Minister Shorten Interview on Sky News First Edition with Peter Stefanovic


SUBJECTS: Release of Robodebt Royal Commission report

PETER STEFANOVIC, HOST: Well, hundreds of thousands of Australians caught up in the illegal Robodebt scheme will finally get answers this morning when the Royal Commission report is released. Let's go to Canberra and joining us is the NDIS and Government Services Minister Bill Shorten. Minister, good to see you. Thanks for your time this morning. Have you been given a copy of the report yet? Have you managed to lay your eyes on it?

BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES: No, it'll be provided to the Governor-General around 9:30 this morning. It should go up online around 11:00 this morning. There'll be a few hard copies for the relevant Ministers, probably just straight after 9.30, which I'll read.

STEFANOVIC: Okay. So, what would you expect or what should we be braced for to hear when that report is handed down?

SHORTEN: Well. This has been an independent Royal Commission. Commissioner Catherine Holmes has run her Commission tightly. She's shown a complete disinterest in rhetoric and verbiage and political spin. So, I expect what we will have is perhaps 900 pages of truth of recalling the evidence, pulling together how could the Commonwealth Government for four and a half years unlawfully run the system, break the law, raise debt notices against hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Australians and not listen to all the complaints and concerns for four and a half years. We've never had that satisfactory explanation and the Royal Commission has been the only way we can get to it.

STEFANOVIC: Yeah, public submissions were uploaded two days ago and those submissions in part revealed that workers knew what they were doing was wrong, but any issues that they raised fell on deaf ears. More broadly, what sort of a stain has this left, has this program left, on the government?

SHORTEN: Well, first of all, I'm now the relevant Minister for all those workers who tried to raise the issues. I spoke to one of the people who gave quite amazing evidence during the Royal Commission. Her name was Colleen Taylor. She was a very experienced Centrelink worker working at Services Australia. And she wasn't very high up in the food chain at all. She was a sort of frontline team leader operator and she tried to speak up and, and I was talking to her last night about how staff may feel, because I'm writing to all of them today. She said – I won’t put words in her mouth, but she left me with a very clear impression that she was fortunate because she was near retirement, she could speak up. But there was a culture of fear, a culture of rejection of bad news. I want to say today to Australians that the people you're dealing with on the frontline at Services Australia across our hundreds of offices or on the phones, these people are excellent. They're not the ones in the gun over this, but they were let down by incredibly poor leadership. So, the people at the front line, they're lions, but they were led by donkeys, to use an old quote. And I think there was something terribly wrong at the very highest, highest levels of government where a culture was - an unlawful scheme was brought, was given birth to, and despite the complaints and concerns, nothing happened until there was a class action court actions and now this royal commission. I mean, it shouldn't take a change of government and legal actions in our highest courts, to stop an illegal action from occurring.

STEFANOVIC: So, for those who are responsible, those at the top, should they be pursued further beyond this?

SHORTEN: Well, what will happen in the Royal Commission is that it's open to the Royal Commission to make adverse findings about individuals. It's open to the Royal Commission to make recommendations, using all the evidence to try and prevent - to not only try, but to prevent this happening again. In terms of the individuals, we'll have to wait and see if there's adverse findings. They could be referred to a range of different bodies. You know, be it legal bodies or professional associations or the Public Service Commission or other judicial authorities. It'll also depend on the nature of the severity of the adverse findings. There's a bit here, Peter, which we can't fill in until we read the report at 9.30 and 11, and the Prime Minister and I'll be standing up after that to just give an initial sort of point of view from the Government.

STEFANOVIC: Would you expect this, for instance, to be referred to the to the NACC?

SHORTEN: I don't know. That's pure - the Royal Commissioner has acted at all stages with great impartiality and independence. She has the capacity to do it if she felt that there was a matter which warranted it. We'll have to find out.

STEFANOVIC: So, I mean, I think you've probably already answered this, but you are now the Minister responsible. But how seriously will you take those recommendations?

SHORTEN: Oh, I take them absolutely seriously. It was Labor who called for the Royal Commission in Opposition. I remember that when the now Prime Minister and myself called for the Royal Commission, the then government sort of dismissed it as a stunt. Unnecessary. I remember some of the MPs when we got up in Parliament after the election and reported the establishment of the Royal Commission, they sort of would bait me across the parliamentary chamber and say nothing to see here. Well, some of them are now gone, aren't they? They were wrong. I mean, they said there was no need for the class action. That was a stunt. That turned out to be the biggest class action in Australian history. But of course, underpinning it all, for four and a half years we had a government say there were no problems with the scheme, and it amazes me when I watched some of the former Coalition Ministers give their evidence. They were very hapless. They showed a complete lack of curiosity and how the scheme was operating. I thought their evidence didn't reflect very well on their intellect or their empathy at all.

STEFANOVIC: And just a final one here, Minister. You can't help but feel for the poor victims today and their families – should this provide closure to them?

SHORTEN: I don't know. I hope it's of assistance. Different people react differently to getting a debt notice from the government. But can we just remember here that vulnerable people rely on our social services safety net? It's a human right. And what happened for four and a half years was that the people who most need help from the government were most hurt by the government. I've spoken to the mums of two young men who took their lives after getting Robodebt notices. Today, on balance, for them it's difficult. It's triggering. But for Jenny Miller and Kath Madgwick, I also get that it's the culmination of years of speaking up for their sons and nothing can bring their sons back and that's all really, they would really want. But they are deeply conscious that today is a culmination of all the gaslighting they put up with from the previous government and senior leadership of the government and for them, I believe this will be some form of vindication, albeit. It'll be much better if it had never happened at all.

STEFANOVIC: Yeah. All right, Minister Bill Shorten, appreciate your time. Thank you. We will talk to you again soon on that report to be released over the next few hours, folks.