Minister Shorten interview on 4BC Drive with Peter Gleeson


PETER GLEESON, HOST: Great to have your company here on 4BC Drive. All right. Let's return to the biggest story of the day, the failed and unlawful Robodebt scheme rolled out by a former federal Coalition government that wrongfully claimed $1.76 billion in supposedly owing welfare funds from Australians. I broke it all down for you earlier in the show. It's damning. It's more than damning. But I want to cross right now to Bill Shorten, who is the current Federal Minister for Government Services. I've got him on the line live from hour 9 Radio Parliament House Bureau in Canberra. Minister, it's difficult to express how large and explosive this report is. You think the Australian public was gaslit by the former government for four years? Take me through some more of your initial reactions to this report.

BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICESHORTEN: Okay, and listen, you did a good job just explaining some of the economic scale of the argument. In 2015, the Coalition government came up with a proposal that Minister Morrison who was Social Services Minister said, righto, essentially there's a mountain of gold out there, there's billions of dollars where people on welfare are overclaiming and well, I’ll get it all back. And they proposed basically averaging people's fortnightly statement on Social Security. When you when you're on welfare, it's your income in a particular fortnight that makes you eligible or not. He said Well, we'll data match with the Australian Tax Office, that's been done before, and we'll just say okay, if over a year an average of each of the 26 fortnights means that someone claimed money when they actually weren't eligible according to the theoretical average of the tax office, then bang, we were on to them, and we'll make them pay.

Now the reality is that a lot of people in Australia have irregular work. It's just the modern economy. Students, people who've been unemployed, get some work, do the right thing, get into the workplace a bit. And so, you do have lumpy income. So, the Government, as it turns out, didn't have the lawful power to do what they did. And so, they, over four and a half years, they sent out, they raised unlawful debt notices against nearly half a million Aussies really because they were on welfare, and then they reversed the onus. They said, okay, we think there's a problem. You prove to us why you're innocent.

So, we created a system in Australia where you're guilty until proven innocent, and then what happens? So, the initial idea, the Royal Commission said, was just wrong. The Commissioner was very damning. And then, for four and a half years, and this is why I use the term they gaslit the nation, is that whenever people started to complain and the complaints became a firehose, then a tsunami of complaints, the Government said, no, no, they're all just welfare cheats. We're right.

GLEESON: Minister. Minister, what about the human impact of this? Because we know it was deadly. What do you say - and look, it's a thousand-page report and it goes into the economics, and it goes into, you know, all that sort of stuff, the specific findings against certain Ministers and a certain ex-Prime Minister. But what about the human impact?

SHORTEN: The human impact was shocking. I mean, people on welfare, the safety nets there as a human right, you know, in life, sometimes you can be knocked off track and you might be made redundant or you're moved from the country, you're at uni and you're scrapping to make ends meet, whatever. And what happened here is that all of a sudden, a whole lot of people, ordinary Australians, were told, you owe the government money. Now some people just paid. They said, oh, the government never makes a mistake, they must be right. Bang. And other people said, oh, it's terrible. And you know, they freak out, which is understandable. And a lot of people don't have big bank accounts. It's not like someone, you know, on a couple of million dollars who gets a parking ticket. You know, they were being asked to find records six and seven, eight years old from businesses which might well have shut. And then they had debt collectors. So, there was people - I've met people who were unable to apply for jobs because there was a debt order against them. But the two women I've met who most moved me and I've met quite a lot of the victims as I've campaigned on this, but there's two Queensland ladies, Jennifer Miller and Kath Madgwick, their sons Jared Madgwick and Jenny's son Rhys, after getting the debt notices and dealing with Robodebt, took their own life.

You know, taking your own life is always a complex of reasons. But the debt notices, according to their mums, certainly had a major impact on them. And I'm not going to tell a mother of a son who's taken their own life that she doesn't know what she's talking about, but that's what the previous government did. They dismissed their concerns. Terrible.

GLEESON: Extraordinary. Now, you obviously can't prejudice the legal process. We understand that. And we heard the Prime Minister talk about that earlier. But are you expecting former government Ministers who have been singled out by Catherine Holmes, the Chairman of this Royal Commission? Are we expecting criminal charges?

SHORTEN: I don't know. What a Royal Commission can do is make adverse findings about individuals and it can make recommendations about the system. There's clearly been adverse findings made about senior public servants and possibly Ministers or former Prime Ministers. What happens then is that she's referred the matters in her evidence that she gained to the relevant regulatory agencies. She said that she doesn't want to name them because they want to - they're going to have a process. We accept that. But that's not an infinite process. To people out there who feel that somehow people won't be held accountable. That's not the government's intent. But we will adhere to process because we don't want to give someone a leave pass by prejudicing the process.

GLEESON: Minister, Alan Tudge and Stuart Robert have just put out statements suggesting that they haven't received anything from the Royal Commission, suggesting they don't have a case to answer for or answer to. Again, it's difficult to get into the to the weeds on this, but what do you say to that?

SHORTEN: Well, they wouldn't be so stupid as to lie. If they haven't received a notice, then I wouldn't disbelieve them. But I have to say, when you read the commentary about these two gentlemen, as a person who believes that politics is a vocation and a privilege to serve others, I wouldn't want written about me on my political tombstone, what's been written about those two. The Commissioner did not find them convincing. I mean, you can read the comments yourself. You can people can form their own view. But if she said about you, Peter, what she said about them, you'd be embarrassed, you'd be humiliated. But maybe you and I are different people to these two. Maybe there is an element of shamelessness about some people that - I don't know. Maybe they just think the rules doesn't matter.

GLEESON: Now, the Royal Commission has also come to the conclusion that there is no practical way of setting up a compensation scheme for those who lost so much of their savings. Do you think these findings will provide them at least some sort of closure? And is there a possibility sort of in some sort of civil way that they can go down that path? Well.

SHORTEN: I hope it does help people. I realise that what people really want is that the law never been broken by their own government against them to begin with. It's not going to bring back Jarrad Madgwick or Rhys Cauzzo. It's not going to bring back the time, the pressure, the upset, the shame, because a lot of Australians don't like the allegation that they’re bad debts, you know, and that they've done something wrong. We can't turn back the clock. I wish we could. But I do think today, and I've spoken to some of the very people that I'm speaking to you about and I've kept in touch with them through the journey, today is a bit of a vindication. It does actually bring some degree of, sense of, you know, redemption or vindication, a sense that they were being gaslighted, that they weren't the problem. In terms of compensation going forward, the Commissioner says that because the harms are so sort of, separate categories, but she also raises a couple of legal issues about potential causes of action that people might have. So, I think we're just going to have to dissect what she says and see what signposts she's giving and what it all means.

GLEESON: Just quickly, Alan Tudge, Christian Porter, and Stuart Robert, they're no longer in parliament. Do you think former Prime Minister Scott Morrison should go?

SHORTEN: That's up to him. That's up to him. The Royal Commission will be very tough reading for those people. And others might be saying, fair enough. And I'd probably say fair enough too. But it's not what you'd want as your legacy, this Royal Commission, in terms of what it says about you. But I'm not going to tell Mr. Morrison what to do, but I can say that all the people who were the victims of this unlawful scheme are here. It shouldn't have taken four and a half years. It shouldn't have taken advocates and lawyers. It shouldn't have taken me to help work with Gordon Legal or. Not as a class action, shouldn't have actually taken a Royal Commission. But did you know, I'll leave you on this thought, nearly 20,000 people raised appeals against their debt matters to the government over the four and a half years. Over 4000 went to the cost and the effort and the trauma of taking the government to court. There were 700 times that Robodebt was raised in Parliament by Labor and the crossbench. There were tens of thousands of newspaper articles written about Robodebt and the problems with it. Really, how on earth is a government so shameless, with such a pathology of lawlessness, that they dream up a scheme which is illegal and then for four and a half years, pretend it's fine and not listen to other people for four and a half years. I get isolated incidents, but really there was a tsunami of complaint and trauma and pain.

GLEESON: Bill Shorten, we appreciate your time today.

SHORTEN: Thank you.

GLEESON: There he is, Government Services Minister Bill Shorten.