Wednesday, 31 July 2019
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Government Services, Senator Ruston. How many families will be impacted by the government's application of its robodebt program to the childcare subsidy?
I thank the senator for her question, but in a sense I reject the premise of her question. The details you're asking, on specifics, I'm happy to take on notice. But I would point out to those in this chamber that as the minister responsible for social services and as the minister responsible for the welfare system in Australia, I have an obligation to make sure that we have a sustainable welfare system into the future, and that's exactly what I'm doing.
The point of order is on direct relevance. The minister was actually asked, as the Minister representing the Minister for Government Services, a direct question about numbers of families. I appreciate that she wants to talk about her own portfolio, but she is being asked a question in her representative portfolio.
Thank you, Mr President, and I would draw your attention to the fact in standing, because I am not the Minister for Government Services, that I do not have the exact information the senator is asking for at hand, and I have offered to take that on notice for the senator. I was merely pointing out that as the Minister for social services I have a certain role, and that's what I was explaining.
You said that in a sense you reject the premise of the question. Can we explore that further? When asked about the government's intention to recover debt from families receiving the childcare subsidy, Minister Robert said:
… the department will deal sensitively with families to manage the balancing of family payments.
Does the so-called balancing process that the minister refers to actually mean the government's cruel and unfair robodebt program?
As I said in my previous answer, the specifics of your question I am obviously happy to take on notice. But, more broadly, I would say to you that the Australian social welfare system is designed to provide people with what they are entitled to. The expectation of those in this place should be—and it certainly is on this side of the chamber—as well as the broader Australian public, that they expect us to reasonably recover overpayments made to people, to which they weren't entitled.
A point of order on relevance: the question is about whether, with the childcare subsidy, the word 'balancing' actually refers to the robodebt program. It's a quite straightforward question.
I take the opportunity in dealing with this to remind ministers that even when they have answered or taken on notice part of a question, other information they offer must also be directly relevant to the question. I am, however, listening very carefully to the minister, and I do believe that her answer at this point is being directly relevant, because she was just turning to the issue of—to use the phrase you used—balancing or debts or different collections of payments. So, I think this information is directly relevant.
As I was just getting to the point of saying, as the Australian public would expect of us and as those on this side of the chamber expect, when you have been paid more than you are entitled to then it seems a reasonable expectation that people pay back anything that they've been overpaid. That is the sustainability nature of the Australian social welfare system. (Time expired)
I would ask you to ask the minister to go to relevance. In particular, we are not asking about general commitments to debt; we are asking about the specific means and specifically whether or not the balancing process is the same thing as the robodebt program.
You've reminded the minister of the question. I remind the minister: while it does occasionally happen, you can't continue your previous answer after a supplementary question. But the minister has been speaking for only nine seconds. I will listen carefully to the remainder of her answer.
In relation to the process in which we determine whether somebody has been overpaid in relation to childcare payments: it is a process that's undertaken through the tax system. If you have any further details that Minister Robert may want to add to your particular question, I'm more than happy to provide those for you. However, I would point out to you that the Australian public have an expectation that, where anybody has been paid more than they were entitled to, the Australian government has an obligation on behalf of the taxpayers to make sure that that is recovered.