Minister Shorten interview on 3AW Drive with Heidi Murphy


HEIDI MURPHY, HOST: Now you will have heard plenty across the day about the Robodebt Royal Commission. These are the findings into the debt recovery scheme, the very poorly thought through, in fact, the crude and cruel mechanism that was neither fair nor legal. That's what the Royal Commission has described the Robodebt scheme as. They say it was invented and run and continued through venality, incompetence and cowardice. This is the debt raising and recovery scheme that ran between 2015 and 2019 when it was finally declared unlawful. It was supposed to be finding discrepancies between declared incomes of welfare recipients and what they'd actually been paid. It illegally recovered more than $700 million from 380,000 people. That money repaid in 2020, but finding out who was behind it, how this set of circumstances happened and the incalculable damage that it has done to quite a number of people's lives, that's what the Royal Commission has been looking at – 990 pages worth of reporting today. And, finding that there's many different sets of words in there, but something that failed the public interest in a myriad of ways, crude and cruel and neither fair nor legal. The man who is in charge of making sure it is never repeated, the man, in fact, who spent a long time making the case that Robodebt was a terrible, idea, a terrible scheme is the now Government Services Minister, Bill Shorten. Bill, thanks for your time this afternoon.


MURPHY: How significant are these findings? A lot of them won't be any surprise to you at all, given how involved you are. But how significant is this?

SHORTEN: Well, I feel at long last, that a nation who've been gaslighted by the previous government who said that they did nothing different to what previous governments had done, and there was nothing wrong with this. At long last, in a 990-page report, all the victims, all the advocates, all the frontline workers at Centrelink who spoke up, I feel their vindication because clearly this, old government was lying, lying, lying. And I know people think all politicians lie, but I'm sorry. This was a government that the most powerful people in Australia, the Commonwealth of Australia, it is the biggest deal. And they unlawfully raised debt notices against hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable Australians for no other reason than they were vulnerable. And there is no law to back up what they did. And at long last, this is something which this government, the previous government, hid from. They denied it. They paid the biggest ever class action settlement to avoid having to sit in court. And this Commission has blown the whistle on this terrible, unlawful abuse of power. She called it in a myriad of ways that this is a complete illustration of venality, incompetence and cowardice.

MURPHY: What's your personal sense of vindication?

SHORTEN: I still feel angry for people that we had to put up with this. But I do feel my sense of vindication is in the calls that I've received today, the conversations I've had with people who fought against it, either the welfare advocates, the parents of young men who took their lives away, be it Centrelink workers who stood up. I'm pleased for them that after having been told for the best part of eight years by the Liberal National Coalition government that they were imagining it, that it wasn't right. I'm just pleased for them that at long last, whatever did happen to them wasn't their fault. It was actually the fault of the government.

MURPHY: I don't know if you're aware of what Scott Morrison's had to say by a statement today, but he rejects completely each of the findings, which are critical of his involvement in authorising the scheme and are adverse to him. He's called them wrong, unsubstantiated and contradicted by clear documentary evidence presented to the Commission. He goes on at quite some length to deny, deny, deny. To reject any suggestion that he should be the subject of critical findings. Your response?

SHORTEN: Well, he's entitled to his opinion. I've watched the evidence. I've read the report. I don't believe him. But, you know, that's up to him.

MURPHY: He says he acted in good faith and on clear and deliberate department advice.

SHORTEN: Yeah, well, one thing I've learnt about Mr. Morrison, and of course I'm on the other side to him and he won the 2019 election. I get that. So, people can, you know, they can take what I say with whatever filter they want to put on it, but it's as straight as this to me. He doesn't take responsibility. He's blamed the department. Well, then what was he as the Minister? Was he just one of those little noddy dolls you get in the front of your car where they just they bob. You know, those bobbing things?

MURPHY: Oh, yeah, the bobble heads. Yep.

SHORTEN: Yeah. The bobble heads. Was he just a ministerial bobble head? Was just his job to go, “Oh, the department says this. I must sign this.”

MURPHY: Is there not some suggestion in the Royal Commission's findings also, though, that some of the departmental heads were bobble heads for the government?

SHORTEN: Absolutely. Well, apparently, they were all amnesiacs because no one could remember anything, and everyone thought it was someone else's fault.

MURPHY: We're very familiar with that sort of answer at a Royal Commission here in Victoria. Sorry. I digress.

SHORTEN: No, that's. fine. You know, you bring your experience to these matters and that's your opinion. But in this one, what I saw was everyone said it was someone else's job, or Mr. Morrison blamed the Department of Social Services. The Department of Social Services blamed the Department of Human Services. People in the Department of Human Services blamed each other. And we had Minister after Minister who showed not a jot of curiosity. But the problem I have here is this, that an unlawful scheme saw the light of day was a failure. But the next catastrophic failure was for four and a half years there were a lot of warning signs. But this wasn't just a bad decision and people realise it was a bad decision. It was a fire hose of pain, a fire hose of complaint, a fire hose of disagreement. And you know, there were 20,000 matters where people said this is not right and they appealed it internally. There were 4,339 matters which went to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, external courts saying this was not right. Victoria's own legal aid had to take them to court. There were hundreds of questions in Parliament, but without the Victorian legal aid work and what's called the Amato case in 2019, without the class action which I helped with Gordon Legal for people. And now without the Royal Commission, this government would keep the old government would keep BS'ing us until the cows come home.

MURPHY: Is that the bigger deal for you here? The scheme was horrendous, poorly thought out, poorly executed and all the rest of it. But is it to you the greater crime, the cover up, essentially? The continuation as all those issues were being raised, just the continuation of it?

SHORTEN: Yeah, that's a good question. I suppose for me it was an abuse of power, but then it was the unwillingness to hear the bad news. It was the three wise monkey regime of hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil. It was the willingness to blame the poor, the vulnerable, the people who use welfare. It was the treatment of a big cohort of Australians as second-class Australians, and therefore the ends justified the means. So, for me, the biggest thing was that a whole sector of our society, merely because at a point in their life they had to rely on the human rights safety net of some welfare, were treated as alien to us, as if not deserving the same legal protections. Mr. Morrison will get his legal expenses paid to protest his innocence. That's fair enough. That's the precedent. But I'll tell you what, the 433,000 people who got hit by Robodebt, they didn't get all their expenses paid by the government until a class action turned up. And then it was very late in the piece.

MURPHY: Now a substantial amount was repaid and there was that class action with the damages as well Some would have expected compensation to be recommended today. Did you expect that?

SHORTEN: No, I didn't. But the Commissioner is a force of nature. She's fiercely independent. So, she's written the report that she felt appropriate for the government after hearing all of the evidence. She's not a party-political operative in any fashion. She's fiercely independent, respected career in the Queensland judicial system. But no, I didn't have a view one way or the other about whether or not it would be included. She's made some points that a general compensation scheme would be horrendously expensive to run and of course that would then defeat the purpose. I do get that some people say it was terrible and what about our rights? There has been a class action. There's other sort of observations the Commissioner's made about that and we have to I have to read that and treat it with the seriousness it deserves.

MURPHY: Yeah, there is a there are a fair few pages to get through. The sealed part of the report that you haven't seen. That I haven't seen that none of us in theory will ever see or may not see for quite some length of time. Inside it, is it your understanding that it does recommend some charges? Criminal or civil or prosecutions?

SHORTEN: I had mixed emotions when I saw that the Commissioner had proposed it this way. She’s made adverse findings about people and made recommendations. The recommendations are there for all to see. She’s that in order for the adverse findings against people to be handled in the best possible way, without prejudice, is to keep it sealed. I can see that logic.

At the end of the day there will be accountability. There will be a whole group of people out there listening to your show Heidi who say, “Oh nothing will ever happen.” Well, they said nothing will ever happen and they had the class action. They said nothing will ever happen and then we had the Royal Commission. And there will be accountability.

MURPHY: Yes, that’s the thing. Those of us not directly touched by this, or those only touched in a peripheral way.... we want to know two things: who is getting justice and when, how soon? Please promise us it will continue, and it will. there will be someone brought to justice or a quite a number of people. And the other bit is change. But I'll stop on the justice bit for now. Any ideas? I mean, is this going to stretch on for years more?

SHORTEN: No, I don't believe so. But people deserve a process, you got to give them process, that was what was denied and repeating the same mistake that was denied to thousands of our fellow citizens will be a mistake. But all I say is don’t look at our words, look at our actions. There was no class action then there was. There was no Royal Commission, now there is. Accountability is crucial to this. And I understand because of the hundreds of people I've met, the thousands I've met, that in fact, it's not finished until there's clear accountability, but that train has left the station, and we will see what happens. I noticed some Liberal Ministers quick decide there's no adverse finding against them, which reduces the band of likely suspects who there is, and senior public servants will be held to account. There's no turning back from that.

MURPHY: That's the other bit of the change that I heard the Prime Minister at the media conference here earlier today saying we have a different relationship, there's a different culture now. Those are fine words. Are there still some of the same senior public servants in their same roles as there were? But part of the part of the, brains trust that built this and kept it going and didn't give it the didn't give the frank advice?

SHORTEN: Very few of them. A lot have gone. And also, the culture is different now. I've visited 35 different service Australia centres around Australia that's about 34 more than the whole Coalition Ministry did in a decade. We are interested to make sure that we hear the bad news as well as the good news from within the organisation. We want to create a culture where your promotion isn't just about your ability to kiss butt but in fact, being good at your job and being honest, is actually a merit which is recognised.

MURPHY: All right. Thank you for your time this afternoon or this evening, as we get into evening. Thank you, Bill Shorten

SHORTEN: Thank you, Heidi.