Minister Shorten interview on 6PR with Jamie Burnett


JAMIE BURNETT, HOST: Years after the disastrous rollout of the Robodebt scheme, the Royal Commission handed down its final report today. For the hundreds of thousands impacted it might offer some comfort, but as you've been hearing, the findings are pretty damning. It was a scheme that ruined the lives of so many of the most vulnerable in our community. In some cases, it ended lives too. And it's certainly, despite the report today, has much further to go with some individuals. Those identities remaining a secret, referred to authorities for investigation. Bill Shorten is the Government Services Minister. Good afternoon.


BURNETT: A 990-page report, 57 recommendations, hundreds of hours of evidence and nearly a million documents sifted through. Is there any comfort today for those Australians that have been devastated by Robodebt?

SHORTEN: Nothing can ever replace the loss of a family member or people being put through trauma and anxiety. But in terms of comfort, yes, I've spoken to people today. They feel vindicated. The nation and its citizens were gaslighted for years by the previous government who said there was nothing wrong here. We're just chasing down welfare cheats. It turned out the government was breaking the law and hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people were the target and they were poor shamed, and welfare shamed. And so, yes, I think today does add some vindication. That's certainly what I've heard from some people. It can't turn back the clock, which would be the best outcome. But absent that, which is impossible, this is a definite step forward. And I'm very grateful to Commissioner Holmes and the people at the Royal Commission for dragging the truth out into the light.

BURNETT: So, you've spoken to families directly today. How emotional were those phone calls and what were you told?

SHORTEN: It is emotional. It's stressful. It's triggering. A couple of really brave mums, though. I spoke to a pretty heroic whistle-blower who gets singled out for praise. I mean, there were many, but Colleen Taylor's evidence was compelling, and the Commissioner said it helped restore her faith, listening, that there were good people in the system trying to do their best in terrible times.

So, for them, it's a blend of sadness, a little bit of relief, some vindication, some positiveness. There’ll be one or two bottles of something nice drunk tonight, just to, by people just saying, well, at least our point of view has been heard. And this Royal Commission is part of a process of trying to restore faith in government, which the last government trashed. I mean, there was a pathology of illegality and unlawfulness at the heart of a very shameless administration.

BURNETT: Can that trust be regained, though? Because this really was a scheme that hurt the most vulnerable in our community. And the fact is that it didn't get to this point until a Royal Commission, how did it get to this point where it took a Royal Commission, and should it have even been necessary to hear what we're hearing today?

SHORTEN: No, I'm very angry. It shouldn't have taken to the Royal Commission. You're quite right. Trust is gained not by words, but by actions. I get that. But the people at the front line of the public service, they're doing their very best. They were let down by their leaders. Um, but it shouldn't have. The scheme should never have seen the light of day. An illegal unlawful scheme was approved by the Cabinet in the, I don't know if it was the Turnbull era or whenever. And then for four and a half years, despite a firehose of pain and criticism, there were 20,000 internal appeals against decisions. There were 4,500 matters taken to court. The Opposition and Crossbench raised it 700 times plus in Parliament, tens of thousands of articles written about Robodebt and the pain. And what really broke the dam on it wasn't the Parliament, and it wasn't the work of all the hardworking whistle0blowers and advocates, although they were just so good it's not funny.

But there was a legal action run out of Victorian Legal Aid. I helped organise a class action and that forced the Government to say, “Yeah, we're so wrong here.” But of course, they settled on the day of the trial, which meant that we never got to examine the senior public servants and Ministers about what they knew and when and why did this go for so long? So that's the day. Once they settle, that's the day that we had to have a Royal Commission and Labor's kept its promise. And I see Mr. Dutton say it's all about politics and some by-election that is so much BS it doesn't, it's almost not worth a response. This was years and years of illegal treatment by the most powerful organisation in Australia, in our lives, the Australian Government. It gets hundreds of thousands of people, vulnerable people. The job of government is to help people, not hurt people. They got it the wrong way around. They hurt people; they didn't help them.

BURNETT: The underlying issue here with Robodebt and a lot of ways was secrecy, a lack of transparency. But today there's a sealed chapter of the report and it refers to unnamed individuals for criminal and civil prosecution. Why have those names not been made public in the report today?

SHORTEN: Yeah, I think that I can see that point. I had mixed emotions. I wasn't expecting that requirement, I'll be honest. Um, and part of me thought, “oh, we've been on this journey I want people held accountable.” But I think the Commissioner, who's done a brilliant job, when you read the report, just done a brilliant job, she's got a forensic mind, fiercely independent of government, any government.

She said that there's people going to be where there's adverse findings and they're going to be referred off to various regulatory agencies and bodies for further investigation. She said, she didn't want to prejudice those matters by just trawling out their names. The heart of Robodebt was a lack of process. So, there will be a process. There are people who've been, got adverse findings. That's not an admission, a criminal admission of guilt. They have to be investigated. We've got to give fair process. I mean, it is ironic that some government Ministers, perhaps and senior public servants are going to get more support to defend their name than they gave to hundreds of thousands of people on welfare. But we can't engage in a race to the bottom. But I can see the frustration of what you're saying. Everything will eventually come out, no doubt about that.

BURNETT: Speaking of support, Minister, will former Ministers be able to pass on legal fees to taxpayers to fight any proceedings that may follow?

SHORTEN: That's the precedent. Um, then again, you wouldn't want a matter to fall over and compromise a potential prosecution because you didn't do that. But I'm aware that these, maybe some of these same people didn't provide that support to the people they were unlawfully tackling.

BURNETT: Yeah. Do you think that passes the pub test though Minister? And I know that's not the area where we always live.

SHORTEN: No, but it mightn't pass the mob test, but we don't always want to be run by mobs. So, I've worked on this matter for years, as have many other people. I feel very angry about some of the very points that you're raising legitimately with me. But I also accept that one of the things which I think highlights the shamelessness of the previous government is that they just didn't, they always believe ends justified the means, and that's how we got into this situation. So anyway, I understand it's not a completely satisfactory answer and I can understand why good people would have a different view, but anyway, I get where we're at and all I can promise people is it did help pull the class action together. I did campaign from the get-go for a Royal Commission. We've been keeping our promises. We are trying to lift the standards in Services Australia, and we'll just keep working with people to help people rather than hurt them.

BURNETT: Just on that, has all the money recovered in the scheme been repaid to people?

SHORTEN: Just about, yeah. There's a tiny amount still outstanding. We just don't have their details, but I've told our department just get it out to them okay, go and find them. But there's been people who we just, there's some people haven't got back to us that we've notified.

But we're not talking about sheep stations here. We're talking about, it’s still people's money. So, it's important. Yes. So, most of it absolutely has got back.

BURNETT: I suppose the big question going forward is, as a government, how do you now ensure that something like this isn't repeated again?

SHORTEN: Well, one thing which has happened, is that when people read the report… no self-respecting politician who entered politics to help people, whatever was written about them, what this Commission has written about some of the old government and senior public servants… it’s horrible and it'd be humiliating to have that written about you.

I must say that Mr. Morrison's, popped his head up. He said that he rejects it, you know, and he doesn't agree with it at all. That's his prerogative. But people can make up their own mind when they read this Royal Commission report, what they think. So, I think one is the public shame of this description in the report is just horribly damning. If you have a conscience, you’d feel pretty terrible, I think. But also, beyond that, there's recommendations. We will, we're assembling all the people in government to just working through see how it's done. I think a lot of recommendations on their face seem sensible. But, you know, we've got to cross t's dot i's, but they'll only take two to three months.

I know that we've already changed some of the practices in Services Australia already. We don't use external debt collectors anymore. We've stopped using averaged tax office information for raising debts. We now treat the welfare rights groups and peak bodies and other regulators as partners and stakeholders, not people to be kept at arm's length with a raised drawbridge. You know, they've got to be in it. And the notion that I absolutely want to champion in the organisation is, when we say someone owes some money, provided it's done legally, first of all, we've got to make sure that the person for whom their debate feels that they have options, and they just don't have to pay up. There are always two sides to every story. Anyway. We are trying to… I'm very determined to do stuff. I know I’ve visited more of the frontline service Australia offices in 13 months, than all the Coalition Ministers did in ten years.

BURNETT: Minister, just finally, you mentioned that, you know, this is something that you've worked on for some time, you know, with others and tonight might be for many of those, to pour a glass of something and feel like this is some sort of closure. When you get the opportunity tonight to head home after all the years that this has been, and probably after a day full of talking about it. If you pour yourself a glass tonight, what will you be thinking about?

SHORTEN: I wish that we could turn the clock back and it never happened. And I just want to make sure it can never happen again. And I'm also hoping Collingwood beat the Dogs.


BURNETT: I can't help you with that. And I can't agree either, but I appreciate your time, Minister. Thank you so much.

SHORTEN: All right. I just want to acknowledge all the people who participated in the Commission. It's been a terrible experience; it should never have happened. It was a catastrophic failure of judgment of government.

BURNETT: Bill Shorten. Thank you.

SHORTEN: Cheers.