Senate debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021


Centrelink's Compliance Program; Order for the Production of Documents

3:02 pm

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party, Minister for Government Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I table a document relating to the order for production of documents concerning the income compliance—

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to make a personal statement in relation to comments made earlier today by Senator Scarr.

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The minister was on her feet. She can continue.

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I was on my feet for ages.

Honourable senators interjecting

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The minister was on her feet. Pursuant to an order of the Senate, I saw the minister on her feet before I saw Senator Faruqi. If the minister wants to yield, she can.

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

If it may help, Mr President, Senator Reynolds is responding to an order of the Senate and attendance at the time that was so specified, so Senator Reynolds is not doing anything wrong. Mr President, I would ask, if Senator Reynolds is willing, that you grant the call to Senator Faruqi. She had requested to make a statement at the commencement of question time. Under discussions she had agreed to do so following question time, and I appreciate that cooperation.

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you for that clarification. Thank you, Senator Reynolds. Senator Faruqi, you have the call.

3:03 pm

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr President. What Senator Scarr did earlier today was a textbook exercise—

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Sorry. Was leave granted for a short statement? Two minutes has been granted.

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

What Senator Scarr did this morning was a textbook exercise in gaslighting and condescension. It should be condemned and Senator Scarr should be ashamed. At a time when far-Right extremism is on the rise, when there has been a refusal by members of this government, including the Prime Minister, to unequivocally and directly condemn the far-Right racist extremists embedded in the recent protests, Senator Scarr instead chose to directly patronise me and call my motives into question. Senator Scarr's assertions and insinuations that I and we on this side are dividing the country are absolutely contemptible. But this is what usually happens when you call out far-Right extremism and racism—as if we are the problem rather than racism and far-Right extremism itself. We need to wake up to the harm that this is causing so many who live here.

Senator Scarr's assertion that bringing emotions such as this is playing politics or constructing a straw man is equally contemptible. This is an extremely serious matter. Just because white, privileged men in here don't face abuse day in and day out, it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. Believe me, I wish I didn't have to get up here so often to talk about my community being under attack. I wish I didn't have to get up, week in and week out, and call on the government to reject racism and extremism rather than indulging in it. I wish I didn't have to talk about the abuse I face every day because of who I am. But it is the reality of my existence, and this is the reality of what is currently being normalised and, in fact, encouraged in this country. It has to be addressed. Senator Scarr should apologise for his gaslighting and condescension, and the Leader of the Government in the Senate should show leadership and make it clear that this is not acceptable.

3:05 pm

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party, Minister for Government Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I table a document relating to the order for the production of documents concerning the income compliance program.

The government does not make public interest immunity claims lightly and without careful consideration of the particular harm to the public interest. As I've previously advised the Senate, I have carefully reviewed the claim of public interest immunity, and I recognise it would not be in the public interest to disclose the information over which the claim has been reiterated in relation to the legal advice and also to the deliberations of cabinet that relate to the income compliance program.

I will again summarise the basis on which this claim was made. As noted by the Federal Court, there remain individuals whose potential claims against the Commonwealth have not been extinguished. I'll say that again: their claim has not been extinguished. This may include over 5,000 people who have opted out of the class action. Disclosing the information requested would obviously have the potential to prejudice the Commonwealth's ability to defend the claims.

The claim over information relating to legal advice has been made on two grounds: firstly, the long-held practice of claiming privilege over legal advice, and associated documents, obtained in the course of normal decision-making processes of government; and, secondly, the possible prejudice to the Commonwealth in relation to its conduct of litigation relating to the income compliance program. The claim is grounded in the importance of government being able to obtain legal advice in relation to the normal decision-making functions, without the risk of that advice or the information relating to that advice being disclosed. The availability of frank legal advice to decision-makers within government should be protected as a fundamental principle of good government. To this very point, I note that the Federal Court has previously found the advice that is a subject of this public interest immunity claim to be privileged legal advice. In fact, His Honour Justice Lee upheld the Commonwealth's claim of legal professional privilege in connection with every one of those documents subject of the challenge from Gordon Legal.

Providing a copy of, or information about, the minute requested would, or could reasonably be expected to, disclose the deliberations of cabinet. By making a public interest immunity claim in respect of the minute, the government is doing no more than standing by a well-established right to protect the public disclosure of cabinet deliberations in the same way as has been done by past successive governments, including by those opposite.

In interlocutory hearings in the class action, the Federal Court upheld claims of public interest immunity in relation to cabinet materials, including this minute. Further, as recently as 4 August this year, the Freedom of Information Division of the AAT found that this document was properly the subject of a cabinet exemption under the Freedom of Information Act.

In closing, the letter from me setting out a detailed explanation about the basis of the public interest immunity claim was provided to the chair of the Community Affairs References Committee in August. These reasons continue to apply.

3:09 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I'm sad to see that the minister has chosen to avoid scrutiny, transparency and accountability and has instead just sent another letter. That is not going to cut it. The committee did not lightly make this further request for documents. It is essential that we get to the bottom of what went on with the appalling, failed robodebt scheme that caused such damage and such harm. It is essential that the Senate sees this information. The legal advice goes to the heart of what the government knew about robodebt, what it knew about illegality and what it knew about the impact it was having on innocent Australians—this illegal robodebt, which has now been acknowledged.

I spoke yesterday, as we gave the Senate Community Affairs References Committee's fifth interim report on the robodebt debacle, about the damage it has caused so many innocent Australians. Yes, it was the fifth interim report. We are pursuing this. We are pursuing our claim and our desire to see this core information because it matters. It's important to remember why it matters. It matters because it affects people's lives. I will quote from a powerful piece on the ABC today, in which a Port Lincoln woman is calling for a royal commission into the government's unlawful robodebt bungle, in response to her brother's suicide after he repaid Centrelink payments while also experiencing financial hardship:

Jessica Webb said their mother was contacted by Centrelink this year, trying to locate Mr Webb in order to repay the Centrelink payments he made in 2017 — with the department not knowing Corey had died a few months after the repayments.

"Mum was confused, and had to go through that process to explain he'd passed away," Ms Webb said.

She said the Centrelink staff member explained that Corey had been given an illegal robodebt, and he can now be given compensation through a class action.

To Jessica Webb and her family I want to say how sorry we are to hear about your story. It is awful. It is unacceptable. It is wrong. The government must be held accountable for this. We are pursuing the government over the robodebt bungle because it matters. Ms Webb said:

"I cannot highlight it enough, it is not about money: It does not matter how much money you give us, no amount of money is going to bring my brother back," she said.

…   …   …

"Compared to some of the other significant amounts, the robodebt probably wasn't that much, but several thousand dollars when you have other debts is significant.

The government must be held accountable. Robodebt was appalling Liberal Party policy, and it has damaged people across Australia. That's why we are demanding answers. The minister's answer is not acceptable. It's just continuing, profound, callous and cruel indifference about the impact that robodebt had on innocent Australians.

Given that we are not able to get the information that the Senate deserves and the Australian public deserves, the Greens feel that, clearly, the only way to get to the bottom of robodebt is to have a royal commission. It seems as though a royal commission is the only way that we are going to ensure a full and independent review of the robodebt program and a forensic audit of the mess, because the government is refusing to cough up the information that we in the Senate should be able to see. Clearly, a royal commission is going to be the only way to get to the bottom of how it happened and to make sure it doesn't happen again.

This lack of transparency and lack of accountability must stop. Yet again this government is hiding information about its failures, denying the harm that its programs have caused, denying reality, covering up, trying to deceive and mislead the public and covering up the legacy of disaster and lies. We've seen this covering up over and over again in this government's operations, this ducking and weaving, this unwilling to be upfront, honest and straight with the truth. We saw it in sports rorts and in the car park rorts, the hiding of information about their corrupt misuse of taxpayers' funds and refusing to hand over information that we deserve to see. This must stop.

We will continue to try to get to the bottom of what went on with this robodebt debacle. But, critically, we need to kick out this callous, uncaring, dishonest government. We need a government that's going to support people, not a government that is just doing the business of billionaires and big corporations. We need a federal ICAC with teeth to get to the bottom of this deception. We need a government that cares for people and that gives people the ability to live meaningful lives. We need a government that's willing to support people, not attack them and then, after they do, try and cover it up and pretend that that awful cruelty that happened and that led to people's deaths was not their fault—because it was. We need change.

3:15 pm

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

O'NEILL () (): I've seen the movie with the repeat and repeat and repeat pattern in it—Groundhog Day, I think it's called. Sadly, that's what it's starting to feel like here in this chamber, with a government that is so profoundly committed to misleading the Australian people and to hiding the truth of their shameful behaviour that they have the gall to show up here—now for the fifth time—and say that it is not in the interests of the Australian people to know what it was that this government found out about the laws when they concocted robodebt.

It is amazing, Senator Wong! It's hard to believe that this minister could come in here and, heartlessly, cruelly and without any care, stand up and say to the Australian people: 'You don't deserve to know. It is not in your interest. It is not in the public interest to know how we stuffed this thing up so badly.' That is despite the fact that over a million people were served with illegal debts by this government and despite the fact that people suffered unbelievably, as they were being hounded by their own government and by legal debt collectors for debts that they didn't even owe. Here we are, and it is the fifth time that this government has had the gall to stand up and say: 'You don't need to know how we concocted this scheme. You don't need to know. It doesn't matter what the legal advice was; it doesn't matter if it was good or bad. It's fine; we're through this now. Turn the page. Move on.'

There are people who aren't moving on. There are people whose lives were shattered by what this government did. There were families that broke apart under the financial pressure of debts. A debt in the amount of $18,000 arrived at the door of a family that was doing the right thing. They found themselves with a letter of debt from this government—an illegal letter—informing them of a debt found to be illegal. Such letters were received by families, and they just broke apart under financial pressure. And this minister, for the fifth time, is coming in here and saying, 'You don't have a right to know about our legal advice and how we constructed this dodgy scheme that has been found to be illegal.' It is not an argument that makes any sense. It is not an argument that holds an ounce of integrity. But it is a reveal—and it's a very powerful reveal—of a secretive, deceptive government that has a mountain of mess behind it, that's trying to cover it up and that doesn't want us to pay attention.

I've made a promise to a few people about things that I'm not going to allow to be left. This is one of them. It involves personal conversations with people this government can never repay. I'm speaking about two amazing women who spoke to me in the course of this inquiry. Their names are Kath Madgwick and Jennifer Miller. Each of them, in separate reports, reported to the newspapers that their sons—Jarrad Madgwick, who only reached the age of 22 years, and Rhys Cauzzo, who reached the ripe old age of 28 years—were so overcome by the pursuit of a false and illegal debt pushed on them by their government that they could not see a way out of it. They could not see a way forward. And those two mothers grieve their sons because their government impacts on people's lives. This isn't a game! This isn't a debating society where we come in and pretend. What we do here has real and powerful impacts on the lives of people—and, sadly, on the deaths of people.

Shamefully, this government constructed the robodebt scheme. With his hands in the Treasury, Mr Morrison decided that this was a great little scheme that he could cook up where he could get back money from the Australian people. Then he would be able to go out and make an announcement—Mr Announcement!—and say that he had saved this much money. In doing so, he chased the Australian people down illegally. This claim from the government that a public interest immunity should apply to this piece of information, the information we requested, simply cannot be allowed to stand. I alert all those senators from the government who are in here and anyone who is listening that the Senate has made its wishes clear on four occasions already. It says that it rejects the government's PII claim; it said, 'You do not have sufficient evidence and sufficient justification to avoid coming clean.'

I just want to read out a little of what happened to these people. It's from the evidence received from Victoria Legal Aid. Ms McRae said: 'I acknowledge at the outset that I'm on the land of the Wiradjuri people and I'll put on the record this comment from Letecia':

Robodebt feels like a bullying system that affects people who are the most vulnerable.

A lot of people don't know their rights or have the capacity to defend themselves when given an incorrect debt. I don't think it's right that Centrelink comes after people for debts without being sure that they owe money, especially when it's people who are in need of support who go to Centrelink in the first place.

That's the voice of people who are caught up in this.

We have pages and pages of evidence. There is evidence from teachers: a semiretired teacher who took up a bit of casual work and never, ever had any problems with the law or with government. He had never been on welfare, but he was hounded for his illegal debt, which the government actually had to undo in the end, for three years. People talk about the shame that they felt when this letter arrived. They should have the right to believe that their government would never do this to them.

So while the government makes haste to move on and while the government continues to come in here, ignore the will of the Senate and refuse to reveal the documents upon which Mr Morrison concocted this scheme, it continues to insult every Australian, to whom it should be apologising. If this government had any conscience at all it would be stepping forward and saying: 'This is where we got it wrong. This was the legal advice we had. This is what went wrong and it doesn't match with what we've found out. This must never happen again.' But that's not what we're going to hear from a government which feels it's entitled to rule, no matter how badly it does the job. And you can't get much worse than raising an illegal debt against your own people and driving people over the edge. Robodebt isn't a thing to forget, robodebt is a thing to remember. The advice that the government received—or, perhaps, even worse than that, if there was no advice and it didn't receive proper advice—needs to become known so that the mistake that was made by this government is never, ever made again.

We've had this level of refusal to respond to questions at every stage of our inquiry. In hearings, we've asked for facts, we've asked for evidence and we've asked for information, and, once the government initiated its first public interest immunity claim, it has just continued to roll out the same claim over and over again. Amongst my papers here, I actually have the latest letter that has just come in from the minister. It's not dated—because they just photocopy the same letter every time they receive a request. It's contemptuous. It's a contemptuous response to a genuine request from the Senate, on not one occasion now but five! The minister's public interest immunity claim—and, sadly, we're getting a few of these from people—is one of the worst ones that I've ever seen. It smacks of self-indulgence and a refusal to take seriously this action by the Senate to get to the bottom of this matter. And, I can say, I will not allow this to rest, because too many Australians got done over by Mr Morrison and his scam plan. We will not allow that to go uncritiqued and misunderstood. We need to know what went wrong. We will pursue this. (Time expired)

3:25 pm

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

I also rise to take note of Minister Reynolds's statement. This government is at it again, refusing to be transparent, refusing to own up to its own decisions, avoiding requests of this chamber—and I see the minister is leaving the chamber now—and avoiding accountability, including accountability for their illegal robodebt scheme, a scheme that caused hurt and despair, a scheme that caused so much misery that some people, tragically, took their own lives.

I remember the story of Miranda from Melbourne, who was in hospital receiving treatment for advanced spinal cancer when she received a $4,000 robodebt notice. She was unemployed and applying for disability allowance, but Centrelink still took $40 a week from her payments—when she was literally on her back in hospital. I also remember Nathan's story. 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 back those debts. I remember his words, and his words are relevant to this discussion today. He said: '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 wanted to ask this government: 'Why did you think it was okay? Why did you think it was okay to take money from the poorest people without giving them the chance to argue their case?'

Years later, here we are. We are still asking the same question: why did this government think it was okay? That is what the Senate is asking this minister today, and Australians, including all the victims of robodebt, deserve an answer. They deserve a real answer from this government. It is completely unbelievable that this question is still being asked. This robodebt scheme, this tragic scheme, is still being covered up by this government, and we still can't get the answers that people deserve. Despite the record of destruction and despair caused by this government's scheme, still today no-one has been held accountable—no-one—especially not the Prime Minister, who of course, as we all know, is the original architect of the robodebt scheme, a scheme that hounded and harassed some of our most vulnerable Australians.

This is the same Prime Minister who turned a blind eye to Australia's largest companies getting billions of dollars in JobKeeper despite making rising profits—that is $20 billion to companies that had rising profits during a global pandemic. Did Prime Minister Morrison or this government hound and harass them to pay back the money? Did they force these companies to deal with the same stress and the same anxiety that they forced on those vulnerable victims of the robodebt scheme? Of course they didn't—because the Morrison government have a blatant double standard. They aren't on the side of everyday Australians. They aren't on the side of vulnerable Australians. They are on the side of keeping their own jobs, not looking after the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable Australians.

Despite being the architect of this scheme, the Prime Minister is today saying that the role of government, apparently, is to get out of people's lives. Well, it's a bit too late for the victims of the illegal robodebt scheme. Get out of people's lives, he reckons. Can you believe it? It is hard to believe the Prime Minister when he says this, after hounding and harassing people with this illegal scheme. The architect of robodebt wants to see government out of people's lives—unless, of course, you are poor. This government are not on the side of everyday Australians; they are only on their own side, the side that avoids transparency, the side that avoids accountability, the side that avoids delivering answers to this chamber, properly requested. Australians cannot trust this Prime Minister or this government. They can't trust them to tell the truth, they can't trust them to take responsibility and they can't trust them to be on their side.

3:31 pm

Photo of Nita GreenNita Green (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I rise to speak on this very important PII claim and the minister's rejection of the request by the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs to table documents about robodebt, the scheme that harassed everyday Australians for debts that they did not owe. I want to speak briefly about these PII claims and about how they're being used to shield not only this minister but also other members of the government from accountability, from scrutiny, from transparency and from telling the truth to the Australian public.

What we know about robodebt is very dark indeed; it is a very dark stain on government accountability and transparency. Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, has been out there over the last couple of days and weeks talking focus group lines about the government needing to get out of people's lives. Every time the Prime Minister said that focus group line this week—that the government needs to get out of people's lives—it brought us all the way back to robodebt, didn't it? Because we know that Scott Morrison was the social services minister, the architect of this scheme. We know that he was the Treasurer who was planning on banking the savings from this scheme. We know that, as Prime Minister, he has instructed ministers to continue to hide the details that would give so much understanding and accountability for this scheme to the Australian public. At every step of the way, as social services minister, as Treasurer and now as Prime Minister, he has evaded the truth when it comes to the robodebt scheme.

The robodebt scheme was a scheme whereby everyday Australians were sent a letter demanding payment for a debt that they did not owe. We've heard harrowing stories, as my colleagues in the Senate today have detailed, of the effects of receiving a letter like that. I can only speak from my own experience, living in North Queensland. In the aftermath of the Townsville floods that had destroyed the city, people living in Townsville received these robodebt letters. It is a stain on our democracy that this happened at a time when the government knew that this scheme was illegal. That is why we are asking for these documents today, because we need to understand what the government knew. We need to understand what advice and information they were given and how they took that advice into their considerations when deciding to continue the scheme. When it comes to the most vulnerable Australians, this government has a legacy of leaving them on their own. But it gets even worse. The legacy has now become one of taking active steps to grind vulnerable Australians into the ground; that's exactly what this scheme did. It's exactly what the cashless debit card is doing right now. It is exactly what this government will continue to do, unless we know the truth about this scheme.

The PII claims, as the government has claimed, do seek information about legal advice, but some of the information the committee is seeking from Services Australia doesn't relate to the content of that advice. The government is refusing—the minister today is refusing, again—to provide information that relates to when the advice was sought. We can't even get a date from this minister. We don't know who provided that advice, and we're not able to understand the nature of that advice or how it was taken into consideration by the executive at the time.

These are questions that need to be answered, and there is a question about whether the Senate is continually being ignored by this government. The Senate has made a decision that this information needs to be public. The Senate has decided that this information is crucial for the public to understand, and the Senate has decided that the minister has continued to not make out a public interest claim, to not sufficiently explain the harm to the public of having this information released and to not sufficiently explain how general information about when advice was sought—nothing more than a date—would harm the public. That is what the Senate has decided. Again, today, we've had the minister refusing to deliver documents and information as requested by the Senate.

It goes to show that this is a government that will do anything to avoid accountability, to avoid transparency. In a situation where the government has done something so awful to its own people, something so awful that it has meant people have been affected mentally and physically—there are stories of people having taken their own lives because of this action—something so extreme and damaging, the response needs to have utmost transparency.

The degree to which this action was taken and the effect it had means that every effort the government makes in dealing with the aftermath of this situation should be to open up the books and let us see what they knew and when they knew it. The effects of this scheme and the extreme nature of the impacts of the robodebt scheme should, in itself, tell the minister and tell the Prime Minister that this is something they need to fess up to, that they need to make sure that every single piece of information is on the public record—now. They need to make that information available to people. That's exactly why the Senate has continually rejected these PII claims.

I want to bring us back to what the Prime Minister has been saying over the last couple of weeks. He has been saying that government should get out of people's lives. When he says that, what he really means is that we should not be asking this government questions about accountability and transparency, that there shouldn't be a two-way street, that when the government asks you to pay a debt you didn't owe you don't have the same right to ask the government for all the information they knew when they asked you to pay that debt. This is a government that has placed people on a cashless debit card and told them how to spend their own money. This is a government that continually tries to tell people what to do with their own lives. Yet when it comes to what the government is prepared to do, it will not listen to the public. They will not listen to people who have been hurt and harmed by this scheme. And today they are refusing to listen to the Senate, once again.

Well, I think that they should have more respect for the Senate, for the Australian people and for the victims of this scheme, because, if they had respect for the victims, the minister would be marching in here right now and tabling those documents—tabling every piece of information available, publicly, so that we understand, finally and completely, what they knew and when they knew it. The reason that she is refusing to do that today is that Scott Morrison was the architect of this scheme, and we know that, if we have those documents tabled, we will find out that he was up to his eyeballs in this—up to his eyeballs in a scheme that destroyed people's lives.

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

Thank you, Senator Green, and I do remind you to refer to those in the other place by their correct title.

3:40 pm

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Really, this is such a cynical exercise. When one looks at the PII claim, one can see that this is really just a letter that has done the rounds, in fact, for years. So it doesn't just rest with this minister, whose concern for people on robodebt and the NDIS is about as sincere as the crocodile tears we have witnessed her cry in this chamber.

Going to the legal advice: one might think that they could have actually mentioned in this letter from Senator Reynolds that they're actually a model litigant. Now, these words will be really quite unfamiliar to Senator Reynolds, because she wouldn't know what a model of anything was. But they are a model litigant, and, as a model litigant, you can't just give a blanket statement in relation to the concerns that the Senate has raised.

Remember: this is taxpayers' money. We all pay—everyone out there pays; people who require assistance, in some cases, pay. This is taxpayers' money, and she has the temerity to say in this letter that: 'We can't possibly release anything at all.' Without actually looking at the request that the Senate has made, she's just given a blanket statement—a blanket denial. Remember: when this letter was written, the government was no longer facing legal action. There is no longer any court action. So, in relation to the legal advice being sought and the date, that would say that she can actually give some of that. So she could actually have a proper look at the request from the Senate. She could actually do that. I know that it might strain her—I was going to say 'two brain cells', but I'll say '1.5'. She could actually look at it and distinguish those which can be answered very easily, including the date. But, again, the date when the advice was sought is of course another cynical exercise, and the reason it is cynical is that the request for the date might actually reveal that the government received direct legal advice and that they knew the scheme was rotten.

The secretary, Ms Campbell, when she was the secretary in the relevant department—she's now gone to foreign affairs—said: 'We've talked about the fact that it was legally insufficient.' 'Legally insufficient' is a bit mealy-mouthed, but that's so much better than the minister! In our system it's the minister who is responsible, for the very good reason that, if the public does not agree with the government, they can vote them out. That is the reason that the minister is responsible, and she should start to act like it. So Ms Campbell says:

We've talked about the fact that it was legally insufficient. We have apologised for the hurt to the people on whom the debt was raised. I too apologise to staff—

because staff were very upset, as you can imagine, if they were taking phone calls, and I'll read out one of these instances:

The Robodebt has had a huge impact on fellow co-workers and myself. To read the stories of suicides and customers' distress in the news made a lot of us feel sick. I have had nights where I could not sleep thinking about conversations, I have had with customers regarding their Robodebts. Some have talked about suicide on the call. To hear a grown man crying on the phone, whose wife had died recently, and he is the carer for his young children, is heartbreaking.

What a terrible instance this is, and not only for the people who were being victimised by this scheme because they were receiving false robodebt notices. Imagine having that and knowing what the staff are going through, and still continuing with it, not actually thinking that maybe there was something rotten in the state of Denmark! But, of course, no, because we've got this minister.

Ms Campbell also said:

We've talked about the fact that it was legally insufficient—

And I hope Minister Reynolds is listening to this, because she might learn something: that her own department can be more generous about this than she would ever dream of being. Ms Campbell went on to say:

We have apologised for the hurt to the people on whom the debt was raised. I too apologise to staff, but I would note that this had been going for some time. For the staff to say, as they describe it in this letter, that robodebt was something new, unfortunately, is just not true. Staff in the agency have to deal with very difficult circumstances on many occasions.

Now, the other question, and the reason for the date when the legal advice was sought, is that of course not only might it show that the government received advice and knew that the scheme was rotten, but also it raises the possibility that the government sought no advice at all. It would be interesting to know. So—funnily enough—the Senate asked the minister who is responsible for providing answers. But she's just given this blanket statement of, 'No, you're not getting anything.' But it's taxpayers' money, and taxpayers have a right to know that their money is being spent appropriately.

Let's go to someone who might know something about the law, as opposed to the minister:

Under questioning by Labor senator Deborah O’Neill, the Gordon Legal partner Andrew Grech told a Senate inquiry on Thursday there was no reason the government couldn’t answer the committee’s questions—

I'm reading from a media report in the Guardian by Luke Henriques-Gomes—

The class-action settlement has been approved by the court, with Gordon Legal and Services Australia now working to identify and process interest payments to victims.

"It would be impossible to see how the commonwealth could legitimately sustain a claim," Grech said. "Whilst technically those proceedings are still on foot [due to the settlement scheme] it's not as if the parties can go back to court and re-litigate the issues."

So, instead of the minister paying attention to a Senate inquiry and the evidence before it, she's just issued this blanket letter saying she's not going to answer anything. It's absolute contempt. But really, what else do we expect from this minister? It is just ridiculous that she's in that cabinet. She's a terrible person.

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

Senator Kitching, I would ask you to—

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll withdraw the 'She's a terrible person,' yes.

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

Senator Kitching, without any comment.

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I withdraw.

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

Thank you.

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

The second ground she's claiming—disclosure of the deliberations of cabinet—is I think a pretty distant claim. She says she can't do it because there might be a claim in relation to any request. It would be really useful if the minister could have a look at ministerial duty in our system of democracy. I don't want to overburden her, but she might like to look at the Constitution and read a few constitutional law cases. As I said, I don't want to overburden her, because that would be far, far too much for her. But she should go and look at that and understand that in fact there is a duty of transparency and disclosure to the people who are voting for the government. That is an absolute basic fact in our democracy, yet it seems that the minister is unable to understand or pay any respect to that. So really, she should have another look at the questions that have been asked, She should take her letter and read it properly, because she probably hasn't done that; someone else has probably written it for her. And she should actually understand that she has a duty. But, you know, I'm not going to hold my breath.

Photo of Jonathon DuniamJonathon Duniam (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Forestry and Fisheries) Share this | | Hansard source

Having served on the community affairs committee that examined one of the iterations of the issue we're discussing here, I accept very much that this is a very sensitive issue. I just would ask you, Madam Deputy President, to ask those who made contributions to this debate perhaps to draw a line between a minister's professional conduct and personal reflections, be they mental capacity or otherwise, perhaps to temper their remarks and, where they've gone beyond what is reasonably expected of a senator in this place, perhaps to withdraw comments such as those around brain cells et cetera.

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

Thank you, Senator Duniam. Senator Kitching.

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Given that Senator Duniam is so reasonable, I'll withdraw the comments about mental capacity, but the reason I'm so upset about this is that, remember, there are people who have killed themselves, as Corey Webb did—

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

Senator Kitching, when you withdraw you simply withdraw the comment that has been made. If you could just withdraw and not make any comment, I would appreciate that. Thank you.

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll withdraw.

Question agreed to.