Minister Shorten Interview on ABC RN Breakfast


SUBJECTS: Robodebt Royal Commission report to be handed down today; NDIS participant numbers, ADHD diagnoses

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: For hundreds of thousands of Australians, today's report from the Royal Commission into the Robodebt debacle might offer some consolation. We'll find out who was responsible and what went so wrong. But it's what the Government does next that will likely make a real difference. Already, existing Robodebts have been waived and private debt collectors axed, but some people who repaid supposed debts are still waiting for the Government to return the money to them. And that's eight years on. Bill Shorten is the Minister for Government Services and the NDIS and our guest this morning, Bill Shorten. Welcome.


KARVELAS: The Royal Commission requested a week-long extension to hand down its report. What was the reason for the extension?

SHORTEN: Justice Catherine Holmes asked the Government for a seven-day extension into July, in the event that she may choose to refer individuals to the National Anti-Corruption Commission. I don't know if she has or hasn't, but I just think she wanted, she was mulling over her options and wanted to make sure that there were no impediments, and the National Anti-Corruption Commission was established on the 1st of July this year as part of Labor keeping its promise from opposition.

KARVELAS: So, was there any formal communication about the NACC element?

SHORTEN: There was a letter requesting an extension of time for seven days.

KARVELAS: But not mentioning NACC?

SHORTEN: There was a reference to - I can't remember the exact words of the letter, but there was clearly a reference to one reason being that the National Anti-Corruption Commission was being established on the 1st of July. To that effect, it was clear, the meaning was clear. But from that I wouldn't automatically assume there will be a reference. We will find out very soon.

KARVELAS: Okay. Why hasn't all the money recovered under the scheme been repaid to people? What's the hold up?

SHORTEN: I think most of it has been, I'll be honest. I was very involved in the when we were in opposition in helping organize the class action. And today I think of those plaintiffs who stuck their head up to be part of triggering the class action. The Federal Court handed down a decision that the scheme was - they published a decision where the government lawyers finally conceded the scheme was unlawful. Part of the settlement was that a total of $1.7 billion, some of that money was debts which had been raised but never collected. They were all written off. Then there was other money to be repaid. I understood most of that had been repaid. Then there was a further component of $112 million on top of the $1.7 billion in unlawfully raised debts, which was for interest and penalty. I understand most of that has been paid to people. I'll check if there's anyone still outstanding. But certainly, that's one of the things I addressed when I became the Minister. I said, let's get our skates on and pay people what they're owed.

KARVELAS: Have you been in contact with families who've been directly affected in the lead up to today's release?

SHORTEN: Yes, I have, as a matter of fact. At the at the heart of this story today is the fact that real people were unlawfully, had debt notices unlawfully raised against them by the most powerful institution in Australia, the Commonwealth Government. Different people reacted differently. Some paid up, some didn't have the money. Some had to negotiate repayment plans. For others, they were petrified that they would have a debt finding against them so they couldn't become admitted to certain professions and occupations. Some people, though, were very vulnerable already and receiving the debt notice had a major triggering, was a major triggering event in their lives. Now, two of these people, after receiving Robodebt notices, subsequently took their own lives that I'm aware of. There are reports of others, but both Jenny Miller's son, Rhys Cauzzo and Kath Madgwick's son, Jarrad, according to their mums, took their lives after receiving these Robodebt notices, pretty soon afterwards. These mums believed that the Robodebt notices accelerated the self-harm. So, I've spoken to both mums in the past. I've messaged Jenny and spoken to her by text, and I've spoken to Kath yesterday. Today is not the day they want. What they really want is their sons to be alive. But as people who have followed the Royal Commission, they've been so impressed by Justice Holmes, she has rebuilt their trust in institutions. They found her processes to be and her demeanour to be forensic, no nonsense, to the point, cutting through the waffle of senior bureaucrats and Coalition ministers who all had amnesia quite often. So, for them today is a vindication because essentially they were gaslighted by the previous leadership. And so, it is vindication. It's stressful, it's triggering, but it's also vindication.

KARVELAS: We know the Royal Commission has made visiting different departments, has been rather visiting different departments, letting secretaries know which public officials could be implicated. Reporter Rick Morton has suggested former Prime Minister Scott Morrison and former Minister Stuart Robert could also be in the frame for adverse findings. Is that accurate?

SHORTEN: I'd have to wait till we see it at 9.30. I understand there have been some communication between the Royal Commission and government agencies, but the government agencies appropriately are waiting till 930 for the Governor-General to receive the report. The report's then tabled at 11:00. That'll be available online from around 11:00. And the Prime Minister and I'll be standing up a short while after that.

KARVELAS: David Speers told us earlier and others have noted that it's unusual for a Government to release a Royal Commission report like this immediately. Is there a political dimension here, Bill Shorten? There is the Fadden by-election in a week.

SHORTEN: No. I don't know why journalists would say that. I had a look at several key Royal Commissions in recent times and they've all been released on the day or, like on the day or the next work day. So, no, this is not unusual at all.

KARVELAS: Without the Government response, you're saying that it's not unusual?

SHORTEN: No, definitely. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse that was released on the same day. I think after four and a half years of unlawful conduct by the previous government, I think after hundreds of thousands of people having debt notices issued against them without any legal authority, I think the gaslighting by the previous government and senior bureaucrats who basically ignored all the red flags being raised, the persistent firehose of complaint and pain which was coming at them, I think it would be inappropriate for the Government to get a Royal Commission report and sit on it. Now, we will take our time to consider the recommendations obviously, and we'll do that. But I think it's appropriate that this whole Robodebt scandal, the tragedy, the failure of public administration, was that it was too often cloaked in secrecy. So, where we can. Why not just release the information and let the public be the judge of it? They're the ones who got done over.

KARVELAS: Will those senior Liberal figures, including Scott Morrison, be allowed to charge taxpayers for their legal fees if they challenge today's findings?

SHORTEN: That'll be a matter for the Attorney General. But as these were tasks, however poorly executed by them in government, I imagine there's set precedent or principle for them to have recourse to legal advice, yes.

KARVELAS: Yeah. Okay. How does that look? How do you think people will view that?

SHORTEN: Well, that'll be up to people to judge.

KARVELAS: What do you think? You've got your finger on the pulse. You know how people feel about things. It doesn't, I don't think it would pass whatever pub test you want to apply.

SHORTEN: Well, if a journalist at the ABC was sued, government public servants do have the right to support. They haven't been found guilty of anything yet. What I wouldn't want to do is, to be really direct speaking, really direct, bugger up any potential prosecutions by making mistakes in process. So those people out there say, oh, people shouldn't get that sort of support. I can understand why you might say it, but if you really want justice, then everyone's got to be treated appropriately and with precedent and otherwise, that would smack of politics. Good process doesn't guarantee good outcomes. But I'll tell you what, as we've seen with Robodebt, poor process just stuffs everything up.

KARVELAS: Yeah. Look, I think that's a reasonable point and many people could cede that, but I think it's a reasonable question to ask as well. I just want to ask you about a couple of other things because I have you here and you're also the NDIS Minister, of course. The interim findings of a long running review of the NDIS were released last week and 1 in 5 key challenges it identified was that far more children were on the NDIS than expected. Data released in May showed 11% of 5- to 7-year-old boys were on the scheme. How can that be and will you be making moves to reduce that number?

SHORTEN: Well, you're right that there's more kids entering the Scheme than was initially conceived of when the Scheme was established. That could partly be because there was unmet demand. In other words, the system before the NDIS just wasn't picking up people who needed help. It could also be that the NDIS has become the only life raft in the ocean. In other words, there's not enough other supports for kids with developmental delays in their very early years. So, if the NDIS is the only off ramp to help a child with their developmental delay, that's where they're getting sent. So, I think there's a really good opportunity to support kids with developmental delay through universal screening, through having a look at what are the foundations that other departments and the states could do to provide access for kids with developmental delay to support other than just the NDIS.

KARVELAS: Just one more question. Thousands more Australians should be able to join the NDIS if they have a diagnosis of ADHD. It's on the front page of The Age today and there are calls for that. Is that something you'd support?

SHORTEN: No, I don't think we should be just saying that if you have a diagnosis, you automatically get entry to the Scheme. It's not just about ADHD, that's a view I have. The test under the act for eligibility is not just having a diagnosis, but it's how that affects you. So, I'm not saying that people don't have ADHD. Absolutely not. And I think we're learning a lot more about it. But I don't think that ADHD should automatically give you a ticket into the NDIS, so I don't agree with that. There are a small number of people whose primary diagnosis is ADHD because it clearly affects them a great deal. There's several thousand people on the Scheme who, as one of their conditions, they have a diagnosis of ADHD. This Scheme, though, is about individuals and what help they need, courtesy of their disability, to have a fulfilling life. A diagnosis itself shouldn't be the only trigger to activate eligibility for the NDIS.

KARVELAS: Bill Shorten, thanks for joining us this morning.

SHORTEN: Lovely to chat.

KARVELAS: Bill Shorten, the Minister for Government Services and the NDIS.