Minister Shorten interview on ABC 7.30


SUBJECTS: Robodebt Royal Commission final report

SARAH FERGUSON, HOST: The Albanese Government is seeking legal advice about whether it can make public the sealed section of the Royal Commission report, containing the names of those who've been referred for criminal or civil investigation. Out of the country on holiday, former Prime Minister Scott Morrison released a statement rejecting the findings against him. He's never acknowledged responsibility for the flaws in the scheme. He last spoke to 7.30 in March during the final stages of the Royal Commission hearings.


FERGUSON: Do you accept now that it was both illegal and immoral?

SCOTT MORRISON: Well, I believe that certainly the legality of the issue has been settled and had that been raised with the government at the time, Robodebt would never have happened.

FERGUSON: Was it immoral?

MORRISON: I think there was a lot learnt about how when you industrialise effectively what is a practice that had been in place for decades. I mean, let’s not forget -

FERGUSON: I think we've got some - let's not revisit the whole history, but I think what we're looking at here is with some distance, was it immoral?

MORRISON: Well, look. I think the idea of ensuring that taxpayer’s money which is paid is done properly is the principle. And I think that principle is right. But clearly how this was executed on an industrial scale failed that test.

FERGUSON: So immoral is a reasonable epithet.

MORRISON: I think that that… I think the outcome, not the intent, the outcome was very different from what was intended.

FERGUSON: Bill Shorten is the Minister for Government Services. Bill Shorten, welcome to 7.30.


FERGUSON: Now Scott Morrison, as Minister for Human Services, introduced the Robodebt scheme. Was it immoral or illegal or both?

SHORTEN: It was both. As far as I'm concerned, and I think as far as the Royal Commission was concerned, and I think as far as the victims were concerned and many other Australians, this was a war on people on welfare. There was a trope, a proposition, a stereotype which said that there was a mountain of gold, that these ungrateful people, being treated as second class Australians, were ripping off the system and the Morrison and the Turnbull governments were going to go to war and get it all back for the taxpayers. So, it was a poor shaming, welfare attacking, vicious attack and it was illegal, it was unlawful from the get go. And for four and a half cruel years the previous government shouted down, intimidated and ignored all of the red flags, the hurt, the harm, the firehose of complaint and grief.

FERGUSON: Now, the Royal Commission has been scathing of Morrison's role, including that he allowed Cabinet to be misled. Now, whose decision will it be to decide whether or not he has, in fact, acted illegally?

SHORTEN: Well, the sealed section has referred a range of public servants and some politicians to various regulatory agencies. I think, though, the 670 odd pages of the Royal Commission detail that this was a problem caused by a range of Coalition Ministers and some senior public servants who, through various highways and byways, created an unlawful scheme, mandated it and then carried it out for four and a half years against nearly half a million Aussies who just happened to use welfare periodically.

FERGUSON: You seem to infer there that there were politicians, plural. Is that correct? More than one?

SHORTEN: I don't know. But I do think that whilst everyone is focusing on the sealed section, reading the 670 or so pages of the Royal Commission really, I think, sets out the facts of the matter. And the facts of the matter do not reflect well on government, do not reflect well on some public servants or some Ministers in the previous government.

FERGUSON: Let's just stay with those Ministers for the moment. You said that you're waiting for legal advice as to when you can or whether you can in fact reveal the names in the sealed section. What have you received that advice? Where are you up to? Do you know when you'll be able to make a decision?

SHORTEN: To be precise, when we were asked this question, the Prime Minister and I on Friday, we made it clear that whilst we had mixed emotions about the sealed section, we understand the desire for people to see accountability immediately, the Royal Commissioner did make the view that the individuals who've been referred should have due process and they didn't want to contaminate that with a whole lot of public speculation and argy bargy. But then we were asked at the press conference on Friday, what about once these processes are concluded and we said we'd get advice on that. I do think at the end of the day that the citizens of this country have a right to see what happens, but we've got to make sure we get the processes right, which is what the Royal Commission spelt out. So, we've just, I think, Royal Commission's done a pretty amazing job talking to a lot of the victims for whom this is the most important concern for me, and making sure we have good government, they feel a sense of vindication with the precision and the honesty and the pretty hard, pulling no punches, Royal Commission report.

FERGUSON: Just to understand where your position is as a Minister, how many people in your own department have received adverse findings? Do you know?

SHORTEN: No, I'm not formally sure yet. What happens is that the sealed section has gone to the head of the Public Service Commission, the Secretary of the Prime Minister's department, the Secretary of Attorney-Generals, and the Attorney General. They have I know that today they've ensured that all the agency heads have referred anyone who needs to for a public service investigation. A former public service Commissioner, Mr. Stephen Sedgwick, very distinguished record, will be an independent reviewer of the adverse findings, and there'll be a code of conduct hearings.

FERGUSON: Now, to avoid culpability, is it possible that politicians will be able to make the case that they were honestly relying on the advice of their public servants?

SHORTEN: It's a pretty vexed issue. You know, I think the Royal Commissioner said it pretty succinctly. It was almost like a children's nursery rhyme. 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 both Department of Social Services and others. There was a real finger pointing which would have been a Marx Brothers script, except that half a million people were served, had unlawful debt notices raised against them. I noticed some of the politicians saying, well, we have no adverse findings, but that just tells me they haven't read the Commission. This Royal Commission outlines in tragic honesty the culpability of a range of Coalition  Ministers and senior public servants. There's no escaping that. And if these characters think that somehow they're in the clear, I don't read that when I read this Royal Commission. What self-respecting person in public life wants the sort of things which are being said about Mr. Tudge or Mr. Porter or Mr. Robert or Mr. Morrison. I just… they must live in a parallel universe.

FERGUSON: Let's be clear about that, because Mr. Tudge, Mr. Porter and Mr. Robert all say that they haven't been referred in the sealed section of the report. But I think what you're referring to there is a section in the report where the Royal Commissioner says there does appear to be evidence of what's called a tort of malfeasance. Now, if that level of bad behaviour has been reached, what difference does that make for people who were the victims of this case? Does that give them an avenue to sue the government or sue those individuals?

SHORTEN: I've been perplexed by the response of some of the Coalition politicians, to say there's no adverse findings. About Mr. Tudge, it says that his actions represent an abuse of power. About Mr. Porter, they said Mr. Porter could not rationally have been satisfied with the legality of the scheme on the basis that the gentleman’s advice and Mr. Robert has been criticised for making statements that he knew could not be right. And the point you're going to is the Royal Commissioner, when she addresses the question of the victims, and of course that's the people who really matter in this, they - she says a general compensation scheme would be too administratively expensive to run. But she does say very clearly, she says that on the face of the evidence presented to the Commission, the elements of the tort of malfeasance in public office are made. I do not know why these Coalition Ministers think that they're out of the woods. This Royal Commission has a long way to go and a lot of lessons to be applied, but I do not know why Coalition Ministers with that sort of very, very damning analysis by the Royal Commission, why they think when the Commissioner says there's the tort of malfeasance in public office, why they think that people, victims, won't sue them individually.

FERGUSON: Now you raise Catherine Holmes there because she as you said, she makes it clear in the report that a compensation scheme, a wide compensation scheme, is not realistic, is not manageable in the circumstances. But she says another solution would be to raise benefits. Has your Government considered that as a response?

SHORTEN: Well, on the 1st of July we did raise benefits, so we did -

FERGUSON: She must have been aware of that. So, let's assume that she means to raise them again, to offer what she calls security for those people who have been harmed in the Robodebt, in the execution of Robodebt.

SHORTEN: She goes towards, I think, a really well made and a cogent proposition generally. And it's an invitation, an invocation or indeed just a straight out piece of old fashioned just telling it straight. She says this trope of the dole bludger needs to be dispensed with. She starts in her Commission and says that the Morrison Government, or maybe it was the Turnbull Government then, I should say, or maybe it was even the Abbott Government, said they believed there was gold, a mountain of gold, a $4.77 billion to be raised because these bad welfare people were, you know, getting their facts wrong and had to repay money. In the end, only $406 million was raised. And she goes on and says, this stigmatisation of people on welfare just has to stop. Now, I know that the Labor Government doesn't stigmatise those on welfare. We certainly have increased the Commonwealth rent support. We've increased the single mothers’ payments, we've increased Newstart. I don't think the journey stops there. I'm not going to pretend that that's an easy or living on. I've never had that view, nor do my colleagues in Labor.

FERGUSON: Bill Shorten, thank you very much indeed for joining us today. Thanks.

SHORTEN: Thank you.