Questions on the Robodebt Royal Commission


SUBJECTS: Royal Commission’s findings on Coalition government’s engagement with the AAT

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Speaker. My question is to the Minister for Government Services. What advice does the Royal Commission into Robodebt provide to governments about how they should respond to adverse decisions made by bodies hearing appeals? And how did the former government respond to legal challenges or threaten legal challenges?

BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES: I thank the Member for his question. The Robodebt Royal Commission found that an effective merits review tribunal to hear appeals against government administrative decisions is essential. It's essential to protect the rights of individuals and to hold the government to account for bad decisions. But the Royal Commission found that successive Coalition governments effectively neutered the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, a key protection for Australians during Robodebt.

Now we know that Robodebt launched in 2015, in circumstances where initial legal advice was that Robodebt wasn't in accord with the legislation. We know that. But from 2016, the AAT made a series of decisions that questioned the legal basis for income averaging. Victims would appeal to the AAT and the AAT made a series of decision saying the government was wrong. But Coalition governments at that point had the choice to appeal the decision because the AAT had got it wrong, or to change their policy. But they took a third strategy. They just pretended the decisions weren't happening. Subsequently, on the 8th of March 2017, Professor Terry Carney handed down the first and a series of five explosive decisions, giving reasons for concluding that Robodebt was unlawful. 2017.

And again, what did the government do? Nothing. Just nothing. It just didn't happen. In fact, the Royal Commission has found that in no less than 424 cases where the AAT said that the use of the income averaging to assess part or the whole of the debt was wrong. 424 cases. That's a big number. That's a shocking number. They found that in 424 cases, when the government has been told you're wrong, the government neither had the intestinal fortitude to appeal the decisions, nor did it have the courage to actually say we're going to stop it. They just ignored the problems. This Royal Commission evidence is damning. What this government did, these Coalition, successive Coalition governments did is, you're the victim, you've gone through trauma, you finally get to the AAT, you get your hush money, settlement money, settle up. But what this coalition government never did, what none of you ever failed to do was that you joined the dots. How many cases, how many cases does it take before a government realised it's breaking the law? And do you know what the Royal Commission found out? In over 500 cases at the AAT, not once did the government's lawyers ever argue, ever argue that they could rely on any law. It was a cowardly government. I just ask one thing from the Leader of the Opposition. Admit you were wrong then.