Minister Shorten interview on Sunrise with Matt Doran and Edwina Bartholomew


EDWINA BARTHOLOMEW: To the top story of the day, and Government Services Minister Bill Shorten has weighed in on the Robodebt saga, saying the Royal Commission exposed a soullessness and hollowness in parts of the public service and ministries.

MATT DORAN: The report referred individuals for civil and criminal prosecution and included 57 recommendations, concluding that Robodebt was a crude and cruel mechanism that was neither fair nor legal and Government Services Minister Bill Shorten joins us now. Minister, thank you so much for being with us. The Royal Commissioner -

BILL SHORTEN: Yeah, good morning.

MATT DORAN: - Catherine Holmes has described this as just failing the public interest in such a vast number of ways. You've been really close to this, Bill, and have dealt with the harrowing stories from so many families. Where do you begin to try and summarise what has happened here?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, for people who haven't followed Robodebt, this was a situation where the Morrison government decided there was literally mountains of gold being claimed by welfare recipients who weren't entitled to it. The problem is that was never true. So, they embarked on a four and a half year crusade against our most vulnerable and were basically poor shaming them. And the mechanism they used was to assert that a debt was owed and then leave it to the person at the other end of the debt letter, the debt notice, to try and prove that they were innocent. So, we had a system of guilty until proven innocent and this led to a lot of trauma, a lot of anxiety, a lot of conflict and in some cases, self-harm and worse. And the Royal Commissioner, at the instigation of Labor, we set up a Royal Commission, we promised to do it in opposition. The previous government laughed at me and said there was nothing there. What's the point? And yesterday, the Royal Commissioner handed down a report which really lifted the lid on what she called an illustration of venality, incompetence and cowardice. It's a shocking indictment.

EDWINA BARTHOLOMEW: And that it made people feel like criminals, Bill, didn't it? I mean, extraordinarily, the report said that they knew as early as 2014, before it was even implemented, that 95 per cent of the calculations done automatically were going to be incorrect and not match up to what they found. I mean, that is unbelievable and could have saved all of this pain. 20 people are included in this sealed section that's now been referred to the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the AFP. Explain to our viewers, and particularly those impacted by this Robodebt saga, why that is sealed, why it's important that that is sealed and when we're likely to see who is named in that section.

BILL SHORTEN: Thanks, Eddie, for your words. And by the way, I know there'll be thousands of Robodebt victims who are watching your show and they'll appreciate you and others speaking up and saying this was cruel. So, that all helps. It doesn't help make sense of what happened, but at least these people will stop feeling gaslighted by their own government.

In terms of the sealed section, a Royal Commission investigates a matter, it's the sort of emperor of all inquiries. It can look anywhere, it's got powers to compel evidence. It finally got ex Prime Minister Morrison and other Coalition ministers and senior public servants to have to account for their actions. So, the Commissioner has made 57 recommendations and we, the new government, have got to weigh up what we do and how we implement it and what do we think about them? A lot of them do seem to make sense at first blush, but there was also the power to make adverse findings. That's looking at someone's evidence and saying, hey, I don't believe you. In fact, there's more to what you've said, in my opinion, that deserves further investigation by civil and criminal legal authorities. An adverse finding is not a statement of guilt, but it's a view of the Commissioner that there's more here than meets the eye. And there was a lot of tough evidence said about a lot of former coalition politicians and senior public servants.

But the Commissioner wrote to us yesterday and gave us the report. She said that for the people she's made adverse findings about, she doesn't want to prejudice further investigations by outing them on all the details. So I get that - and I had mixed emotions when I read that. I get that a lot of us have just campaigned for accountability and we don't want people escaping responsibility. But I think the Commissioner's point is also pretty sound. She wants to make sure that further criminal and civil investigations are not prejudiced by a whole lot of public sort of bantering and speculation about who did what and when.

EDWINA BARTHOLOMEW: That makes a lot of sense.

BILL SHORTEN: So, we will eventually find out who's gotten - we will find out eventually who these people are. I'm confident of that. But at this point, she's recommended that we follow processes and that's fair enough, I can live with that.

MATT DORAN: Bill, over 400,000 people were affected by this. The Commission says there will not be a compensation scheme for victims. Do you think that is fair?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, the Royal Commissioner went to this issue of compensation and said it would be very difficult to - I mean all the 400,000 plus people, all in different circumstances. She said the administrative cost of running a general compensation scheme would outweigh any compensation paid. So, she's got a strand of pragmatism, the Royal Commissioner. There has been a class action. I was involved, after 2019 election defeat, in organising a class action. That did see $1.7 billion of debts either written off or refunded to people. There was about $112 million of some modest extra payments made to the victims then. I mean, remember, these debts were unlawful. The Commonwealth was just wrong, wrong, wrong. She does make some other observations about potential avenues in the future for victims to pursue. And I'm sure the lawyer, the legal fraternity, is eagerly perusing her words right now and we will certainly be looking at that, but no general compensation scheme was recommended by her.

EDWINA BARTHOLOMEW: And Bill, we say this figure of 500 thousand people, but that's 500 thousand people directly impacted by the claims. But then we take into account their family, their friends, the wider community.


EDWINA BARTHOLOMEW: Particularly for those who took their own lives. We'll be catching up with Jenny Miller, who I know you've worked very closely with, later on in the show, who lost her son to suicide over Robodebt. Thank you for the personal time you've taken to answer all of these people who've been affected by this, because it's a real - it's a national shame.

BILL SHORTEN: Government, the job of government, at the end of the day, the job of government is to help people, not hurt them. What the Robodebt Royal Commission reveals is political cowardice, incompetence, venality. What it revealed is that the previous government was hurting people, not helping them. And that's really the reason why we have politics in Australia, is to help, not hurt. It's a real shocking shame.

MATT DORAN: Well said, Bill. It was described in this report as one of the worst-ever chapters of public administration and I think that sums it up. Bill Shorten, thank you very much for your time this morning.