Senate debates

Tuesday, 23 November 2021


Community Affairs References Committee; Report

6:07 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the fifth interim report of the Community Affairs References Committee on Centrelink's compliance program, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee. I move:

That the Senate adopt the recommendation contained in the report, proposing an order for the production of documents.

Yes, this is the fifth interim report on Centrelink's compliance program—in particular, the impact of the federal government's automated debt collection processes upon current and past income support recipients, the program otherwise known as robodebt. We are not giving up seeking justice for people impacted by this devastating program.

I do want to start my speech in tabling this report tonight by acknowledging the important work of my predecessor as chair and Australian Greens community affairs spokesperson, Senator Rachel Siewert. There is a lot of Rachel's blood sweat and tears in this report! Rachel's passion for people was reflected in her tireless work to bring their voices into this place. It's because of that work, and that of others—the rest of the committee—that the Senate Community Affairs References Committee has refused to simply accept the government's delays and denials of the impact of robodebt, even as the Public Service has been forbidden from uttering the term 'robodebt' in Senate estimates.

At the forefront of the committee's mind has been the individuals and their families who have been affected. The committee remains committed to holding the government to account and resolving unanswered questions on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who have been affected by this scheme. Our report puts it very clearly, saying that more than 18 months after the government's announcement that debts under the scheme would be refunded, as of 28 October this year 9,200 individuals continue to wait for a refund. Moreover, eligible applicants of the class action will need to wait another 10 months before receiving their share of the settlement sum. It also noted that the settlement does not provide compensation for the psychological and financial hardship incurred by affected individuals.

More broadly, questions remain concerning what the Australian government knew about the legality of the debt recovery system. Despite persistent questions from the committee, the government has refused to provide key documents central to this inquiry. The quote from Justice Murphy in the report summarises the situation:

The proceeding has exposed a shameful chapter in the administration of the Commonwealth social security system and a massive failure of public administration. It should have been obvious to the senior public servants charged with overseeing the Robodebt system and to the responsible Minister at different points that many social security recipients do not earn a stable or constant income, and any employment they obtain may be casual, part-time, session, or intermittent and may not continue throughout the year … It should have been plain that in such circumstances the automated Robodebt system may indicate an overpayment of social security benefits when that was not in fact the case.

It is not good enough that we are still having to pursue the government over this. Too many people have suffered to simply accept the pathetic answers the Australian government has given to date. It was a step forward in June to have the Federal Court's decision to recognise that the Liberal government unlawfully raised $1.7 billion in debts against 443,000 people, but people shouldn't have to fight their own government for justice. We deserve a government that's on the side of people, not billionaires and big corporations. As my predecessor, Senator Siewert, said, 'Robodebt cost lives; it has ruined many, many more and has been the cause of immeasurable pain and anguish.' We still don't know what the government knew and when, and they are still desperate to cover it up. The government think they can get away with only refunding victims served notices after 2015.

The interim report that I am tabling this evening contains two recommendations regarding the settlement that was reached this year—firstly, that Services Australia distribute the settlement sum in accordance with the Implementation Plan for the Settlement Distribution Scheme as a matter of priority and, secondly, that following the finalisation of the implementation plan Services Australia publicly release the following data: the number of class action group members in each category; the total value of debts of the group members, broken down by category; and the average share of the settlement sum that eligible group members received.

Of course, the release of data brings me to the other fundamental issue that this report covers, and that is the issue of the government ducking and weaving and hiding information that the community, particularly those affected by robodebt, deserve to have. In our report, we say that the committee views that the government's knowledge regarding the legal basis of robodebt is a crucial element of this inquiry and the repeated refusal by the relevant ministers to provide information has limited the committee's ability to appropriately assess the operation of the income compliance program. In not releasing its legal advice about robodebt, either publicly or in camera, the government is trying to hide its cruelty to innocent people, and it's hoping that, if it refuses to share this information for long enough, we'll all forget and they won't be held to account. But we will not forget and we will not give up attempting to uncover what really went on. This program has cost the Australian government hundreds of millions of dollars and has had a devastating impact upon hundreds of thousands of individuals. The Australian public deserves answers as to how this could occur.

The committee reiterates its strong rejection of the public interest immunity claims made throughout this inquiry in relation to the executive minute and its legal advice and costs regarding the income compliance program. As part of this interim report, the committee recommends that the Senate adopt the following resolutions: 'that the we note that the Senate Community Affairs References Committee has rejected the Minister for Government Services' explanation regarding public interest immunity claims on several occasions' and 'that there be laid on the table by the Minister for Government Services, by no later than 1 pm tomorrow, revised responses relating to legal advice and the income compliance program, which have been subject to rejected claims of public interest immunity during our inquiry into the program'. We also want to see laid on the table a copy of the executive minute to the Minister for Social Services, as referenced in the Commonwealth Ombudsman's April 2017 report.

If we can't get those documents tomorrow, we need a letter confirming that the above responses relating to legal advice and the executive minute will be provided in camera to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee by no later than two o'clock tomorrow. If the minister again fails to table these documents, this motion will require the minister to attend the Senate at the conclusion of question time to provide an explanation of the minister's failure to table the documents. The hiding of information that this government has been doing during this robodebt debacle is deplorable. Australians deserve better than a government and a minister and a prime minister who think that they can just spin their way past accountability and who refuse to be honest with the Australian people. That's why the Greens have been calling for a royal commission into the robodebt affair—to get to the bottom of this. Australians deserve answers, and we deserve accountability to make sure that this does not happen again.

Fundamentally, though, the best way to make sure that such outrages don't happen again in the coming years is to get rid of the Morrison government. Australians are sick and tired of the lack of accountability. They're sick and tired of the smirks and grins from this Prime Minister because it's always somebody else's fault. It's not his fault. It's always hidden away; it's never out in the open. He doesn't hold a hose. If you're sick and tired of Scott Morrison, we're going to have to vote for change. If you're sick and tired of a government that, basically, is on the side of the billionaires and the big corporations rather than ordinary people, we are going to have to vote for change. If we want an end to this lack of accountability and an end to corruption and if we want a federal ICAC with teeth to get to the bottom of corruption that's going to take genuine action on corruption, we're going to have to vote for change. Fundamentally, as has been shown by this debacle over robodebt—this appalling ruination of people's lives—if you want a government that cares about people rather than attacking them, we're going to have to get rid of the Morrison government and vote for change.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator O'Neill, I assume you wish to speak on the same point?

6:17 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you very much, Deputy President. It is on the same matter. I also indicate that I know that there are other senators in the chamber and that there are a number of reports and that this is a time-limited debate for 60 minutes, as I understand it, so I know that people will want to make a contribution.

I'm going to make a short contribution on robodebt because I think Senator Rice has articulated very clearly the findings that are embedded in this interim report. I also want to acknowledge that we all miss Senator Siewert and her passionate energy for this. I note that this is another interim report that makes some really serious recommendations. I say again in this place, for the fifth time, this government inflicted illegal debts on its own people. Over a million people have been impacted. The government was found to have illegally raised debts and sent them out and demanded money from Australian people. They sent debt collectors to the doors of people who have never, ever in their lives had a problem with the government or the law. They reached into the homes of what they call the 'quiet Australians'; I call them the decent Australians—the ones who get up every day and do their work and look after their families and abide by the law and make a contribution to this great country. No-one was safe from Mr Morrison. As the Treasurer, he cooked this up, and he cooked it up with or without legal advice, and, either way, that is a diabolical problem for this country. It cannot be allowed to stand.

We are calling for the legal advice that gave the government comfort that it could go ahead and construct a system called robodebt that was, later on, found by the legal system to be illegal. It is not a little thing when the government acts illegally and attacks its own people, so we need to get to the bottom of it. We need to find out how such a thing could have happened and we need to prevent it from ever happening again. I gave my word to two women whose sons were so overwhelmed by being hounded for this debt by their own government that they simply lost the will to survive. And they are no longer with us. This is a sad reality for Australians, and if this speech triggers any concerns for you I encourage you to contact the public health support lines, like Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute, because those two young men didn't and they are not with us. But their mothers are fighting for recognition of what this government did to two young Australian men, and a whole lot more people. And I will not let this go.

People say: 'Robodebt—you know, that's a couple of years ago; you should get over it.' Well, I'm not going to get over it, because when you become the government there is a huge responsibility that sits on your shoulders, and that is to act in line with the Constitution and it is to act in line with the law of the land, and it is to act in a way that doesn't drive the people of the nation that you're supposed to be serving to suicide action—to despair and to brokenness and to mental ill-health—from being attacked by their own government. So I will not let this rest. I will not let this pass. And there are colleagues here with me who will continue to hold this government to account.

They can use all of the technical language that they want to diminish this, but this is a gross failure of government. It is a shame on our history. It is a blight on the parliamentary history of this country. It is no small thing. It cannot be swept under the carpet. So let's keep picking up that carpet and looking at the ugliness of what this government has advanced in its attack on the people of this country.

There are some very clear directions about what the government has to do. Show up. Provide the information. Let the Senate see what went on. Let us make sure that this never happens again. If you can't show up and put it here in public, there's an option for you to give it in camera. If you can't do that, there's more action.

But this is not going away. It is not going away. And I honour all those families and individuals who were brave enough to participate in the inquiries that we've undertaken, on their behalf, to get to the bottom of this.

Robodebt was the infliction of illegal debts by this government on the Australian people. It cannot be allowed to go misunderstood. We need to know how we got to that point. The government has a responsibility to the Senate, on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who were terribly impacted, to enable us get to the bottom of that problem. So I call on the minister: Do your job. Don't come in here with weasel words. Come in here with the documents. It's time. Cough it up. Tell the truth. I know it's not the usual pattern for this government, but it's time. The people affected by robodebt deserved so much better than they got from this government, and they are—through us, here in the Senate—calling on us to provide them with some understanding of how a government could get it so wrong and to give them the protections that they need going forward so that it can never happen again. So I endorse the report and I seek the support of the Senate.

6:23 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll just touch on the nature of the motion that's in the report, and that is to get access to legal information, legal advice. Over and over again, the government walks into this chamber and says that it's legally privileged and it would cause harm to the public if the legal advice was released. But the fact of the matter is: the Senate has never accepted legal professional privilege as a public interest immunity. This goes back through history, here in Australia, even to the New South Wales parliament, where Mr Egan, the Treasurer of New South Wales, was actually discharged—taken from the chamber. He was taken from the chamber because he failed to deliver documents under an order for production of documents. The matter then went to the High Court, in a case called Egan v Willis, where the High Court affirmed the power of the Senate to order the production of documents.

There was one matter that was left untouched by the High Court, and that was whether or not that power applied to legal privilege. That was then dealt with in a matter called Egan v Chadwick in the New South Wales Court of Appeal, the highest court in New South Wales. Three justices in that court ruled unanimously that the upper house has the ability to call on legal advice to be tabled and is entitled to do so when conducting a review of the government's processes or, indeed, of the government's actions in respect of either legislation or its executive function. So let's make it really clear that, in actual fact, the claim being advanced by the government in this instance is erroneous. Even if you argued there was harm, that doesn't prevent the information being tabled in camera. There is no legal basis for the government to deny access or to not table this legal advice.

I would encourage further thought in relation to this matter. I will be supporting the motion, and there may be the situation where the minister is called to the chamber. And, if the explanation is unsatisfactory, I suggest that maybe we go down the pathway of the New South Wales parliament and eject the responsible minister from the chamber. That's what we should do, because we've got a problem here. We have a problem here in that people outside of the Senate, and journalists, all think that it's a bit of a joke, the Senate, in terms of its orders for production of documents, in terms of the answering of questions on notice and so forth—that the whole thing is a bit of a joke. And we might think to blame the government for that, or maybe even public officials. But, I'm sorry, it's not their fault. It's the fault of the Senate. That's whose fault it is. It is the fault of the Senate and the senators in it who don't recognise their responsibility to enforce orders of the Senate and to use all necessary means to enforce those orders and allow us to do our job.

I encourage senators to go and have a read of Erskine May. Erskine May is, of course, the United Kingdom's equivalent of Odgers. It's available online, and you can even go back to the version just prior to Federation, which applies to this chamber. You can read through it. It's really interesting. You can see how the House of Commons established its privileges. You can see how the House of Commons set in place all of the things that needed to be done. There are stories in there of the Serjeant-at-Arms of the House of Commons going out to arrest someone, as ordered by the Speaker, and the serjeant-at-arms being called before two judges, and the judges putting the serjeant-at-arms in jail. Do you know what happened, Madam Deputy President? The House of Commons put the judges in jail. That's where we established that parliament was supreme. Of course, there is respect for the boundaries. There's also another case in there where an MP was arrested by some sheriffs. And the serjeant-at-arms, under orders from the Speaker, then arrested the sheriffs so that the member wasn't prevented from discharging their parliamentary functions. Over 1,000 contempt matters have been dealt with over the history of the House of Commons. They went through a whole range of processes—blood, sweat and tears—to establish the powers that are exercised by this Senate. Those are the powers that we inherited through section 49 of our Constitution. And so we are giving great disrespect to those members of the British House of Commons who, over centuries, established these powers. When we look around and we say, 'Gee, we don't like the government not fronting up with the document,' the press gallery is watching us and reporting on the fact that actually the Senate doesn't have the powers or doesn't seem to have the powers. It does have the powers. It's just the fault of senators who don't respect the way in which those powers were given to us.

I accept that you can abuse power and that that's grossly irresponsible. If you use a power in an improper way, that is grossly irresponsible. But it's also irresponsible not to use a power for proper purpose, and we should recognise that. We need to think about this. It's not like we can go to someone who sits above us and say, 'Hey, government's not playing it fair.' It's not like that at all. We have to look at ourselves to enforce the powers that were given to us earned through blood, sweat and tears, through arrests. The privileges in freedom of speech, Article 9 of the Bill of Rights, flow from kings arresting MPs and putting them in the tower and so forth. These are powers that were earned over a long period of time and are there for us to use and to use properly, and it is wrong if we don't use them properly. So I just urge that, if we get to the point where the minister refuses to provide the documents, let's look to the New South Wales parliament, let's look to Erskine May. As senators, it doesn't matter what side you are on, because it's quite important that the powers are properly exercised and not let slip. That's my suggestion. That's my contribution. Let's see what happens in this motion. If it gets up, let's see what the response is. Let's take it to the final place and exercise our powers fully; otherwise, we will just be looked upon as a joke.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Rice, are you also seeking leave to continue your remarks?

6:32 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Question agreed to.