Minister Shorten Interview on ABC Radio National AM with Sabra Lane


SUBJECTS: Robodebt Royal Commission hands down final report; Peter Dutton’s allegations of politicising Robodebt; calls for Scott Morrison to resign

SABRA LANE, HOST: The Federal Government says it will take its time to go through the Robodebt Royal Commission final report recommendations handed down three days ago. It found the scheme was a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal, and made many feel like criminals. Also, that it was a costly failure of public administration as a sealed chapter that hasn't been released, recommending an unknown number of politicians and public servants be investigated for potential criminal and civil action. Bill Shorten is the Minister for Government Services and led the push for a Royal Commission. Bill Shorten, thanks for talking to AM. You've had a couple of days to absorb the report. What's your number one priority?

BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Getting over my anger about the whole debacle. I always knew it was rotten. Certainly from 2019, I became convinced of its unlawfulness. I'm just angry that the Government ignored everyone for four and a half years. So, my priority is making sure it can't happen again.

LANE: There is a sealed section that recommends further investigation and action against individuals. How will the public know if those people are ever held to account and what penalty or punishment they receive?

SHORTEN: Well, I certainly want to make sure that the public know. I think the accountability about individuals is important. Nearly half a million of our fellow Australians received unlawful debt notices, unlawfully raised against them by their own government. They want not just an explanation of how it can happen, which we've now got, but they want to know that the people who made these callous, unlawful decisions face consequences. So, I don't think there's any avoiding the need to explain to people who's been found responsible for what.

LANE: Sure. But you don't have access to that report. I don't have access to it. I guess how are we going to know transparently if investigations come to naught?

SHORTEN: I think this situation where we never are told is not a sustainable position. But I accept that the Commissioner has said that whilst there's a process of investigation going on, the parts of the report which go towards the evidence which may be used against people shouldn't necessarily be out there in the full public domain until processes have been followed.

LANE: Okay. So, they'll come up -   

SHORTEN: I didn't take - nothing I read there said that that's a forever situation.

LANE: Okay. There'll come a point when that chapter is released.

SHORTEN: Yeah, we're waiting for the advice on that. But that's what I assume, and I think that is the sense on the weight of matters, considering the harm that's done and lack of transparency that's occurred in the past, I think that's a sensible course of action.

LANE: Sabra, the Government already has a task force reviewing the public service. How long do you think it will be before the Government actually comes up with a blueprint on how to reform the Department? But more broadly, the public service?

SHORTEN: Well, the public service as a whole is in the domain of other people. In terms of the areas which pay people, that's my area. So, I hope that we would have the Government would have a response within eight to 12 weeks. And in terms of changes actually happening, some have already been put into place, I might add, since the Robodebt illegality was finally concluded and there are changes underway and then there'll be additional changes recommended in the Royal Commission.

LANE: The Commissioner recommended that there be a National Advocates line that recipients can call to sort of notify them of issues and government should have regard to funding Community Legal Centres who largely led a lot of the early investigation against Robodebt. Have you got early thoughts on that?

SHORTEN: Well, the Community Legal Services area is in the remit of my colleague Mark Dreyfus, the Attorney General. I know he recognises the role that Community Legal Services played. For a while, going back into history, I did six months at a community legal service in Springvale. So, you know I too understand their value. That will ultimately be something for the Attorney-General to work out any additional funding. In terms of the advocates hotline. I'd already been meeting with the Department, or Services Australia, and advocates, to talk about how we could put something together because I think that makes perfect sense.

LANE: Kathryn Campbell is a senior public servant who presided over this scheme for a long time. The Albanese Government has given her an important job with AUKUS. How comfortable are you that she's going to keep a senior position within the Government, when it was clear from the report that the Commissioner took a pretty dim view of her work?

SHORTEN: Yeah, the Commission didn't miss her, in terms of their analysis. At this stage I'm not commenting about individuals who may or may not have had adverse findings against them because I don't want to get in my own way, so to speak, of the process. As a general principle, I think that if you were highly involved in this scheme and you have an adverse finding, I think that becomes difficult for the Government. But I can't talk about individuals.

LANE: The Opposition Leader Peter Dutton says you've sought to politicise this issue, saying that you've been showing glee and that you're a political animal. How do you respond to that?

SHORTEN: If I had taken Mr. Dutton and the Liberals advice on Robodebt in 2019, I'd never have organised the class action which helped nearly half a million people. And in 2021, Labor wouldn't have called for the Royal Commission. Mr. Dutton didn't support the class action, didn't want the Royal Commission, and now he's trying to shoot the messengers. I tell Mr. Dutton what politics is. Politics is when you go to war and single out and treat people on welfare as second-class. Politics is when you choose to run an unlawful scheme against people you demonise as dole bludgers. Politics is when you then for four and a half years, rather than scrap the unlawful scheme, tell the Australian people that it's lawful and that you keep going after people on welfare. Politics is when you decide to break the law as the Commonwealth of Australia.

LANE: And what should happen with Scott Morrison? Should he be urging Mr. Morrison to go?

SHORTEN: What Mr. Morrison does is an issue for him and the Liberal Party. Mr. Morrison was the Liberal Prime Minister of Australia. Mr. Morrison was the Liberal Social Security Minister of Australia when Robodebt was rolled out. Any self-respecting politician having the sort of detailed forensic examination and assessment made by this Royal Commission would be embarrassed, humiliated. It's up to Mr. Morrison. He must live in a separate world to the rest of us. If he wants to stay and protest his innocence, that's up to him. But anyone who reads the Royal Commission is going to form, I think, a different view about Mr. Morrison's proposed timetable for staying in Parliament.

LANE: Bill Shorten, thanks for joining AM.

SHORTEN: Thanks, Sabra.

LANE: Bill Shorten is the Minister for Government Services.