Minister Shorten interview on JJJ Hack


SUBJECTS: Robodebt Royal Commission hands down final report; Scott Morrison’s future in Parliament; automation in the NDIS

DAVE MARCHESE, HOST: Shahlailah Medhora speaking with some of the victims of Robodebt there, asking them what they think of this Royal Commission report. Remember, if that has raised anything for you, Lifeline is always there. You can get them on 13 11 14. We're hearing from you on the text line, too. Someone says, why is nothing done before these things happen? It's always after the fact. I'm sure a lot of terrible things have happened to people as a result of Robodebt that should have been sorted out well before. Another person, I got a $10,000 debt and received $26 back. Disgraceful. Someone else says they’ve joined the class action. I owed 18,000 but just got paid $240 as my settlement. Yeah, a lot of people talking about the money they received as part of that class action. Important to note that that wasn't compensation for pain and suffering, you know, endured by Robodebt. That was related to the interest that people owed. But in terms of compensation itself, that was, you know, one of the things that was mentioned in the Royal Commission report. So, let's ask someone about that from the Government because what happens now? The Government's read the report. They've made it public. Where do we go from here? Well, Bill Shorten is the Government Services Minister. He's with us now. Good day, Minister. Thanks for coming on, Hack.


MARCHESE: You, the Prime Minister, others keep saying Robodebt will never happen again. I guess my question is how are you going to make sure of that? And more importantly, how are you going to convince Australians this will never happen again?

SHORTEN: Well, we convince Australians by our actions, not our words, although one of our actions was to for myself, for example, was to help organise the class action. So, I've been on this for a long time. And then when I proposed a Royal Commission, the then Opposition leader, now Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, was completely locked on to doing it and we did it. So, we've exposed it and going forward we have to make sure that our public servants feel they can give free and frank and honest advice. We also need to change the culture of the debate about people using our social services system. They're not second class. They're citizens. They're people who are exercising a human right. We've signed up to the United Nations Covenants, which recognise that the provision of Social Security is a human right. So, I don't think if someone needs to get, you know, unemployment assistance or a pension or any other form of allowance, if they're eligible, then that's that, and we don't treat them as guilty until proven innocent. Well, I mean.

MARCHESE: That was one of the big recommendations from this Royal Commission, that welfare recipients need to be treated better.


MARCHESE: You know, in the past, the Commissioner said they've been treated cruelly, even though they were the victims, they were made to feel like criminals and dole cheats. There's a lot of criticism on individual politicians at the moment, which I guess we can expect. But if we can focus on the public service for a bit because, you know, rightly or wrongly, a lot of people don't have a lot of faith in politicians, but they do expect the public service to be doing the right thing. How has it been allowed to get to this point? Because there are examples of public servants just going along with plans, even though they knew it wasn't right. Like you say, they should be providing fearless advice. Why haven't they been?

SHORTEN: It is politics. The Coalition doesn't trust the public service, and so they've tried to reshape the senior echelons in their own shape, in their own dimension. So, they've contracted out positions. There's an overreliance on external consultants. We've got to recreate a culture in the public service. It's like all organisations, dare I say it, even the ABC. We've got to encourage that bad news gets fed up the food chain as well as good news. It's easy in life to get promoted if you tell the people above you nice things. It takes a different dimension of relationship to tell the people above you the things that they mightn't want to hear but are important to hear. So, I think there's a big challenge in the public service, to just reset the proposition that if you want to tell higher ups that this isn't working well, that that shouldn't be a block to your future promotion, for example.

MARCHESE: Do you think then that more senior public servants need to go? Like, if we're serious about changing the culture, surely the fish rots from the head?

SHORTEN: I'm careful of tarring everyone with the same brush. I've met some excellent senior public servants who are dedicated, but I also think that if senior public servants don't understand their obligations to the people, well, then they've got to question why they're there.

MARCHESE: Minister, do you think it's fair that people's names are being kept secret in this sealed chapter? Like, it's obviously for legal reasons. We know why this is happening, but there are people out there who maybe feel like they do want to know, like, is there a risk that those responsible might escape public scrutiny forever because those names aren't public?

SHORTEN: I think that's a legitimate anxiety. I had mixed emotions when I realised that the Royal Commissioner, she did also put in a letter, so as not to prejudice any further prosecutions or investigations by civil or criminal agencies, she didn't want to name people, and she had a sealed section. That's unusual. It's not unprecedented. I understand, though, the desire for accountability and the scepticism of some who say, well, if we never know who these people are, then how do we know anything ever happened? So, I don't think the names can be suppressed indefinitely. I think if there's an argument about making sure we don't get in the way of proper investigation by releasing them, I, you know, I'm not going to second guess Commissioner Holmes on that, but I don't see a world, frankly, where it can be suppressed indefinitely because it's dilution of the rest of the work of the Commission.

MARCHESE: Can you guarantee to Robodebt victims that people will be punished for what's happened?

SHORTEN: I'm not the judge. I can't be the court system and I can't be the Anti-Corruption Commission. They're independent, so I can't make that 100%, so I can guarantee that just like I helped organize the class action, just like I helped campaign for a Royal Commission, I want to do everything in my power to make sure that there's accountability because. Anything less than that, I think falls short of what we should be pushing for.

MARCHESE: One of the Royal Commission's recommendations is to end the Government's blanket approach to the confidentiality of Cabinet documents because it's too easy for politicians to hide behind. Documents should only be kept secret if it's justified and in the public interest. Will your Government implement this recommendation?

SHORTEN: Well, by the nature of your question, you realise that that's a whole of government decision and I'm one Minister, so I can't give you that answer. That'll be a discussion more broadly within the Government.

MARCHESE: Would you support it, though? Would you support it?

SHORTEN: I think there is a role for some cabinet and confidence. There's a reason why we have the ability to talk about matters without it being sort of 7/24, virtual reality Truman Show. But we're taking the whole of the Royal Commission seriously and the recommendations, there's 57 recommendations you've mentioned one of them.

MARCHESE: But do you admit that perhaps, as the Commissioner said, that politicians are able to hide behind this and that the system does need to change?

SHORTEN: Certainly, the evidence that she covered showed that the previous government was making bad decisions and hiding bad decisions. I don't accept that that's how all politicians operate at all times, though.

MARCHESE: You're listening to Hack, I’m Dave Marchese, I'm speaking with Government Services Minister Bill Shorten about the Robodebt Royal Commission and where we go to from here, what the Government is going to do. Minister, does Scott Morrison need to leave Parliament?

SHORTEN: I'm not sure that me saying he should go is going to change anything because it's clear what I think about him. But when you actually read what is said in the Royal Commission report, some of what was said about half a dozen of the Coalition Ministers is stuff which no self-respecting politician would find anything other than humiliating and embarrassing. I'm not sure what he thinks he's achieving by hanging around, but that'll ultimately be up to him.

MARCHESE: What about compensation?

SHORTEN: The Royal Commissioner addressed the question of compensation in her report. What she said, Dave, was that she thought that a general scheme of compensation would be more administratively expensive to run than the actual money which would be paid. She did drop a couple of hints about potential causes of action in the future, which no doubt the lawyers will pore over.

MARCHESE: Is there any indication that the Government is going to pursue some kind of further compensation down the road?

SHORTEN: Well, to repeat what I said, the Commissioner hasn't recommended that.

MARCHESE: But will you as a Government pursue that?

SHORTEN: We've got to see what the legal cause of action is. In other words, I can't just say I'm going to hand out money to people. You've got to have some legal basis for it. The Commission's put out some propositions, but we'll have to see where that goes.

MARCHESE: Bill Shorten, you're also the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and you've said you support ethical automation for the NDIS. Shouldn't we though, be stopping these automated processes altogether? Like it feels like the public has lost trust in that?

SHORTEN: I get that. But we're not going to go back to banning the Internet. We're not going to get back to getting rid of smartphones.

MARCHESE: But do we need more transparency of how -

SHORTEN: The issue with the NDIS is that I think the Agency's been conclusively underfunded for a long time. So, we want to improve the capability of the Agency, we want to improve the empathy and humanity of the Agency. We're bringing jobs in-house. I don't accept the challenges of the NDIS are the same set of challenges as Robodebt, where there was a clear overreliance on a computer algorithm, which then reversed the onus on individual people who were wrongfully having debts raised against them.

MARCHESE: But I guess Australia doesn't have laws requiring government public service algorithms to be made open and accessible to the public. My question is should there be laws to guarantee that?

SHORTEN: I think we need to have an overdue discussion about the ethics of artificial intelligence. Where that leads us, I've got an open mind. I've certainly informally discussed the role of open-source codes within parts of government programs that I'm responsible for. I think the more that consumers can see programs, that allows us to identify problems earlier, it lets the people we work with and the citizens co-produce to deliver a better system. But I don't think I can simply just sit here and assert there's a set law which is going to be the answer. But I think you're on to something as a general discussion about keeping up with the technology so that consumers feel they have control over their own data.

MARCHESE: Well, look, there's a huge amount of information to get across from this Royal Commission report. It's something that a lot of Hack listeners have been waiting a long time for. Government Services Minister Bill Shorten, thank you very much for coming on Hack.

SHORTEN: Thanks, Dave. And to all those people who are affected by the scheme, I don't pretend that we have all the answers, but the Royal Commission is vindication for people who are unlawfully treated by our predecessors, and I think it also hopefully jolts public service and governments of all persuasions, just make sure that the basic human rights of people are at the forefront of decision making.