SUBJECTS: Robodebt Royal Commission – Stuart Robert
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Stuart Robert admitted he made false statements in support of Robodebt because he wasn't permitted to tell the truth about the unlawfulness of it because of Cabinet protocol. Cabinet solidarity? Is that how Cabinet solidarity works?
BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES: No, not in my opinion. First of all, the Royal Commission hasn't made its final findings. We're responding to particular evidence, so I put that caveat around what I'm about to say. But, there's no book I've ever read anywhere, no doctrine, no opinion, no expert I've ever heard say that Cabinet solidarity means that you're allowed to misrepresent facts to the Australian people. Cabinet solidarity, in essence, is a doctrine which says that Cabinet ministers have an argument and talk through policies in the sanctity of Cabinet, but once a decision is made, they all have to support it. That's fine. And that's important for the how, if the government is always fighting with itself, then that's no good for the people or government. But I do not believe that the doctrine of Cabinet solidarity extends to giving permission for people, for ministers to give false statements about the lawfulness of their actions or to misrepresent facts. I think that the Royal Commissioner's statement as a general principle is unarguable, where she said that it does allow you to misrepresent things to the Australian people. As she says, Cabinet solidarity doesn't compel you to say things that you don't believe to be true. It's one thing to say to you support a policy, but you're not allowed to make up the facts.
KARVELAS: Okay, so what are the penalties for ministers in these situations? Should they face punishment? What are the consequences from this?
SHORTEN: Well, I think it's peak bizarre that you can say that Cabinet solidarity allows you to give false statements. Um, as for the consequences, this is new ground, I think, in terms of, someone just saying what they said. The Royal Commission still has to make its determination. So if listeners can hear some hesitation in my voice, I don't want to get ahead of the Royal Commission. There’s two big issues which arose out of the evidence yesterday. And I must say again. Mr Robert has said under oath his version of events. So, you know, that stands. But the two big things out of yesterday for people haven't been following this dreadful Robodebt chapter of Australian Public Administration, where hundreds of thousands of Australians had unlawful debts raised against them by the most powerful entity in Australia, the Commonwealth, and it went for four and a half years, but there's been a series of evidence from public servants - the former secretary of the department, Renee Leon, who is very respected in many in many ways, and the Acting Chief Counsel or the lawyer to the department. They both said that in their evidence they alerted Minister Robert to the potential of unlawfulness in the scheme as early as July 2019. The scheme continued on until November. In the meantime, Mr Robert to state his case, he denies that. So what we've got is a clash of facts, and the Royal Commission will have to determine that. But then we had the second sort of second issue arising out, this notion that the minister said that it was the consequence of his evidence was that the commission took the…The former Minister was saying Cabinet solidarity allows you to make false statements. And I think there'll be a lot of people questioning that -
KARVELAS: Yeah, okay. There might be questioning it, but what is the clarity? You say this is new ground. Yesterday, Roslyn Dickson, professor of law at the University of New South Wales, spoke on PM, and she says that actually Mr Robert makes largely a good point about Cabinet solidarity, that he was obligated actually by Cabinet solidarity. What do you say to that?
SHORTEN: Well, Cabinet solidarity means you've got to support a policy, but I don't think it means that you're allowed to make up facts to support the policy. I don't think if you if I can only think how I handle the same situation. Mr. Robert says he wasn't told it was unlawful, but if I was told there was a major problem and we were still issuing tens of thousands of debt notices under something which my public servants had told me was a major problem. Legally, I'd pause the programme.
KARVELAS: He says he did take action. Should he have resigned?
SHORTEN: You’re meant to resign if you don't agree with the policy and you can't support it. Mr. Robert’s evidence is that he had massive personal misgivings, but clearly not enough to make him take the action.
KARVELAS: So is that, isn’t that the recourse in our system?
SHORTEN: Well, the theory is that if you really disagree with the policies, you pack the parachute and you jump out of the cabinet plane. I'm not going to second guess his value system, if he didn't think it was enough to make him want to resign, that was his call. I think the real issue for me here and is that the royal commission hasn't yet reported, but I do not believe that Cabinet solidarity allows you to say things which you fundamentally don't believe to be true.
KARVELAS: Okay, so if the Cabinet hadn't made a determination that it wanted to dump the scheme and so he was trying to adhere with the Cabinet, what other changes might be needed in our system to deal with cases like this in the future? There's one thing to talk about the past, but you want a future proof it, right?
SHORTEN: Absolutely. That's why I and Labor called for this Royal Commission, which the Coalition didn't want. No, I think it's okay to have the principle that you argue for a policy in the Cabinet. You mightn't support it ultimately within the Cabinet, but as a group you have the argument and then you stick together. That's fine. But I've never heard of a Cabinet solidarity principle being stretched to cover a set of circumstances where you say that 99.2% of the debts being raised were fine when in fact you just don't believe that. I don't think the Cabinet solidarity requires you to lie about facts in the matter. Now, I'm not saying Mr Robert was lying, but, if you're asking me as a Cabinet Minister, I don't think anyone in our Cabinet system says that Cabinet solidarity means that you just use and assert facts which you have severe doubt to be true.
KARVELAS: But there can't be any consequences on that premise though. Where are the consequences?
SHORTEN: Oh, I think people are busy. But for those who have bothered to listen to yesterday and as it gradually filters out, I think a lot of ordinary Australians will say you're not allowed to make stuff up and under the basis of the rubric of Cabinet solidarity. Not saying that's what Mr Robert did, but I think the way it's been covered and reported, it's not good for our confidence in the Australian democracy. Ministers can say I support the policy, but they don't have to double down on facts and issues which are just not, which were not true.
KARVELAS: Do you think he's fit to be on the Opposition front bench?
SHORTEN: The Royal Commission hasn't finally decided. There's a number of public servants who've given evidence and we have to wait to see, and politicians, we have to wait at one level to see what the Royal Commission says. But at another level, Mr Dutton, does he condone this version of Cabinet solidarity?
KARVELAS: Bill Shorten you're listening to ABC Breakfast.