Senate debates

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Matters of Public Importance

Pensions and Benefits

4:21 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

I inform the Senate that, as at 8.30 am today, 23 proposals were received by the President in accordance with standing order 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Polley:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

The need for Mr Morrison to apologise for his role overseeing every aspect of the illegal Robodebt scheme as the Social Services Minister who designed it, the Treasurer who implemented it, and the Prime Minister who settled the claims of victims for $1.2 billion, and to establish a Royal Commission because that is the only forum with the coercive powers and broad jurisdiction necessary to properly investigate this fiasco.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:22 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I've always liked numbers, so let's start with some numbers for those opposite, who are all complicit in the 430,000 Australians who were illegally issued with robodebt notices. Yes; 430,000 Australians were targeted by the former social services minister, former Treasurer and now Prime Minister of Australia. There is a $1.2 billion payout, which is the biggest class action settlement in Australian government history. How about a round of applause for those opposite: you made history, guys, congratulations! You have cost the Australian taxpayer $1.2 billion. Then again, what's $1.2 billion to those opposite, who are racking up a trillion dollars in national debt? They're the worst economic managers in the history of this country.

We know on this side, and the Australian people know, that ministerial responsibility is dead in this country, and, if this doesn't prove that, then I don't know what will. It's about the arrogance of this government, who were forewarned that their actions were illegal. The automation process and the computerisation of the robodebt was a decision made by the current government. Those opposite cannot escape that fact, as much as they try. We know how often they come into this place to try and rewrite history. Those opposite had been advised that the scheme was illegal, and it took them months and months to act on this and to stop sending debt notices out to vulnerable Australians. This could have been fixed quickly by the government. Instead, these people were dragged through the court process because of the government's ideological bent—they know best all the time and they are never wrong! Well, justice was served. The judiciary made a judgement. And now the taxpayer is forced to pay because of the utter incompetence and arrogance of those opposite.

Let's be clear here: 430,000 welfare recipients were wrongly accused by the Turnbull and Morrison governments of misreporting their income. This was an appalling injustice done to people who couldn't defend themselves. The callous, ruthless and impersonal way of pursuing welfare recipients was always brutal, and you can understand why it was designed by Scott Morrison, our Prime Minister—it is right up his alley.

In the words of Bill Shorten, who stood up for the 430,000 victims of this government, the Morrison government has been forced to give the money of those people back to them. Let's not forget that, when Labor first raised the concerns of the 430,000 harassed and aggrieved Australians who received robodebt notices, it was Stuart Robert, the Minister for Government Services, and the Prime Minister who said it was merely a political stunt. Can you believe that? We know the mentality of those opposite. They want to stigmatise people on Centrelink, stigmatise people who receive money from the Commonwealth. They demonise people; they talk them down. During this whole fiasco, the Prime Minister just said: 'There is nothing to see here. Move along. No-one has been aggrieved.' Well, how wrong the Prime Minister was. We knew all along that they were in the wrong. Prime Minister, $1.2 billion of taxpayer money is not 'moving along'. It's the taxpayers money and you, sir, cannot be trusted with the Australian Treasury anymore.

This entire calamity could been avoided if not for your philosophical hatred of people who receive welfare at some point in their lives to make a fresh start, to provide assistance for a short time in order to get back on their feet. The government has paid out $1.2 billion in the biggest settlement in Australian government history. Yet they argued that they are not liable. This isn't a comedy set, Mr Morrison; you take the Australian people for granted every single day. This government cannot run away from this issue like they try to run away from accountability and transparency every other day. The government is yet to explain how the scheme was so poorly administered. The question must be asked: how did we get ourselves into a set of circumstances where ministers either knew that the law was being broken or never bothered to find out what the law was? How did we get to a situation where senior public servants—not the Centrelink staff at the counter, but the senior public servants—authorised a scheme which was illegal?

There is a human toll to this whole fiasco—the 430,000 people, and their families, who enjoyed the torment and shame of being hunted and victimised by their government. The government's actions have had consequences for people's lives. Those on the government side really don't give a damn. Otherwise, they would have thought before they acted. These people couldn't get jobs because they had a debt finding—families and people who had shame and stigma, a lot of people who don't want to be on Centrelink and were embarrassed about their debt. Whether they really had a debt or not, they still felt that shame. People were mistreated and they deserve a sincere apology from the Prime Minister, from Minister Robert and from those opposite.

I want to conclude by acknowledging that the settlement is justice for the victims who have been treated terribly, shamefully, by the Morrison government. For years the Morrison government has been in denial about robodebt's fairness and legality. Even after the robodebt scheme was proven through the courts to be illegal, what have we seen? Nothing in the way of an apology from either the Prime Minister or Minister Robert. We know the anxiety and the extra poverty that was caused. We know that there were even suicides because of the shame. Some of those people who couldn't fight because they perceived that the government would have to be in the right and they couldn't prove that they didn't owe a debt unfortunately took their own lives. Their families have been left devastated.

It is only after the prospect of coalition ministers, such as the former Minister for Human Services, Alan Tudge, having to take the witness stand to answer questions on what they knew that the government have now agreed to pay a fair amount of compensation to these victims. What is the dirty secret about robodebt's origins that the government don't want anyone to know? Were they told it was illegal and ignored that advice from the outset? Did they not check its legality at all before unleashing it on the unsuspecting public? How much taxpayer money have the Morrison government wasted fighting this unwinnable case? Only a royal commission into the robodebt will give the public the answers that they deserve.

In the meantime, Mr Morrison should have sacked Minister Robert. Everything that guy touches turns to stone. He's hopeless. He's indefensible in terms of his actions and the stupidity of the way this whole fiasco was handled. There are so many on that side of the chamber who don't deserve to be ministers. We have Richard Colbeck, another failed minister in his responsibilities. And Stuart Robert is almost like the gift that keeps on giving—every single time he has his fingers in a pie it turns to stone. This has been a national disgrace and a scandal. (Time expired)

4:32 pm

Photo of Wendy AskewWendy Askew (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on the matter of importance raised by Senator Polley regarding Centrelink's income compliance program. It is important for Senator Polley and those opposite to keep in mind that in a circumstance where Australians have received money from the taxpayer to which they were not entitled the government would seek to recover that money. The Australian public expect the government to do that, and that is what has been done and continues to be done.

Our social security system requires income support recipients to meet eligibility requirements around income and assets to ensure support is being provided to those who need it most. The welfare system is an important safety net but, equally, it requires compliance measures to be undertaken so people receive the correct payment and meet their obligations. Such compliance includes checking discrepancies in reported income to identify potential overpayment and, as appropriate, recover debt. This is a welfare system that is sustainable and that has integrity.

However, before I speak further about debts raised by the income compliance program, I wish to address a serious issue that has been repeatedly brought up in parliament in relation to this program and has been again this afternoon. I'm speaking about mental health and specifically the claims around suicides resulting from this income compliance program. Mental health is one of the biggest challenges of our society. The Australian government take mental health seriously, so seriously that the Prime Minister appointed Christine Morgan as the National Suicide Prevention Adviser last year. We are taking action on mental health so families, communities and people experiencing trauma can get the support they need.

The suicide prevention task force briefed the Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into the Centrelink compliance program. Task force representatives told the committee, of which I'm the deputy chair, that research indicates there is no single reason why someone dies by suicide. Drawing mental health into this debate does not help matters. In fact, it hinders them. It is time for my parliamentary colleagues on all sides to treat this issue with sensitivity so as to not place undue stress and trauma on those impacted by it. In dealing with mental health at the agency level, Services Australia has an extensive social worker network to support those in such critical situations. This social worker network can be reached by calling 132850. Too much is at stake to make people's mental health a political issue.

Activities and policies relating to the recovery of money from social security recipients who have been over paid either inadvertently or through deliberate fraud are known as the income compliance program. The specific income compliance program we're discussing today was established in 2015 through the better management of the social welfare system measure announced in the 2015-16 budget. Resolving discrepancies and errors in social security payments, including errors of over payment, is a routine path of the administration of Australia's social security system. This has been the case for many decades with a range of integrity measures adopted during that time, including the income compliance program. As a result of feedback, the program has been through various iterations. The income compliance program was built on existing previous income compliance programs, and was designed to identify social security overpayments through discrepancies between the annual income reported by an individual to Centrelink up to seven years before the date of review, and income assessed by the Australian Taxation Office for that same period. Discrepancies were identified by averaging a lump sum income assessed by the ATO over the period the income was earned in and compared to earnings reported to and income support received from Centrelink across the same period.

Data matching and income averaging processes, like the practice I have just described, have been used as a tool to help identify potential social security overpayments since at least the 1990s, with taxation information used to inform the practice since 2004. The methodology of averaging income was provided for in the Social Security Act 1991 and its predecessor, the Social Security Act 1947. The first data matching program was established under the Data-matching Program (Assistance and Tax) Act 1990 and involved an exchange of data about an individual's taxable income between the ATO and relevant government departments. Services Australia undertook a review of income compliance debts raised in 2009 and 2011 using a random sample of 500 cases in each year. The analysis found that 16.8 per cent of the sample debts in 2009 were raised through the use of average ATO income data and 24.4 per cent in 2011, noting that averaging of ATO income information was used when other information was not available or when people did not engage with Centrelink.

Minister Stuart Robert announced changes to the income compliance program in November 2019 when announcing that averaged ATO income by itself was an insufficient basis on which to raise a debt. Further proof points were needed. Since Minister Robert's announcement about changes to the program, Services Australia has engaged with more than 35 organisations and advocacy groups. It has also undertaken 17 user research activities, piloted the refund process, engaged with the Ombudsman's office on draft refund letters and met with representatives of the Civil Society Advisory Group, with further updates on the agency's progress in refunding customers.

Services Australia has made a number of changes to its systems to improve the user experience, including introducing registered mail to guarantee delivery of letters before reviews start, and dedicated phone support and assistance from compliance officers to help recipients understand what will happen and what is required during a review. In his April 2019 report the Commonwealth Ombudsman commented positively on this enhanced customer experience, including improved letters and income compliance correspondence. Now simplified income reporting combined with the Single Touch Payroll System means information can be accessed more easily, which will reduce errors.

The court case to which Senator Polley refers in this matter, the income compliance program class action, or Prygodicz v Commonwealth, was the result of using income averaging to determine debts. We now know and acknowledge that this was not a valid method to determine debts. In June this year, the Prime Minister apologised to the people who had been impacted by that method of determining debts to be collected. The Department of Social Services and Services Australia also apologised for the harm and hurt caused by the program and committed to applying lessons learnt from it in the future.

Importantly, as soon as this government became aware that this method of debt calculation was invalid, the practice was immediately stopped. Those Australians who received debt notices resulting from income averaging were paid back that money. As at 30 November, $707.7 million had been refunded to 406,889 people. This accounts for around 95 per cent of people affected and 95 per cent of refunds by value. Around 23,100 people are still to be refunded and/or have their debts zeroed if they hadn't made any payments. Under the settlement, the Commonwealth will make a payment of $112 million in the nature of interest to be distributed to eligible group members.

It should be noted, however, that using this method to determine debt is not something this current government has developed. It was actually something that the Labor Party came up with and supported. Indeed, then Minister for Human Services Tanya Plibersek said on 29 June 2011:

… if people fail to come to an arrangement to settle their debts, the Government has a responsibility to taxpayers to recover that money.

This statement was backed up by Bill Shorten, who said on the same day:

The automation of this process will free up resources and result in more people being referred to the tax garnishee process, retrieving more outstanding debt on behalf of taxpayers.

Senator Polley has called for a royal commission to investigate the income compliance program. A court case on this matter has already been finalised and the settlement agreed. While a royal commission provides a high level of investigation and inquiry—which is, at times, warranted and vital to ensure complex issues are investigated thoroughly—it is not a court and does not exercise judicial power. In the words of former Chief Justice of the High Court Justice Gibbs, a royal commission is a 'mere inquiry' which cannot lead to judgement. Further, Justice Gibbs said, royal commissions 'act in a purely inquisitorial capacity'.

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a temporary pause on debt collection activity, to help ease the pressure on household budgets. However, existing income compliance debts will continue to be subject to recovery, ensuring the integrity of Australia's welfare system.

The Prime Minister, the Department of Social Services and Services Australia have already apologised for the impact of the debt recovery practice during this income compliance program; the debt amounts have been repaid to those impacted; the court case has been settled and additional compensation agreed. A further inquiry in the form of a royal commission is unnecessary and unwarranted. (Time expired)

4:42 pm

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

I rise—somewhat out of breath—to contribute to this debate, which is, of course, about the need for Mr Morrison to apologise for his role overseeing every aspect of the illegal robodebt scheme—as the social services minister who designed it, the Treasurer who implemented it and the Prime Minister who settled the claims of victims for $1.2 billion—and to establish a royal commission, because that is the only forum with the coercive powers and the broad jurisdiction necessary to properly investigate this fiasco.

And I agree. We absolutely need a royal commission. This government settled the robodebt—and I will always call it 'robodebt', despite what the government says, because it was robodebt. And it was illegal. There's this fiddling around with language to say it is 'legally insufficient'. It was illegal. And the government has settled this case because they didn't want public servants who knew what went on and ministers who knew what went on to be hauled into court to actually establish when they knew this was illegal. And they must have known, because we established it in estimates, just a couple of weeks ago, when we went through the process of the AAT. Perhaps they weren't reading the reports of the AAT—and, quite clearly at estimates, we were told people had been reading them. We were told the process that you go through in an AAT process and a decision is made. There have been a large number of cases that must have clearly pointed out that these debts were not legally based.

The government don't want people in court being asked questions that may be slightly inconvenient, so, of course, they settled the class action. Of course they settled it. That's why we need a royal commission to forensically analyse what went on, who knew what, and when and where that information was held. We need to also go back before 2015, because this process isn't going back before 2015. We can't get access—when I say 'we', that is the Community Affairs References Committee that is inquiring into the Centrelink compliance program, which has asked for various bits of information. The government won't provide that under the claims of public interest immunity—including executive minutes, including their decision-making process and why they were looking at debts prior to 2015. In my opinion, it is in the public interest to release that information, but will this government release it? No, they won't. They hide behind public interest immunity.

It's not quite settled yet, because I know it still has to go through the final approval process, but they have effectively agreed to settle. They think that people will stop asking questions about when they knew it was illegal and who knew it was illegal. The Prime Minister was the Minister for Social Services when this new accelerated process of income averaging—turbo charged through robodebt—was introduced. The Prime Minister knew then. Then he became the Treasurer. Now he's the Prime Minister. What did he know? What did he know about it? What did all the other ministers we've had know? Let me remember. We've had Christian Porter; he's the Attorney-General. We've had Dan Tehan. We've had Alan Tudge. We've had Stuart Robert a couple of times as the Minister for Human Services and now the minister for Services Australia. We have the current minister for social services, Minister Ruston. Did they not ask: 'Is this legal? What's the legal basis for this?' Of course they must've asked those questions.

We also need to discuss the issue around the apology. Would this count as an apology?

I would apologise for any hurt or harm in the way that the Government has dealt with that issue and to anyone else who has found themselves in those situations… Of course I would deeply regret any hardship that has been caused to people in the conduct of that activity.

This is the Prime Minister's so-called apology. What? He doesn't know that people were hurt by this? Hundreds of thousands of people were subjected to their illegal robodebt fiasco. People were articulating very clearly their hurt and distress. If he hadn't listened to any of the radio stories about it, watched any of the TV stories about it or read any of the media articles about it, you would have thought that one of the ministers, particularly the Prime Minister, would have looked at the Senate inquiry and the Hansard transcripts, which clearly articulated people's deep, deep distress and anxiety. He says: 'any hurt or harm'. Of course there's hurt and harm. We know there's the worst possible harm. We know because we've had evidence from families about the impact on people's mental ill-health, and distress and anxiety to the point where some people, as a result of robodebt, did take their lives. It was the most distressing, awful thing for the people who took their life, and for their families. We've had evidence to the Senate inquiry, and I've had evidence personally from families, about the impact that robodebt had. Everybody in this country knows that it caused hurt, harm and distress.

So that was not an apology. It was not a heartfelt apology that acknowledged the hurt, harm, anxiety and stress that robodebt caused hundreds of thousands of people because the government were once again picking on and demonising people on income support. They thought they could save money—in fact 'recoup money', so called—on the most vulnerable members of our community. It started, in fact, with the Howard government demonising people on income support. They accused people with disability of rorting the system and subjected them to Welfare to Work. It continued through the Howard governments and into the Abbott government, when Mr Abbott, as Prime Minister, accused people on the dole of sitting on the couch. He accused people of rorting the income support system. That was the mindset that was used to dream up robodebt while the Prime Minister was the Minister for Social Services—in other words, the person entrusted to look after and support those Australians who are the most vulnerable and most in need.

What did the Prime Minister, as the social services minister, oversee? He oversaw the initiation of the robodebt scheme to make money off the back of the very people he, as minister, should have been working for. He should have ensured they got the support they needed, not letters saying, 'You could owe thousands of dollars.' When you get such a letter, or when the debt collector turns up at your door—which is what happened to people—and says, 'You owe thousands,' it has the most significant impact on you. This has caused deep hurt and trauma and it needs a full apology and a royal commission.

4:52 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I speak today about the matter of public importance that is robodebt and the Prime Minister's failure to accept fault for his actions as minister, Treasurer and Prime Minister. He's completed a trifecta that nobody would want to win on a program that was illegal and atrociously executed. He was the minister who designed robodebt, he was the Treasurer who cashed the money from robodebt and he is the Prime Minister who refused to fix it. We could look at the numbers—and they're large—but what are we dealing with? We're not dealing with numbers; we're dealing with the lives of hundreds of thousands of fellow Australians who have been put through the unnecessary stress and heartache of having to disprove their liability for debts they didn't owe. They were treated so badly that some of them took their own life. They've been put through this heartache because of the callousness and incompetence of Mr Morrison and his government. So those opposite can try to defend their position, deny the undeniable and talk about mental health programs being implemented, but the reality is that the government caused the angst and anxiety felt by participants caught up in the robodebt fiasco—it's all on them.

I'm a member of the community affairs references committee. As Senator Siewert has said, we're undertaking an inquiry into Centrelink's compliance program, as robodebt is formally known. As a member of that committee, I've heard evidence and read submissions from witnesses whose lives were completely devastated by the program. We heard some really distressing evidence. Let me tell you about Ms Kath Madgwick, who believes her son Jarrad's robodebt contributed to him eventually taking his own life. She wrote a letter to the committee, which was read into evidence during a public hearing of the committee. I'll just quote part of it. She said:

My son Jarrad Madgwick was an amazing, caring, intelligent boy. He was a loving + protective son.

…   …   …

If it were not for the Automative Compliance letter & the threat of a debt Jarrad would have been sabotaging my cooking with cayene pepper & giving me his cheeky giggle when he got caught that night & my son would be sitting next to me today. Instead he was extremely distressed & it pushed him to make an impulsive decision.

Jarrad was not planning his death. … He was desperately applying for jobs & he had an interview scheduled with the Army on the 4th of June.

I would like to express my condolences to Ms Madgwick and her family, and my condolences to all the families who have lost a loved one because of this awful program. But what has been truly shocking to me has been the reaction of the government and some of its officials. During the same hearing of the committee, a department official refused to accept that there were suicides caused by this program. This was even after being presented with the testimony of Ms Madgwick that I just quoted. Ms Madgwick is not the only grieving parent who has made this claim, so I really think it's time for the government to take seriously the parents and the loved ones of those who have taken their lives and who are saying that this program pushed them over the edge. Lives were ruined because of this program; lives were lost because of this program.

Yesterday in question time in the Senate, the government warned us about speaking about the lives lost, supposedly out of a sense of respect. But I say this: it's a damn shame it didn't have that same sense of respect when it was harassing people about debts they didn't owe. This government treated 430,000 people as cheats and debtors, and these people paid the government thousands of dollars when they didn't owe it a cent. The government didn't show Australians respect, and, instead of admitting fault, former robodebt minister Stuart Robert denied for months that the standover scheme was unfair, inaccurate or illegal. Instead, the government spent years trying to defend the program, dragged its feet on the class action for months and then finally, just on the cusp of the trial but without admitting any liability, it decided to settle. I agree with Senator Siewert when she says that is because those ministers would not want to have to stand up in a court of law and swear that what they were saying was the truth.

Minister Porter, the Attorney-General and former Minister for Social Services, still doesn't show respect when he continues to call the dodgy scheme 'legally insufficient' rather than downright illegal, which it has been shown to be. I think the government's understanding of respect seriously needs to be reconsidered. It's not showing respect to raise debt through illegal means, often for thousands of dollars, against people who are struggling to get by already. Shamefully, this program seems to have targeted particularly vulnerable people.

I would like to take a few moments just to outline a case that appeared in the media. Mr Christopher Pascoe is a 53-year-old man living with epilepsy and an intellectual disability. In July 2018 he received notice of a debt of over $15,000 from Centrelink. The department alleged there was a mismatch between the income he declared to the department, dating from 2013 to 2016, compared to what he actually earned. Mr Pascoe doesn't declare his income to Centrelink, which is a common arrangement for people who have a disability that limits their ability to handle their own finances. Mr Pascoe's mother has described the situation like this: 'It's really sort of disability bullying to me.' Centrelink subsequently admitted they made a mistake, wiping $5,000 off the debt in February 2019, before offering to waive the debt after his story was aired on the ABC show 7.30.

It shouldn't have to take going to national media to get an incorrectly raised debt wiped. This scheme has caused enormous heartache, but the government refuses to take responsibility. Under persistent questioning by Labor, in and out of the parliament, the former minister, Stuart Robert, said: 'We will not apologise,' and he spoke about the integrity of the welfare system. I'd like to remind the minister that integrity isn't illegally stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Australians. Robodebt victims need and deserve an apology from Minister Robert. We need a proper apology from the Prime Minister, who will only say that he has 'deep regret'. Seriously, that was not an apology. If an apology isn't genuine, it's not worth the breath people use to say it.

More than apologies, you need to determine what went wrong and how. The Australian people have the right to know, and deserve to know, who was actually responsible. You need to determine how it happened—that ministers either knew that the law was being broken and did nothing about it or never bothered to even find out if the law had been broken in the first place. We need to discover how we got into the situation of senior public servants authorising a scheme which was illegal. If we don't know how this disaster occurred, how can we ensure that it won't happen again?

Labor is calling for a royal commission into robodebt, and we will continue to do so, because it is the most appropriate way to investigate this absolutely disastrous policy. Royal commissions have broad powers to hold public hearings, call witnesses under oath and compel evidence. I can see why the government don't want to have one. We've seen the power of royal commissions recently with the disability royal commission and the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. In both of these cases, what we already knew was shocking but what was revealed through the proceedings of the royal commissions was even worse. It begs the question: how bad is what we don't already know about the robodebt debacle? How bad is it?

It's important to remember that robodebt was the brainchild of Mr Morrison when he was the Minister for Social Services. He was the Treasurer who announced it and, finally, he was the Prime Minister who failed to stop the implementation of his own botched policy. Now the government have to pay out $1.2 billion in refunds, debt elimination and compensation. That explains why we can't find out what the government knew and when. I really think there's a fair bit of the PM protecting his own bum going on here.

Only a royal commission can determine what really happened and who is to blame. The fact that it took the biggest class action in Australian history before the government finally started to put things right is extremely disappointing. The government knew years ago that things weren't right. They had made an enormous change to the system without thinking through the practical outcomes or the legalities. While governments have previously matched ATO data with Centrelink data, this government automated it, took out the human oversight element and moved it from 20,000 cases a year to 20,000 cases a week. It was once used as a last resort but under this government it turned into an extortion racket. The government unjustly enriched itself with $720 million that was stolen from vulnerable Australians and it did so at the cost of over $600 million—(Time expired)

5:03 pm

Photo of Amanda StokerAmanda Stoker (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I love a good novel. I love a good bit of creative writing. But this parliament is no place for creative writing. It's no place for rewriting history. It's no place for the weaving of fantasy novels in the context of parliamentary speeches. Labor would have you believe that income averaging and debt recovery had its beginnings in 2015, and the fact—

Senator Pratt interjecting

I'll take the interjection from Senator Pratt, because the very fact that she insists on perpetually yelling over me shows how much she wants to go 'la, la, la' and pretend she doesn't have to hear the truth. But these are the facts, and the Australian people have more open-mindedness than we'll get from Senator Pratt. When it comes to the issue of when debt recovery started, it's important to understand that this government did not invent income averaging. Income averaging has been a program in our Centrelink compliance system for a very long time—we actually need to go back not five years, not 10 years, but 26 years.

So, let's take a look at the evidence, but first let's put a bit of a definition around the term 'robodebt'. It's used by those opposite as a bit of a slogan to cover all manner of ills, but in the minds of Australians—the mums and dads who might be listening at home—robodebt means the use of computers to compare actual income with declared income to work out whether there are any discrepancies and to make sure the person is getting the right amount in their welfare cheque.

I've got a letter right here, sent to an Australian citizen in 1994, under the Keating Labor government, about data matching pertaining to their Newstart allowance. It says: 'If you do not reply, we will use the tax office's information about your income and we will write to you about how much money you need to pay back.' I've also got here, from 1994, a Department of Social Services example letter that was used in all cases at that time to alert citizens to the fact of ATO income matching processes going on in relation to their Centrelink accounts. These letters demonstrate that data matching, income averaging and ATO cross-checks were all commonplace under what was the last Labor government to deliver a budget surplus. It is a far cry, I would suggest, from the allegations that are made in the text of this matter of public importance.

Let's fast-forward to the next Labor government. In 2011 the Gillard government introduced an automated system of cross-matching data from two agencies. I've done the homework. I've got a couple of documents here that prove it: first, a joint press release from 2011 by the then human services minister, Ms Plibersek, and the Assistant Treasurer, Mr Shorten, announcing an automated system of income matching from the tax office and Centrelink. It sounds an awful lot like robodebt to me, but it's titled 'New data matching to recover millions in welfare dollars'. It states:

If people fail to come to an arrangement to settle their debts, the Government has a responsibility to taxpayers to recover that money.

It goes on—

Senator Pratt interjecting

to state:

The automation—

There's a key word that Senator Pratt won't like—

of this process will free up resources and result in more people being referred to the tax garnishee process, retrieving more outstanding debt on behalf of taxpayers.

Now, if that's not enough, I also have here a press release from the member for McMahon—yes, Mr Bowen—in which he boasts:

… Centrelink conducted 3.8 million payment reviews, resulting in the reduction of 641,000 payments, saving $2.27 billion using—

You guessed it: data matching—robodebt, no less. I also have, right here, an article from The Australian, a well-respected newspaper, titled: 'Labor flips on "robo-debt" system that Shorten, Plibersek pioneered'. It goes on to state, in what must be devastating words for those opposite:

Labor's leadership team of Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek pioneered the robo-debt data-matching system Centrelink is using to target current and former welfare recipients for apparently not declaring their income properly, but now they argue it should be suspended.

That's really very interesting to me, given the outrage—the confected outrage, the froth and bubble—that we get from those opposite. You'd think, from the way they're talking, that this was a recent invention. But no, that's not the case at all.

If you don't like The Australian or if you're inclined to say, 'Oh, that's just some right-wing rag; don't believe them', well, the far-left publication The Guardian decided that it met their test, too. When you're getting the same thing published in The Australian and in The Guardianthose opposite love to quote The Guardianthen I think you can feel a little bit more comfortable that we aren't mincing things up. The Guardian concedes that the automated income-matching process was designed and implemented by Mr Shorten and Ms Plibersek. The Guardian article states:

The former Labor government did introduce the process—

You wouldn't know it from what you're hearing from those opposite. In fact, even all the way up until last year, Labor was all aboard the robodebt train. When they protest now, it's just not very convincing.

Let's do another little fact check. The policy costings that Labor took to the 2019 federal election were released by the Parliamentary Budget Office. When you have a little dig through those you'll notice they haven't made any of the changes that would be needed in their costings to reflect a reversal of the policy of robodebt. In fact, Labor's social security policies—the ones they, the very team we see opposite, brought to the 2019 federal election—did not include the reversal of the policy of using robodebt. Labor's own budget plans from the 2019 federal election did not include that reversal. In fact, they banked the expected savings from the operation of the robodebt program to fund their big-spending election commitments. They stand here and tell us they had nothing to do with it. It's pretty galling, if you ask me. It's another one of those occasions where it's fair to say that hypocrisy by name is Labor. Mr Shorten couldn't defend his own tragic record on robodebt when interviewed last year by journalist Patricia Karvelas. Even she wasn't buying the line. She said:

KARVELAS: You've spoken today about how much harm this program has done. Do you regret creating it and do you regret not opposing it before the election?

… … …

SHORTEN: Labor didn't create—

KARVELAS: No, Labor did create robodebt.

SHORTEN: No, well—

KARVELAS: I know; I've watched it. It did.

SHORTEN: Patricia, this is not government propaganda hour.

KARVELAS: Yes, but you created this computer generated system, right?

And of course the truth was a little too awkward to bear. In fact social welfare activist Asher Wolf also knows Labor's hypocrisy when it comes to robodebt. She tweeted on 30 May this year, 'Shorten only jumped on board the campaign against robodebt after he lost the 2019 election.'

What can we learn from all this? We know that income averaging and the automation of data crosschecking is an intergenerational Labor scheme invented, designed and championed by two Labor governments. It's Labor who should be apologising. They should be apologising for failing to be frank with the Australian people. It's Labor who should be apologising for their short memories or their creative writing or their looseness with the truth. Or maybe they should also apologise for their list of epic fails in boats, pink batts, cash for clunkers and school halls. We can add this one— (Time expired)

5:13 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

That indeed was a very, very unfortunate contribution to this debate, because it neither accepted the hurt to 400,000 Australians that this government's robodebt has impacted on nor seemed to take the matter seriously. That contribution was an absolute disgrace, because this is, indeed, a very grave and serious matter of public importance.

For 400,000 Australians, this is a deeply personal and painful matter, because their own government effectively lied about them and stole from them. You can only accept two things: either that was their objective in the first place—they were just out there to get money back to bolster their bottom line—or they're just incompetent. It can only be one or the other. I'd be happy, and I'm sure the 400,000 people that they vilified would be happy, if they could just fess up. But what this government did with the robodebt they did with a very heavy hand, meting out pain and suffering based on flimsy and false evidence that debts were owed. It did so in a particularly galling fashion, in a very patronising way, saying to everyday Australians—pretty much like the contribution we just received—'You know you owe us money. We know best. Don't challenge us. Fess up. Cough up.' But these Australians had done nothing wrong. They didn't owe the government any money. There was no debt, only a fantasy debt dreamed up by the social services minister desperate to prove himself by preying on the weak and vulnerable, because that's the sort of thing that earns you brownie points among the Liberal Party circles of the chattering classes.

As social services minister, Scott Morrison bragged and boasted about this illegal scheme, designed with the intent of scaring, intimidating and thrashing about with a big stick. But the people on the receiving end were many hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians who had done absolutely nothing wrong. They didn't deserve this treatment. The damage to people's mental and physical health wrought by this scheme has been profound. In the state that I represent over 15,000 Tasmanians are estimated to be victims of this Prime Minister's botched, dodgy, dehumanising and, indeed, malevolent scheme. It was his scheme as social services minister. He designed it. As Treasurer, Mr Morrison was the implementer and the enforcer of this scheme. And now, as Prime Minister, he has been forced to come to the biggest settlement of any Australian government in history over this illegal scheme—a $1.2 billion settlement. What a blunder. What a backflip. What a disgrace.

Yes, this settlement—as humiliating and humbling as it must be—goes some way towards justice for everyday Australians who are victims of this illegal scheme, but the fact is they deserve so much more. They deserve more from their government. Australian governments are vested with the responsibility of protecting Australian people, securing them from harm and predatory behaviour. But in this instance it was their own government the Australian people had to fear. The victims of this illegal scheme deserve nothing less than a royal commission, because a royal commission is the only forum vested with coercive powers and broad jurisdiction that can properly investigate this blight on our nation—this fiasco of the Prime Minister's own making.

The truly extraordinary thing about this scandal is that it has followed this Prime Minister through every portfolio he has held since the coalition came to office. As social services minister, it was his baby. As Treasurer, it was meant to be his cash cow. As Prime Minister, it landed him a spot in history as the man responsible for the largest ever settlement by a government in Australian class action history. That is why he remains uninterested in getting to the bottom of this matter. He's uninterested in finding the truth, uninterested in the transparency needed to reveal just how badly this went wrong, uninterested in holding anyone to account, because the person who needs to be held to account more than any other in this sorry saga is none other than the Prime Minister himself. No wonder he hasn't held anyone to account for it.

5:18 pm

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the income compliance program. The term 'robodebt' was first used in 2016 in relation to debt raised through the online compliance intervention program. The catch-all robodebt name has been used incorrectly for all Centrelink debts, creating confusion amongst the Australian public. Labor would have you believe that they would do things differently, but in fact Labor created this computer generated system while it was in government.

Honourable Senator:

An honourable senator interjecting

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You might remember that because you probably won't see it again for a while. Anthony Albanese cannot escape that harsh truth. He is so disingenuous that, in fact, Labor's policy costings for the 2019 federal election, released by the Parliamentary Budget Office, did not include the reversal of robodebt. Labor's social security policies, which they brought to the 2019 federal election, did not include the reversal of robodebt, and Labor's own budget plan from the 2019 federal election didn't include the reversal of robodebt but banked the savings from robodebt to fund their election commitments.

In stark contrast, the Morrison government remains committed to the continued improvement of the income compliance program and the Prime Minister has apologised for any hurt or harm this program has caused. If we go back to 9 May 2019, when Bill Shorten was directly asked about the robodebt system, he said:

We want to make sure that people aren't receiving welfare to which they're not entitled to. And no one gets a leave pass on that.

The income compliance program was developed to make identifying welfare overpayments more efficient. It assisted with reviews where customers didn't respond or fully engage with requests to clarify discrepancies between income and earnings reported to Centrelink and the Australian Taxation Office. In recent times Services Australia, as part of its commitment to continuous improvement, has engaged with more than 35 organisations including advocacy groups and it has piloted the first refund process, engaged with the ombudsman's office on draft refund letters and met with the civil society advisory groups with further updates on the agency's progress in refunding customers. In fact, the Commonwealth Ombudsman, in his most recent report, commented positively on the enhanced customer experience, including improved letters and income compliance correspondence.

From July this year Services Australia commenced repayments made on debts using income averaging based on ATO data. The number of debts or debt notices raised wholly or partially using income averaging of Australian Taxation Office data is approximately 525,000. The total value of refunds, including recovery fees and/or interest charges, is estimated at $741.6 million, with 430,000 people to have their debt zeroed. Of these, approximately 378,000 people will also receive a refund and approximately 52,000 won't receive a refund as no repayment was ever made. But, with regard to refunds and the progress made to date, as at 30 November 2020, 406,889 people have had their refunds completed—that means they've been processed or their debt zeroed—with a total value of $700.7 million in refunds paid, about 95 per cent of people and 95 per cent of refunds by value.

Approximately134,050 former customers have completed the online task for a refund, with payments being processed, and approximately 23,100 people are still to be refunded or have their debt zeroed. Of these, 10,150 customers require tailored servicing by Services Australia due to their individual circumstances, such as incarceration or bankruptcy. Then there are 12,950 former customers who need to complete their refund pending task in myGov to trigger their refund. There have also been advances in simplifying income reporting, with 1.2 million income support recipients who report earnings to benefit from a simpler way of reporting their employment income. From 7 December 2020, income support recipients will find it easier to report their income by using the amount found on their payslip, rather than trying to calculate what they've earned in a fortnightly entitlement period.

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The time for the discussion has expired.