Senate debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021


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

3:40 pm

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

Really, this is such a cynical exercise. When one looks at the PII claim, one can see that this is really just a letter that has done the rounds, in fact, for years. So it doesn't just rest with this minister, whose concern for people on robodebt and the NDIS is about as sincere as the crocodile tears we have witnessed her cry in this chamber.

Going to the legal advice: one might think that they could have actually mentioned in this letter from Senator Reynolds that they're actually a model litigant. Now, these words will be really quite unfamiliar to Senator Reynolds, because she wouldn't know what a model of anything was. But they are a model litigant, and, as a model litigant, you can't just give a blanket statement in relation to the concerns that the Senate has raised.

Remember: this is taxpayers' money. We all pay—everyone out there pays; people who require assistance, in some cases, pay. This is taxpayers' money, and she has the temerity to say in this letter that: 'We can't possibly release anything at all.' Without actually looking at the request that the Senate has made, she's just given a blanket statement—a blanket denial. Remember: when this letter was written, the government was no longer facing legal action. There is no longer any court action. So, in relation to the legal advice being sought and the date, that would say that she can actually give some of that. So she could actually have a proper look at the request from the Senate. She could actually do that. I know that it might strain her—I was going to say 'two brain cells', but I'll say '1.5'. She could actually look at it and distinguish those which can be answered very easily, including the date. But, again, the date when the advice was sought is of course another cynical exercise, and the reason it is cynical is that the request for the date might actually reveal that the government received direct legal advice and that they knew the scheme was rotten.

The secretary, Ms Campbell, when she was the secretary in the relevant department—she's now gone to foreign affairs—said: 'We've talked about the fact that it was legally insufficient.' 'Legally insufficient' is a bit mealy-mouthed, but that's so much better than the minister! In our system it's the minister who is responsible, for the very good reason that, if the public does not agree with the government, they can vote them out. That is the reason that the minister is responsible, and she should start to act like it. So Ms Campbell says:

We've talked about the fact that it was legally insufficient. We have apologised for the hurt to the people on whom the debt was raised. I too apologise to staff—

because staff were very upset, as you can imagine, if they were taking phone calls, and I'll read out one of these instances:

The Robodebt has had a huge impact on fellow co-workers and myself. To read the stories of suicides and customers' distress in the news made a lot of us feel sick. I have had nights where I could not sleep thinking about conversations, I have had with customers regarding their Robodebts. Some have talked about suicide on the call. To hear a grown man crying on the phone, whose wife had died recently, and he is the carer for his young children, is heartbreaking.

What a terrible instance this is, and not only for the people who were being victimised by this scheme because they were receiving false robodebt notices. Imagine having that and knowing what the staff are going through, and still continuing with it, not actually thinking that maybe there was something rotten in the state of Denmark! But, of course, no, because we've got this minister.

Ms Campbell also said:

We've talked about the fact that it was legally insufficient—

And I hope Minister Reynolds is listening to this, because she might learn something: that her own department can be more generous about this than she would ever dream of being. Ms Campbell went on to say:

We have apologised for the hurt to the people on whom the debt was raised. I too apologise to staff, but I would note that this had been going for some time. For the staff to say, as they describe it in this letter, that robodebt was something new, unfortunately, is just not true. Staff in the agency have to deal with very difficult circumstances on many occasions.

Now, the other question, and the reason for the date when the legal advice was sought, is that of course not only might it show that the government received advice and knew that the scheme was rotten, but also it raises the possibility that the government sought no advice at all. It would be interesting to know. So—funnily enough—the Senate asked the minister who is responsible for providing answers. But she's just given this blanket statement of, 'No, you're not getting anything.' But it's taxpayers' money, and taxpayers have a right to know that their money is being spent appropriately.

Let's go to someone who might know something about the law, as opposed to the minister:

Under questioning by Labor senator Deborah O’Neill, the Gordon Legal partner Andrew Grech told a Senate inquiry on Thursday there was no reason the government couldn’t answer the committee’s questions—

I'm reading from a media report in the Guardian by Luke Henriques-Gomes—

The class-action settlement has been approved by the court, with Gordon Legal and Services Australia now working to identify and process interest payments to victims.

"It would be impossible to see how the commonwealth could legitimately sustain a claim," Grech said. "Whilst technically those proceedings are still on foot [due to the settlement scheme] it's not as if the parties can go back to court and re-litigate the issues."

So, instead of the minister paying attention to a Senate inquiry and the evidence before it, she's just issued this blanket letter saying she's not going to answer anything. It's absolute contempt. But really, what else do we expect from this minister? It is just ridiculous that she's in that cabinet. She's a terrible person.


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