeks. He has been saying that government should get out of people's lives. When he says that, what he really means is that we should not be asking this government questions about accountability and transparency, that there shouldn't be a two-way street, that when the government asks you to pay a debt you didn't owe you don't have the same right to ask the government for all the information they knew when they asked you to pay that debt. This is a government that has placed people on a cashless debit card and told them how to spend their own money. This is a government that continually tries to tell people what to do with their own lives. Yet when it comes to what the government is prepared to do, it will not listen to the public. They will not listen to people who have been hurt and harmed by this scheme. And today they are refusing to listen to the Senate, once again.
Well, I think that they should have more respect for the Senate, for the Australian people and for the victims of this scheme, because, if they had respect for the victims, the minister would be marching in here right now and tabling those documents—tabling every piece of information available, publicly, so that we understand, finally and completely, what they knew and when they knew it. The reason that she is refusing to do that today is that Scott Morrison was the architect of this scheme, and we know that, if we have those documents tabled, we will find out that he was up to his eyeballs in this—up to his eyeballs in a scheme that destroyed people's lives.