Tuesday, 24 August 2021
Pensions and Benefits; Order for the Production of Documents
That the Senate take note of the document.
Minister Stoker just tabled a response to the resolution of the fourth interim report of the Community Affairs References Committee into the robodebt debacle, which is apparently called the Income Compliance Program. Unfortunately, I'm not surprised at the government's response. The documents that the committee sought have not been tabled. This is the fourth interim report on this matter. The government has made repeated claims of public interest immunity. While I'm not surprised that we got basically the same response—there has been a bit of cutting and pasting going on; it's the same response but a different minister—I find it shocking that this government continues to claim public interest immunity over this matter.
Previously they said, 'There's a class action going on and it may prejudice or influence the class action.' Well, I've got to say that even with that excuse—it wasn't quite as paraphrased as that; I'm paraphrasing—which the committee rejected, the community has a right to know. We are asking fairly simple questions, I think. Did the government seek legal advice? Did they seek legal advice about a program that has impacted on so many Australians? They actually want to know. Did the government ask the simple question? Did they check? Did they ask, 'Is it actually legal to do what we want to do? Is it legal to send out hundreds and hundreds of thousands of letters to Australians, some still on income support and some not any more?' When there was no response, because people move after five to seven years, they were sicking debt collectors on people in a very distressing manner. I've spoken to many of those people who did actually receive pressure and visits by debt collectors. We also heard evidence in the previous inquiry into the robodebt debacle.
But here we have the government yet again claiming the same old, same old. The grounds on which they've claimed privilege is that they don't generally release legal advice. They claim legal privilege as a ground to refuse to provide information. The committee rejected that. We as a committee have rejected it time and time again. As it states in Odgers' Australian Senate Practice, it has never been accepted in the Senate nor in any comparable representative assembly that legal professional privilege provides grounds for refusal to provide information in a parliamentary forum.
The minister also claims that there might be ongoing cases, although the current class action is effectively resolved. We heard about that in the Senate committee hearing we had on 19 August. There are still some matters around disbursement of funds, but the government's talking about any future cases. The government is talking about any future claims that people might bring, because not everybody who was damaged by this debacle was part of the class action. The government is using the excuse, 'There may be others, so we are not going to release this legal advice.'
Let's cut through all the legal issues. I will come to what Mr Grech, a lawyer for Gordon Legal who ran the class action on behalf of all those claimants, said to us in a Senate committee in a minute. But when you cut through all the legal mumbo jumbo that a lot of people will see it as, especially those that were affected by robodebt, quite simply the government won't provide the Senate committee or, in fact, this place—because it is a resolution of this place—answers to simple questions like, 'Did you seek advice?' or, 'When did you seek advice?' Why won't the government say? A lot of people would say it's very obvious why they won't say—because they don't want to be caught out because either they didn't look or they didn't even think to think whether it was actually legal under the Social Security Act. Did they not think about it? Or did they check and go ahead anyway? When they found they may be in deep trouble, did they then seek legal advice? When did they seek legal advice? What was the nature of that legal advice?
There's quite clearly evidence here that the government, through their very nature of not wanting to provide this advice, ha ve something to hide.
The same happens when we ask about the findings of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. When you got their findings, did you actually talk to the department about it? Did the department take any action about it? Did they inform the ministers? What action did they take? Because if they'd actually looked at what was happening in the AAT, they would have known there was a problem. These are the sorts of things that this government continues to try to cover up by continuing to claim public interest immunity.
One of the excuses—because it is an excuse—that the minister uses is that the claims of public interest immunity were accepted by the court. When we asked about that in the Senate hearings, Mr Grech from Gordon Legal said they were and that there were some things he couldn't tell us. Yes, there were some claims , but there was a lot knocked out. One of the other documents we're tryi ng to get—the ombudsman got it— the government still won't release . That also points to what the government did or didn't know when, and what they did about it. The government won't release that. The government can't hide behind the claim that the court upheld public interest immunity. Mr Grech told the committee that some documents were un available, but a lot of the claims were knocked out. We don't know what those documents were , b ut the government should tell us what they were . They should come clean and tell the people who were damaged and harmed by this illegal program that went on for years . The government should come cle an and present those documents.
I see it as an insult to this place that the government continues to ignore resolutions of this chamber. It continues to ignore requests for this information by the Community Affairs References Committee. We will keep on asking these questions. We will keep on pursuing this because Australians have a right to know. All those people damaged by this illegal program have a right to know. Don't think that Australians or this chamber will accept you churning out the same copy -and- paste letter. The government doesn't want to tell the community what really happened. That's why we need a royal commission so that we can get to the bottom of this issue. There are so many unanswered questions.
I'm really pleased that the money the government illegally claimed has been paid back, but so many people have been damaged. It doesn't provide compensation for the years of deep distress for the people who were affected and their families . Some people found it all too hard. I give a trigger warning here : w e know that this program did contribute to people taking their lives. I'm not going to back away from saying that. Members of the committee , and I'm sure other members of this chamber , have spoken to families who've lost loved ones. Australians demand more. (Time expired)
I want to endorse the comments from my colleague Senator Siewert , here in the Senate , with regard to the important evidence we received in the most recent hearing on the 19th. But , to be clear for anybody who's listening to this: buried in the thousands of words that will cover the conversations and contributions here in the Senate is one small section on page 3,936 that talks about, in italics, ' income compliance program—order for the production of documents ' . When you read that, if you're not used to reading this sort of language, what that means is 'robodebt government cover-up providing documents and failing to do so'. That's what that really means. That's a translation into ordinary speak. This is a cover-up of a scheme, known as robodebt, that was described by one of the witnesses the other day as a 'shakedown'. If you don't know what a 'shakedown' is, the Urban Dictionary provides a pretty good definition of it as the abuse of power. That's exactly what we heard.
To be clear, what we asked for was that, by today, this chamber would receive documents from the Minister for Government Services that would give us responses to all the questions that we have put on notice through the committee—and we have had the support of the Senate in rejecting previous PII claims—and everything relating to legal advice about the robodebt, which has been subject to claims of public interest immunity during the Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into Centrelink. We also asked for a copy of the executive minute to the social services minister from 12 February 2015 and a letter confirming that the above responses relating to the legal advice to the executive minute would be provided. We even said we'd do that in camera, which means we'd go behind closed doors, get the truth on the record and see what was going on. None of that has been accepted. Instead of the minister coming in with a great big load of truth and documents, we got a three-page letter which is, as Senator Siewert said, basically a cut-and-paste of the previous four letters they sent to us. This action is contemptuous of the Senate and it's a rejection of this PII claim on multiple occasions.
The government keeps going: 'We'll wear the Senate down. We'll just tell them to get stuffed.' That's really the attitude: 'You can take your questions and walk out the door. We're just going to show up, baldly and boldly, and say, "No, we're not going to show you or give you anything."' This attitude is despite the fact that the government was found to have illegally raised debts against its own citizens. That has been said in the findings of a court. Despite that, this government says, 'Move on—nothing to see here.' Actually, a big accident happened. Everybody knows it was called robodebt and that the damage from robodebt is littered in families right across the country.
I want to put on the record a short excerpt from a committee hearing of the exchange that I had with two great Australians, Mr and Mrs Mundy:
Senator O'NEILL: … you sound like you're hardworking, ordinary Australians who just go along doing your business, abiding by the law and caring about your families.
Mrs Mundy: We do.
Senator O'NEILL: Is that a pretty fair assessment?
Mrs Mundy: A pretty fair assessment. Never been in trouble, worked hard all our life, brought up four children … and done the right thing by everyone.
I acknowledged that comment because the government's created this narrative that people who were attacked by robodebt were dodgy. They were the dodgy Australians who wanted to rip off taxpayers. No, these are the people who were attacked by their own government. Mr and Mrs Mundy are ordinary, hardworking Australians who've done nothing wrong, who've never had a problem with the government or the law in their lives. The exchange continued:
Senator O'NEILL: You've made a pretty significant contribution, as well, to public education—
because Mr Mundy was a teacher.
I don't know what schools you've been teaching in, but it sounds like you've been pretty good contributors to the community over the course of your lives.
Mrs Mundy: We have.
Senator O'NEILL: What was it like, then, to find yourself engaged in—is this the first time that you've ever found yourselves in conflict with your own government?
Mrs Mundy: Yes.
Mr Mundy: Yes.
… … …
Mrs Mundy: It's been horrific. We've had sleepless nights. We honestly felt like second-class citizens when we had to attend the tribunal. The woman that spoke to us treat us like idiots. Every time we went to try to speak, we were asked to be silent. It was something of a nightmare. Centrelink—the same thing. We've been cut off. You put in complaints, you don't get answers. You think you've solved the problem and then it might go one month or two months and then the same thing happens. It's almost like because you complain they harass you, you know? Neither of us ever experienced anything like this in our life. It's just the principle of the whole thing. I just feel like if we let it go, what happens to someone else who can't stand up for themselves?
That was said by a typical person who was attacked by this government and who was served a robodebt. The damage! I acknowledge Senator Siewert's sensitivity in saying a trigger warning, but I've spoken in this place about two amazing mothers who spoke to me on the phone and described the life experience of their sons before they felt they just couldn't go on, and sadly, very sadly, they took their own lives. If anyone is in a desperate situation, I urge you to seek support. But that is the level of harassment, sicking the dogs on its own people, that the government went down with. They concocted it. And the mastermind of it, the Treasurer at the time, Mr Morrison, now the Prime Minister, presided over this abuse of government and the intimidation, the shakedown of the Australian people—hundreds and hundreds of thousands of our fellow Australians. Mr Morrison was on watch as the Prime Minister and kept it going. He kept it going! No wonder they don't want us to see the documents, because this was cooked up really, really badly. The impact has been devastating.
It got to a point where the people actually got together and they got to a court, and the court ruled against the Australian government. The government have had to pay $1.8 billion back to Australians, but that will never compensate for the damage and the suffering that they've had. Yet this government continues to say: 'No, you don't get a hold of these documents. Governments never give over evidence. They never give over legal advice.' That is a lie. Even Christian Porter was actually able to release legal advice on the eligibility of Minister Dutton under section 44(v) of the Constitution dated 24 August 2018. Back in 2011, Prime Minister Julia Gillard advised the House of Representatives that she had made available to the Leader of the Opposition, then Mr Tony Abbott, the advice of the Solicitor-General on asylum seekers and offshore processing. There is precedent after precedent in Odgers, which is the guide to what should happen in this place, if the government were only willing to follow some of it. There's precedent after precedent about legal advice being provided. This government continues to say that there's no way it can release this, as Senator Siewert said, because there might be somebody else who wants to put up another claim. I tell you why they need to release it, because they did such a bad job in the design of this scheme. So badly were they advised by legal practitioners or so callous were they in their ignorance of advice by legal practitioners that they concocted an illegal scheme against their own people.
Mr Grech gave us very, very important information about the settlement of that case and what it means: once the case was settled, there can be no continuing claim that it's against the public interest to provide this information. Mr Grech, who is a partner at Gordon Legal, said this:
… the issues which are extent now—that are still alive now—really relate only to the settlement and the mechanism for settlement. The issues can't be relitigated in these proceedings; the settlement's been approved. So as you were pointing out, it's hard to see, in fact impossible to see, how the Commonwealth could legitimately sustain a claim with the fact that, whilst technically those proceedings are still on foot, in the sense that they have not yet been discontinued, because the court has to play this supervisory role. That supervisory role relates to the settlement scheme. It's not as though the parties can go back to court and relitigate the issues and that somehow the Commonwealth could be embarrassed or prejudiced by documents that it provides to you finding their way into those court proceedings.
So, with all the legal gobbledygook in the world, you can't undo the shakedown that happened. With all the legal gobbledegook in the world, you can't take away the fact that Australians deserve access to the truth. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.