Minister Shorten press conference at Parliament House, Canberra


SUBJECTS: Robodebt Royal Commission final report

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Thanks for joining us this morning. The Government received the final report of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt scheme. The Government has publicly released this report as soon as it was tabled this morning and will now carefully consider the recommendations that are presented in the final report. First, I do want to thank the Royal Commissioner, Catherine Holmes AC SC, and those who assisted her in undertaking this absolutely critical inquiry.

I'd like to thank the many hard working Australian public servants who spent countless hours, days, day and night, assisting the Commission to conduct its inquiry. And I particularly want to acknowledge the many thousands of individuals who were harmed by the Robodebt scheme and thank those who bravely shared their stories with the Commission. You ensured the voices of those affected and their families were heard.

We have arrived at the truth because of the courage of some of the most vulnerable Australians, people who have shown bravery in the face of injustice, hardship and sometimes terrible grief. The courage stands in stark contrast to those who sought to shift the blame, bury the truth and carry on justifying this shocking harm. The Robodebt scheme was a gross betrayal and a human tragedy. It pursued debt recovery against Australians who in many cases had no debt to pay. It was wrong. It was illegal. It should never have happened, and it should never happen again. Under the former Liberal government, this scheme unlawfully raised $1.76 billion in alleged debts against some 526,000 Australians. This tragedy caused stress, anxiety, financial destitution and sadly had a very real human toll.

For more than four years, Liberal Ministers dismissed or ignored the significant concerns that were raised over and over again, including in the Parliament, but also by victims, by public servants, by community organisations and of course, legal experts.

The Royal Commission has found that the Liberal Party's Robodebt scheme was to quote, “a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal, and it made many people feel like criminals. In essence, people were traumatised on the off chance they might owe money. It was a costly failure of public administration in both human and economic terms.” There are a range of other quotes that stood out to me when I went through the report in the short time that we've had it this morning. The impact of victims said this on page 342, “the scheme was launched in circumstances where little to no regard was had to the individuals and vulnerable cohorts that it would affect. The ill-effects of the scheme were varied, extensive, devastating and continuing.” It went on to say, to speak about some of the tragedies, including in a section which is titled, ‘Deaths resulting from the scheme.’ which begins at page 337, “The Commission heard evidence from the mothers of two young men caught up in the scheme. They gave evidence on their son's behalf because their boys had died by suicide. Their stories are told more in detail below. The Commission is also aware of another tragic death, which appears to have resulted from a discrepancy letter issued under the scheme in 2017.”

The report goes on to say, “What is certain is that the scheme was responsible for heartbreak and harm to family members of those who took their own lives because of the despair the scheme caused them. It extends from those recipients who felt that their only option was to take their own life to their family members who must live without them.” An extraordinary finding from this Royal Commission. The Royal Commission also goes through very clearly the responsibility and where it lays.

On page 177, it says “a particularly mean-spirited aspect of the government's defence of the scheme in 2017 was the employment of the media in a form of counter-attack against criticism which included singling out recipients who complained.” On page 658, it says this, “as to whether the Australian Government sought to prevent scrutiny of the Robodebt scheme, there is no doubt that there was a constant misrepresentation that the scheme involved no change in the way income was assessed or debts were calculated.”

When I read that, I recalled the multiple times where we asked questions in the Parliament and then-Prime Minister Morrison responded by saying that there were no changes that occurred, that this somehow went back to the period prior to the change of government that occurred in 2013. It makes it very clear that isn't the case. It goes through the role of Ministers and some key findings. It says on page 106 regarding Scott Morrison and his time as Minister for Social Services. To quote the report, “he failed to meet his ministerial responsibility to ensure that Cabinet was properly informed about what the proposal actually entailed and to ensure that it was lawful.” With regard to then Minister Tudge, on page 184, it says this, “Mr. Tudge's use of information about Social Security recipients in the media to distract from and discourage commentary about the scheme's problems represented an abuse of that power.” On page 179, on page 184, it goes through, “He knew that at least two people had died by suicide and that their family members had identified the impact of the scheme as a factor in their deaths, but nonetheless vowed to undertake a comprehensive review into the scheme, including its fundamental features.”

On page 158, it goes through then Minister Porter, and it says, “he could not rationally have been satisfied of the legality of the scheme. Mr. Porter should have at least directed his department to produce to him any legal advice it possessed in respect of the legislative basis of the scheme.” It goes on to talk about Stuart Robert and his time as Minister in defending the Robodebt scheme. It says, Mr. Robert then, to quote the report, went to quote on page 302, “well beyond supporting government policy, he was making statements of fact as to the accuracy of debt, citing statistics which he knew could not be right.” Think about that. Which he knew could not be right. “Nothing compels Ministers to knowingly make false statements or statements which they have good reason to suspect are untrue in the course of publicly supporting any decision or programme.”

It then goes through a critique of Mr. Morrison's evidence and says this at page 102, “The Commission rejects as untrue Mr. Morrison's evidence that he was told that income averaging as contemplated in the executive minute, was an established practice and a foundational way in which DHS worked.” An extraordinary comment about a former Prime Minister. It then on page 302, about Stuart Robert, says this, “Mr. Robert was not expounding any legal position and he was going well beyond supporting government policy. He was making statements of fact as to the accuracy of debts, citing statistics which he knew could not be right.” On page 315, it says, “The Commission rejects Mr. Robert's claim to have acted to end the Robodebt scheme quite as promptly as he professes. Ms. Leon was in fact the first to take steps for that purpose.”

It goes through in great detail the impact on victims. And on page 342, it goes through very clearly about the ill effects of the scheme were varied, extensive, devastating and continuing. The Commission goes through in enormous detail as well, the human impact of the scheme, but it also goes through the economic cost. On page 401, it says this, “The Commonwealth incurred estimated total costs of $971.391 million in implementing, administering, suspending and winding back the scheme, including incidental costs. The net cost of the scheme is approximately $565.195 million, which represents a net impact of its estimated totals of $971.391 million, offset by the estimated savings of $406.196 million.”

It goes on to say on page 402, “the wider costs of the scheme on the broader economy and on society also represent a cost of the scheme. Though real, their measurement is more subjective and has not been attempted in this chapter.”

The Royal Commission also has, as you will see, a sealed section that has been provided to the appropriate bodies. It says this just to clarify, “I have provided to you an additional chapter of the report which has not been included in the bound report and is sealed. It recommends the referrals of individuals for civil action or criminal prosecution. I recommend that this additional chapter remain sealed and not be tabled with the rest of the report so as not to prejudice the conduct of any future civil action or criminal prosecution,” making that clear as well to pre-empt perhaps some of the questions that people might ask that's been provided to appropriate people, not to myself or the Minister.

I'd ask Minister Shorten to make comments, will then be happy to take questions. But I do want to thank the Minister for presiding over and being determined as Shadow Minister first, to have the Robodebt Royal Commission. This is precisely why you should have a Royal Commission, for purposes to get to the facts, to expose flaws in the way that government operates so as to ensure that it does never happen again. Minister Shorten.

BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Thank you, Prime Minister. Commissioner Holmes has given us a report, a Royal Commission report into the Robodebt scandal, which I think in summary shows that the previous government and senior public servants gaslighted the nation and its citizens for four and a half years. They betrayed the trust of the nation and its citizens for four and a half years with an unlawful scheme which the Federal Court has called the worst chapter of public administration.

It fundamentally says that it has broken the sacred trust that when citizens give some of their power to the government, that the government will make sure that it helps, not hurts citizens. And this is a report which shows how the previous government and senior public servants hurt, not helped citizens.

I would like just to address briefly some remarks to the victims of the scheme. When the Prime Minister and I, and other ministerial colleagues last August announced the Royal Commission and the implementation of our election promise, we promised that we would hope that this Royal Commission would deliver some overdue justice to our fellow Australians who were so poorly treated by the then-government. So today my thoughts are with the victims, the 433,000 vulnerable Australians who were identified in the Federal Court and tens of thousands of others, as the Prime Minister has referred to. They were literally shaken down by their own government, by a government who didn't have the power to raise debt notices against them. And in fact, they did break the law. They had the onus of proof reversed. They were treated as guilty until proven innocent. And for those who had the temerity to complain, they were subject to vile political tactics. So today is about these victims.

Today is about the frontline staff of Services Australia who were forced to implement unconscionable propositions. It is about Colleen Taylor, who I'm pleased to note Commissioner Holmes has said, that her evidence as a frontline worker in the system and her evidence of speaking up to the then-Secretary of Human Services, as the Commissioner says, restored some faith. Thank you, Colleen and all the others who we don't know about, who spoke up and to their union reps as well.

It is also about the welfare advocates who raised the uncomfortable truths long before this Royal Commission. I acknowledge, amongst others, the evidence of Genevieve Boulton, Catherine Boyle and Catherine Eagle, but there were many. Thank you for speaking up for those who didn't have a voice.

But today is also about people who suffered more harm than most. I've gotten to know Jennifer Miller and Kath Madgwick over the journey of fighting Robodebt. They gave evidence about how their sons, after they received Robodebt, their sons took their own lives. These people, Kath and Jennifer, they were told by the then government that it had nothing to do with Robodebt. They've spoken up. Today is not the true outcome they would like. But the universe can’t grant us going back in time and making sure that Rhys and Jarrad didn't take their own lives. But it is vindication. So, on a stressful day, a traumatic day, a triggering day to those brave women and to many others, we acknowledge you.

The Royal Commission has highlighted a broken system under the previous government, and Commissioner Holmes certainly doesn't mince her words in terms of what she says. She's described Robodebt as an ill-conceived embryonic idea, rushed to Cabinet.

She's attacked the misconceived notion that unreviewed discrepancies between the ATO and DHS income data represented mountains of gold. But she did note its neat alignment with the then political rhetoric. She has described, it's almost akin to a children's nursery rhyme, the evidence given by senior leaders of the previous government. She identifies where Minister Morrison essentially blamed the Department of Social Services. The Department of Social Services senior leadership essentially blamed the Department of Human Services. The Department of Human Services blamed other people in the Department of Human Services. Countless Coalition Ministers couldn't remember a thing and showed no curiosity at all about the scheme. She describes it as a child's nursery rhyme, but of course a lot more significant. She identifies this scheme, that it illustrates a myriad of ways that things can go wrong through, and I quote Commissioner Holmes's words about our predecessors, “the things that can go wrong through venality, incompetence and cowardice.”

It shouldn't have taken a Royal Commission to stop this scheme. It shouldn't have taken the legal action by Victorian Legal Aid and then a class action. It shouldn't have taken four and a half years of a firehose of complaint. It shouldn't have taken the Government, as the Prime Minister has said, misrepresenting the scheme quite deliberately. This is a lesson for the public service of Australia, one which I hope resonates for the next generation. We will take our time to consider the recommendations, but we won't take too much time. But clearly this is unfortunately an example where the ends do not justify the means. And unfortunately, many Australians were subjected to unconscionable conduct by their own government. Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Bill. Paul?

JOURNALIST: Should Scott Morrison resign? And what will the consequences for public servants, including Kathryn Campbell, be?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Scott Morrison, of course, is mentioned countless times in this report, and it is a matter for him what action he takes in response. But I make this point. The Royal Commission has comprehensively rejected the Liberal Party's talking points that the system had not changed at all, and it calls that a falsehood. The Commission found that Robodebt that was created in 2015 was to quote the Commission on page 31 said this, “was precisely responsive to the policy agenda that had been communicated to the Social Security portfolio departments, both in private meetings and in the public sphere.” So, it makes it very clear, it just rejects the argument that we heard in Parliament about that. With regard to public servants, of course, it's not appropriate to comment on individual cases, but as the Commissioner has made clear, there is a sealed section of the report with referrals for to quote the report, “civil action or criminal prosecution.” Agency heads are, of course, empowered to take immediate action pending further investigations, and I'm very confident that they will that.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the report notes that it's remarkable the lengths to which the public service was prepared to go to oblige ministers. How will you and your how will you ensure the public service has confidence to give you advice that you don't want to hear? And how will you continue that for future governments?

PRIME MINISTER: If you look at our approach towards the public service, it's very different. It's very different. One of the things that I've made very clear, and it's made by changing some of the culture as well. I lead a government that has proper, orderly processes, that has Cabinet meetings where you have co-ord comments from departments, where Ministers go and visit the departments and talk, not just to their departmental secretaries, but right throughout their departments as well. I also have an approach which is to make sure that humans are put back into the centre of Human Services and service delivery. It's a very different approach that this Government has towards all of these issues.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister -

PRIME MINISTER: Just, there and then David. Just there and then there.

JOURNALIST: Is it fair that the public won't be told who's being referred for criminal prosecution or civil action? And does that obscure accountability when we need it the most?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is a decision taken by the Royal Commissioner and the Royal Commissioner made it clear of why she has made that decision in the letter that was forwarded. What she says is, “I recommend that this additional chapter remains sealed and not be tabled with the rest of the report so as not to prejudice the conduct of any future civil action or criminal prosecutions.” So she's not saying that it won't occur. In fact, she's saying the opposite is why that has occurred. That's a decision that's been made. We've made the decision here to be very clear. I received the report at the same time that you did today, as did the Minister. We can't have been more transparent than holding a press conference immediately. We gave you the same time that we had to go through. That's why I've got a document here with little quotes marked out. We are being as transparent as possible, but we need to make sure as well that you don't prejudice action. And I think people want action as a result of this. And we will take the appropriate legal advice there as well. Agency heads, of course, have received that element of the report. So the head of my department has the sealed section. I do not. And they are empowered, of course, to take action, including the potential suspension as an act to ensure proper processes. But you wouldn't want conclusions to not be able to be reached because of trying to get something in a five-minute time frame. This has gone on for went on for a very long period of time. My government, just as the whole Robodebt lesson I think is, proper processes and procedures matter and it matters to my government.

JOURNALIST: Just further to that, Prime Minister, as you mentioned. The Secretary of your department sees what's in this sealed chapter. I understand the Attorney-General and the Secretary of the Attorney-General's department does as well. Are you saying you won't be seeking a look at that yourself? And can you tell us why after a $35 million exercise, we don't deserve to see who's being referred, does it include former ministers, for example?

SHORTEN: I understand your question very well. And when I first read Commissioner Holmes' letter, I had conflicting emotions because I know lots of people out there who feel that, ‘will anyone ever get punished?’ But to put not too elegant a point on it to the people worried about that, there are adverse findings. There are bodies who are now being asked with a brief of evidence to look at these matters. There will be accountability. But I have to say one of the big lessons of Robodebt is if you do things without proper process, you might end up inadvertently letting off some of the very people for whom we want accountability. So, I understand that and there is a lot in this Royal Commission. I appreciate it’s 900 pages. There's a lot to read. There's a lot 57 recommendations. Will the Government set up a taskforce? We're going to look at how we do all of that. That's crucial. Accountability is very much on the mind of the Albanese Government. We want to do it the right way so there is real accountability, not the wrong way.

PRIME MINISTER: That's precisely, precisely our focus as well. I haven't had the opportunity obviously to have the detailed legal advice as a result of the report. I read the report and the letter had the same approach, frankly, that Minister Shorten had as well. So, what is very clear from the report, though, and it is 900 pages, it's in three volumes, is that we haven't had a chance to read each and every word. But it's very clear if you read the report, there is a great deal of detail, including about Ministers and about mistakes that were made.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, can you confirm 20 people have been referred to a criminal or civil agency? And is it correct that there have been 16 notices of adverse findings to individuals in government departments? Does this include Scott Morrison, Christian Porter, Stuart, Robert Malcolm Turnbull and Alan Tudge?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I obviously can't confirm that.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just on as you yourself mentioned, there are lengthy chapters in this report on the harms done to individuals, but despite that, no mention of compensation? Would the Government be open to additional compensation, particularly to families of people who lost loved ones to suicide?

SHORTEN: Actually, the Commissioner does go to this issue about compensation. She says that she's formed the view that a general scheme of compensation is not, she thinks, feasible. What she identifies is that there were different people who suffered different harms. She does raise the question of whether or not there is a tort of public malfeasance, and I think that's something which we will and, no doubt you'll look at further. But she went to this question. I should also remind people that there was a class action which did see the largest settlement in Australian history where the Commonwealth lawyers under the previous Government, right up until the day of the trial had to start, were filibustering. Nothing to see here. They laughed at us. They said it was all a stunt. But at $1.7 billion of debt was either written off or refunded, $112 million of taxpayer money was paid in the form of interest to the people who were affected. So there has been some, and we've nearly got every dollar of that out to the people who are affected. So there has been some compensation.

PRIME MINISTER: Just here, and then Chloe, and then here.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, it's a day of reckoning for most people, but the start of a process, as you both know, for due process and to avoid any prejudicial outcome. Will your Government consider on the issue of accountability, stripping people of their honours, specifically meritorious medals like public service medals?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, we'll give appropriate consideration to all of the recommendations and we'll also give appropriate consideration to what action will be coming from here. We won't pre-empt that. We'll have proper processes. What we've done here today is to be totally transparent, to put it out in advance. The Government did not receive a copy of this in advance. It was given to the Attorney-General today at 9:30am. We've ensured out of respect for the process and out of respect for you as well, it must be said, the people in this room. We know that this has been something that people have wanted information about, and that's what we're providing. Bill?

SHORTEN: Just on a positive note about that, and I take your point about we have to have a process before you get to that question of whether or not they deserve their PSMs. Colleen Taylor, and she'll probably kill me for saying this, her evidence was exemplary. And Commissioner Holmes, as I said, did focus in that she restored faith. I I'd love to see Colleen Taylor, one of the frontline people in the public service, get a PSM. That's just a personal opinion, because some of the real heroes here weren't the people who should have been. The real leadership came from the rank and file of the organisation who spoke up even at risk of their own job security and promotion.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you think it’s appropriate that Scott Morrison continues to sit in Parliament?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's a matter for him. I'm not here to make commentary on individual members. He's been elected as the Member for Cook. I do think that members of Parliament have a responsibility to turn up to Parliament unless there's a very good excuse. And I think that, you know, I think that the findings that I've read out in the public, in the public domain, make it clear that Scott Morrison's defence of this scheme and of the Government's actions over such a long period of time were to quote the report “based upon a falsehood,” and that is a damning finding that is there. People will make their own judgments about this. Just here.

JOURNALIST: Thanks Prime Minister. The report says that the legality of other data sharing between the department and the tax office should be checked. How quickly will that be done? And it says that Cabinet in-confidence is being overused. Will that be corrected in your government?

PRIME MINISTER: Cabinet in confidence is an appropriate action that my government is doing so that you can get proper advice from public servants. I note from time to time with some of the commentary about information. What you want is for the – and it's a wake-up call this report – you want public servants to have the confidence of giving clear advice to government. If it's all out there, you'll end up having more verbal advice. You will undermine the capacity of the public service to give frank and fearless advice. That's what I want. That's what my focus is on. And we engage... we'll look at all of the recommendations properly and with proper process. And we'll also receive, as we do in my government, co-ord comments as well, so that you get that proper consideration and so that you get better outcomes.

JOURNALIST: Just picking up on a couple of things that you've said, Prime Minister, you said the Head of your department will receive, or has received a sealed section and will take appropriate action, and that may include standing down public servants. Why will there not be a similar standard for public officials, elected officials? Why isn't someone looking at the sealed section and seeing if Members of Parliament shouldn't be stood aside, while these matters are being considered? And secondly, is it your intention, your Government's intention, to make that sealed section public once the legal and administrative processes have been exhausted?

PRIME MINISTER: Well we have to go through proper legal advice on that, it would certainly be my preference unless there is some legal impediment to it, but I'll seek proper advice on that. I haven't yet received advice from the Attorney-General's Department, from the appropriate authorities on that. It's pretty clear that the correspondence from the Royal Commissioner, Catherine Holmes, makes it clear in her wording of her letter to the Government, it's not about people being the sealed section remaining sealed forever, in her words to read from the letter, “I recommend that this additional chapter remain sealed and not be tabled with the rest of the report so as not to prejudice the conduct of any future civil action or criminal prosecutions.” My view is that that clearly is saying that is the period in which this information is being kept for the purpose of not prejudicing that action.

JOURNALIST: Just possibly a question for Mr. Shorten. You were talking about the significant payout before from the class action, but 45% of victims got payments of less than $100 from that. If we're talking about, you know, overdue justice, that doesn't seem to go particularly far towards that? We've had people messaging us, as it probably detailed in this report, about being so distressed that they self-harmed. How on Earth is less than $100 going to bring that overdue justice and what can be done?

SHORTEN: Okay. I appreciate that question, because let me be very direct with the people of, through you, to the people of Australia. We know this Royal Commission can't turn back the clock to before the unlawful scheme occurred. But it was Labor in Opposition who championed the class action, and the Prime Minister is being a bit modest. He was the strongest supporter when we, when I and Mark Dreyfus started talking about a Royal Commission. He was just like a missile. He said, “this is what we've got to do, it’s that important of an issue.” So today is another step in the journey. I get real harm happened. The Commissioner addresses some of the issues, the compensation. And when you read it and I will read it again in more detail, we want to digest, she makes some points about where a tort or a legal proposition could go. So, I don't pretend at all that people have got recompense to the point of all their harm. But I do acknowledge that the debts were written off that were still being raised. A whole lot of money was paid back to people against whom debts were unlawfully raised. The justice is slow, but it's all going in the right direction towards accountability. And this is another giant step, and Commissioner Holmes is to be congratulated for, when you read her prose, she's been very direct and you'll see that a lot of accountability.

PRIME MINISTER: I make this point in conclusion, that one of the reasons why I was so determined to support the Royal Commission was the experience of myself as a local Member of Parliament. You make representations as a Member of Parliament on behalf of your constituents on a regular basis across a range of areas. When I asked my office how many of the representations that we were making, were rejected by the department or by the Government, the answer to that was zero. That is every single person who was coming into my office in Marrickville Road, Marrickville, asking for assistance, including a particularly egregious case that I stood up and did a press conference with, it was around about a Christmas time where a young man in his 20s had cancer. He had used up all of his sick leave and leave at his work. But the system of Robodebt and averaging had worked in a way in which he had been hounded. Hounded to pay back debts that he did not owe. So, at a time where a young man was going through chemotherapy, when government and society and common decency suggested that compassion was required, he was put under enormous pressure with an impact on his health at that time. That was replicated around the country and Members of Parliament, Labor, Liberal, National crossbenchers, would have all had the same experience. And yet what you had at that time was Ministers standing up and pretending that nothing had changed and that there was nothing to see here. I thank Commissioner Holmes for exposing, in such a direct, clear way, the human tragedy that this represented. And my Government will be committed to not just putting this report on a shelf, but making sure that it can never happen again and making sure that the government responds in an appropriate, ordered and considered way. Thanks very much.