Minister Shorten interview on RN Drive with Glen Bartholomew


GLEN BARTHOLOMEW, HOST: “Robodebt was a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal, and it made many people feel like criminals”. Those are the damning words from the final Royal Commission report that was handed down today. Former Queensland Chief Justice Catherine Holmes’ report into the Coalition Government's automated debt collection policy has almost a thousand pages long and has 57 recommendations. In a special sealed section of the report, she recommends the referral of individuals for civil action or criminal prosecution. Watching today's developments unfold was Mike. We've chosen not to reveal his full name. His son died in October 2020, and after his death, Mike discovered documents demanding payment of an alleged debt of more than $24,000.

MIKE, FATHER OF ROBODEBT VICTIM: It was an overdose. It killed him. It wasn't intentional, it turned out. But basically, he had given up on life. He had multiple stressors. So about 10 or 12 days before he died, he'd send me a text saying he just really didn't care anymore whether he lived or died. But there were multiple stresses, and we believe that the Robodebt was one of them. He had other stresses. His mother had died some months earlier. He had lost his job, which meant a lot to him. So other things were happening in his life. But this was another stress we believe. We only found out after his death when I went through his papers.

BARTHOLOMEW: And what was your initial reaction when you then found that Robodebt notice?

MIKE: I'd assumed it was valid, so I wrote to Centrelink and because he owed money to other people and I'd paid some of those, I wrote to Centrelink and said, Do I owe you money? And they never wrote back. And eventually much, much later I got a letter saying, we're not going to repay any money to you because your son never paid the money for the Robodebt basically. So, they acknowledged it that it was a Robodebt, basically.

BARTHOLOMEW: And was it, as was with many other cases, a mistake? Did he actually owe that $24,000?

MIKE: No. No, he didn't.

BARTHOLOMEW: What do you think was going through your son's mind when he got this debt notice, given the multiple other issues he was facing?

MIKE: I suspect he would have thought that this was valid given his lifestyle with the drugs. And he had other jobs in the past where they were rorting the system, not just him, but lots of them, you know, not paying tax and everything. He would have assumed that he owed the money, I would think.

BARTHOLOMEW: And you think, therefore, it may have potentially contributed to his anxiety and ultimately his death?

MIKE: I think so. To a sense of hopelessness. There were other things happening in his life, but this was not a trivial thing. You know, this is, what, $24,270? It's a lot of money. He was earning about double that on the work he did. So, yes, I believe that there was a contributing factor to him just not caring anymore and taking even more drugs.

BARTHOLOMEW: The Royal Commission report is very scathing about the Robodebt scheme, and the Government now says there should be accountability for anyone found to be responsible for playing a part in the scheme. What do you hope to see come out of this Royal Commission?

MIKE: Well, what upsets me is that a lot of vulnerable people like my son, but many other people that were not involved in drugs or whatever, but, you know, difficult financial situations, they were impacted terribly by this. And that's what upsets me . I mean, I'll let the law and everything else take its course. But in my view, this is one of the worst bits of public policy that we've seen in Australia for many decades, frankly.

BARTHOLOMEW: That was Mike, speaking about his son who died in 2020 after being served with papers demanding repayment of an alleged debt that, as you heard, proved to be one of the many mistakes made by that process. Bill Shorten is the Federal Minister for Government Services. Welcome back to Drive.

BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Thank you, Glen. And that was a very difficult story to listen to, but obviously much more for the family to have to tell it. I'm very sorry.

BARTHOLOMEW: Yeah. Following today's release of the report, you paid tribute to the 433,000 victims identified by the federal court affected by this scheme. How do you feel hearing Mike's story and knowing it's just representative of that many Australians?

SHORTEN: It makes me angry. It makes me angry because it should never have happened. And if an unlawful scheme passed through a Cabinet somehow and it never should have all of the red flags being raised, the firehose of pain, of hurt, of complaint, and instead people just gaslit. So, I'm angry. It should never have happened. And if it wasn't for a change of government, if it wasn't for the class action and the work of the Victorian Legal Aid finally pinning the Government down in court and the class action pinning them down, and if it wasn't for this Royal Commission, there are members of the former government who were so shameless they'd still be gaslighting us now.

BARTHOLOMEW: You said it shouldn't have taken a Royal Commission to reveal all of this. It's pretty rare that the Australian public shouldn't have to expect that the onus of proof gets reversed on them, that they're treated as guilty until proven innocent.

SHORTEN: Exactly. Shocking. I mean there was a smaller error made by the Dutch government and their Social Security laws where they targeted through algorithms a particular group of vulnerable Dutch citizens, and they resigned when it emerged. No one thinks that these roosters who are running around now who gave evidence, I don't think they'd ever resigned over anything.

BARTHOLOMEW: A sealed chapter recommends referrals of unnamed individuals for civil or criminal prosecution. The ABC has confirmed that that includes referrals to the Federal Police National Anti-Corruption Commission, a Law Society, and the Australian Public Service Commissioner. To clarify, do you intend to read that Seal chapter and when might we all get to see it?

SHORTEN: Well, I haven't got access to it. I've read the rest. I'm rereading, I've read the rest of the Royal Commission. There's a lot of meat in the rest of it. So, for those people who feel somehow there's something quite extraordinary they're not getting to see, I just want to reassure them that this was the Royal Commissioner's strategy for the people that she's made adverse findings against to have due process. Now, I can hear a lot of teeth being gritted saying, well, they didn't give due process to the Australian citizens that they unlawfully raised debts against. But if we are to get accountability, then we've got to follow the right process.

But the rest of the Report, so I was initially had mixed emotions when I saw that was the recommendation of the Royal Commission to have a sealed section which three secretaries of departments and the Attorney-General only can read, the Prime Minister and I don't have access to it at this point. But the proposition that we need to. Land the case rather than blow it through, perhaps a mistake in process. I can see that. Um, I'll tell you what. The rest of the Royal Commission is incredibly damning of a whole lot of people who were in very senior positions.

BARTHOLOMEW: Commissioner Holmes scathing of Kathryn Campbell, who was the Department of Human Services secretary, saying she was responsible for a department that established, implemented, and maintained an unlawful program and did nothing of substance to bring to light its illegality. There's no suggestion she may be among the undisclosed persons that's been referred for civil or criminal legal action. But is her job still tenable within the public service in light of these findings?

SHORTEN: Again, you and I don't know if she's one of the people referred and she hasn't chosen to inform anyone of that. That's her prerogative. Um, I think Prime Minister or former Prime Minister Morrison's put his hand up and said he may be, or he's given a statement to that effect. That's how I interpret it. In terms of her job, the decision of the Australian Public Service Commission and the senior public servants in Australia is that different departmental secretaries will form a view about people who may still be working in the public service in their departments, in light of these adverse findings which the three secretaries read.

So if there is an adverse finding and the three secretaries of the public sector see it, the head of the Public Service Commission, head of Attorney-General's Department, I think Prime Minister's department, they will then provide information about if there is still remaining public servants in particular departments, to the secretaries of those departments, and a decision will be made as to what should be the status of that person's employment and how they should be employed.

BARTHOLOMEW: We’re getting people's stories joining in as they listen to you, Bill Shorten on the text line. Another story about how this has impacted real people in terrible ways. Wendy writes, our family's experience with Centrelink and especially Robodebt has been dismal. My son experienced extreme depression as a teenager and young adult. He worked when he could in casual positions while doing a university degree, and when his letter arrived demanding a payment of $12,000. I knew he couldn't cope. I had to withdraw the money from my superannuation fund rather than risk the stress of fighting that system. Wendy, thanks for that tale. Julia in Church Point adds, it should be called the public disservice. Bill Shorten. Scott Morrison was at one-point Social Services Minister during this scheme. Should he resign from Parliament in light of what the report says about his conduct?

SHORTEN: I don't think Scott Morrison cares what I think about him, but I for myself, I would be humiliated, embarrassed if I read the things that are written about him, if they were said about me by this Commissioner. But that's up to him. I don't claim to understand him. I think he's put out a statement where he completely rejects all the findings. That's his prerogative. He feels that it's unfair. He completely rejects what's been said about him. So, there you go.

BARTHOLOMEW: Dozens of submissions from Centrelink staff to the Royal Commission have been published today, they follow the same thing. We knew. We spoke up, we were ignored. What's your message to public servants who see something that concerns them now?

SHORTEN: I've written to all 30,000 people today and the public service of the areas I cover, this will be quite triggering. I've got to remember that when we talk about the public service, there were the people at the very top of the tree who were the leaders, who exercised in some cases, appalling judgement. That's just a matter of record and the Commission, and the Royal Commission. But the vast majority, the vast, vast, vast majority do the very best they can. And in some ways, in many ways, they're as much a victim of this terrible four-and-a-half-year experience as the people who had the unlawful debt notices raised against them. People resigned; people were distressed. I've made it a point since becoming the Minister just on 13 months ago to go and visit work centres where people work in Centrelink. I remember speaking in opposition when I was helping organise the class action, to whistle-blowers who were very brave. My message is you are valued, you do a great job. A lot of people go to work every day, Glen, and they just have to work with either their brains and their brawn or a combination thereof. But some people have to go to work every day and use their emotions as well. You've always got to be on. You've got to be positive because you're dealing with vulnerable people. And I do not think we value the contribution of our frontline public servants. And that goes beyond my department, because when they're dealing with vulnerable people, vulnerable people will take a cue from the person they're dealing with. And so, the previous government put too much stress on the shoulders of public servants. I'm not saying we've got that right, but I know one thing. I respect the public service a lot more than my predecessors did.

BARTHOLOMEW: All right. We will put Scott Morrison's statement on our website. He's chimed in as a result after the findings were delivered today. But for the moment, Bill Shorten, thanks for joining us today on RN Drive.

SHORTEN: Thanks for your interest and thanks to all those people who spoke up and those who suffered. Well, I hope today gives you some measure that you weren't the problem. The government was. The government was there to help you and instead they hurt you. And I think there was a pathology of lawlessness in this government and a lack of shame, which is just shocking. Thank you.

BARTHOLOMEW: Bill Shorten, the Federal Minister for Government Services, talking about the release of that final report, the Robodebt Royal Commission.