Senate debates

Tuesday, 1 December 2020


Pensions and Benefits

7:25 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Who is going to be held accountable for robodebt? Who is going to be held accountable for the harassment, for the hounding, for the stress, for the anxiety, for the lives derailed and for the lives destroyed? Because this is robodebt's legacy. It was a scheme that caused hurt and despair. It was a scheme that caused so much misery; some people even took their own lives. Despite this record of destruction and despair, no-one has been held responsible. And you just have to ask yourself exactly what you have to do in this government to get the sack?

The impact of robodebt is all too real for some Australians. Miranda from Melbourne was in hospital receiving treatment for advanced spinal cancer when she received a $4,000 robodebt. She was unemployed and applying for disability, but Centrelink took $40 a week from her payments. Nathan from Brisbane says he lost over two years of his life to the scheme. He was served with two robodebts, totalling more than $6,000. He had to move back home and work 50 hours a week to pay it back. He says:

"I feel like I got put back a couple of years in life because of this … I would be closer to where I want to be at 31 years old if it hadn't been for robodebt."

Dimity from Adelaide was handed a $4,500 robodebt, and she knew it was wrong, but Centrelink made her prove it. They wanted pay slips from years back, which she no longer had. She was bluntly told to either pay the debt or the debt collectors would come. Nathan sums up this scheme well when he says:

"I wanted to know why those ministers felt that it was appropriate to use this illegal system and to target the most vulnerable people …

He says he wants someone to ask them:

… 'Why did you think that it was OK to take money from the poorest people without giving them a chance to argue their case?'

Nathan's question is a good one. Just how on earth did this government think it was okay? And just how on earth did the government let it go on for so long?

In 2015, there was a risk assessment that raised alarm about unleashing this program without manual oversight, but no action was taken, because nothing was going to stop Scott Morrison from unleashing this revenue-raising scheme. By the end of 2016, they were handing out 20,000 debts a week. Shortly after, the complaints started flooding in—complaint after complaint of Australians being wrongly targeted by their own government. Between 2017 and 2019, the government continued with robodebt, even though they lost hundreds of appeals and received 76 warnings from the AAT. From their first warning that the scheme was illegal, it took 1,198 days to finally suspend the scheme. They then waited a further six months to announce refunds to victims. And now they continue to dodge responsibility and accountability, despite a record-breaking settlement of $1.2 billion. So why has no-one been held accountable for robodebt and the damage that it has caused? Could it be because the Prime Minister himself is responsible? He set it up. He bragged about it. He ignored the advice. He ignored the warnings. He ignored the pain, the distress, the anxiety. And he repaid over a billion dollars to victims. But he will never accept responsibility.

This government will never voluntarily give us the truth or give victims the truth about how this illegal scheme was allowed to go on for so long. The public want answers. They want a royal commission to uncover the truth—the truth that this government is trying to hide, the truth that Scott Morrison is trying to hide—that it was his program, that he is responsible and that the buck should stop with him.

7:30 pm

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

Two weeks ago the latest results from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey, otherwise known as the HILDA survey, were released. The survey results painted a picture about the life of single parents that was devastating. Unlike other family types, who experienced a boom in household wealth, single parents witnessed a substantial decline in their median income between 2016 and 2018. Single-parent families also had a sharp increase in poverty rates, rising from 15 per cent in 2016 to 25 per cent in 2018. The researchers were surprised that such a large increase had occurred over such a short period of time. I was devastated the read the poverty rate for children in single-parent families increased from 16 per cent to 28 per cent between 2016 and 2018. There was also a steep fall in the use of formal child care by single-parent families, possibly demonstrating that single parents can't afford child care.

I want to stress tonight that these are not just statistics; they are devastating trends about the real-life impacts on single parents and their children, and these can be lifelong impacts. Many researchers have looked at the outcomes for children growing up in poverty. If poverty isn't addressed early on, children can carry the scars with them into adulthood. Children living below the poverty line are more likely to experience deprivation in their relationships with friends, yelling in the home, less enjoyment in exercise, inadequate fruit and vegetables, mental ill-health, lower school attendance and learning at home, and less involvement in extra-curricular activities like sport. Kids growing up in poverty too often go to bed hungry, feel left out and worry about their parents. We would all agree that kids growing up in Australia deserve better.

The results from the HILDA survey show the consequences of decisions by the Howard and Gillard governments when they forced single parents onto the Newstart payment as soon as their youngest child turned eight. The Howard government started it and then the Gillard government moved those grandfathered single parents on to Newstart. It is a clear indication that parenting payment single must be reinstated until the youngest child in the family turns 16. As we can see today, this political decision has condemned hundreds of thousands of children to a life of disadvantage and poor wellbeing—direct life consequences.

The government is condemning even more single-parent families to poverty by further cutting the coronavirus supplement. The original rate of the coronavirus supplement of $550 a fortnight had a transformative effect for single parents and their children. Before the pandemic, single parents were struggling to put fresh food on their tables and had to borrow money from friends or payday lenders, and some found it difficult to leave abusive relationships. The National Council of Single Mothers and their Children has since reported single parents being able to afford healthy food, being able to buy their kids an ice cream and being able to help them participate in school activities. We need to do better. Single parents, especially single mothers, in this country deserve better. We have some solutions at our fingertips. We can act now by retaining the coronavirus supplement at the higher rate of $550 a fortnight, we can immediately increase the rate of the JobSeeker payment so these families do not have to live below the poverty line and we can reinstate the single parent payment to single parents until their youngest child turns 16.

This survey result clearly demonstrates the real-life impacts of cutting payments to single-parent families. Hundreds of thousands of children are growing up in poverty. Their wellbeing has been damaged and their lives have been scarred by the fact that they've been condemned to live in poverty as a direct result of decisions taken by the Howard government and the Gillard government. Fix it before too many more children's lives are damaged by these damaging policy decisions.