Minister Shorten Interview on Afternoon Briefing with Greg Jennett


SUBJECTS: Motion on Robodebt

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Well, let's start with what we assume is the parliament's final word on the Robodebt scandal that hit more than 400,000 Australians with illegal debts. The Royal Commission provided the most comprehensive review of what went wrong between 2016 and 2020. Now, the House has passed a motion endorsing its findings, especially in relation to former Ministers like Scott Morrison. This motion also expressed, quote, deep regret, and apologies to the victims. In a moment, Bill Shorten joins us, but here's how he wrapped up debate before the government comfortably won the day on the numbers.

BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GIVERNMENT SERVICES [VIDEO]: When you take the pay as a Cabinet Minister, when you lecture for year upon year upon year, we're going to get these people and then it's wrong, then to gaslight the Royal Commission. Yes, we are the messengers, and you can shoot us all you like. If I was being really partisan, I would hope that you keep doing exactly what you're doing because at the moment, the way the Coalition is handling this Royal Commission, with a few notable exceptions, the way you're handling it means you've learnt nothing, and you'll repeat the same mistakes again.

JENNETT: All right. There he was in full flight, NDIS and Government Services Minister Bill Shorten. He instigated that motion which was opposed throughout by the Coalition, and he joined us here in the studio a few minutes ago. Bill Shorten, welcome back to the program. So, you have succeeded with this motion in the House. Leads the question though, why wasn't the Robodebt Royal Commission report in all of its 900 pages comfort enough for victims and damnation enough for those responsible?

SHORTEN: Well, we wouldn't have had the Royal Commission except individual plaintiffs, victims, their lawyers, and then the class action brought the previous government to account. The Royal Commission is another important step to learn the lessons. I think the Australian people, they want to be comfortable that all political parties, not just the Liberals, not just the Nats, not just the Green Political Party, but Labor too, that we understand what went wrong and that we admit what went wrong. But unfortunately, the Coalition Ministers, not some of their backbenchers, they've got the memo and they're giving some impressive speeches about Robodebt’s problems. But the frontbench, just like the climate denialists, they're Robodebt denialists. You know that Michael Sukkar, a pretty intelligent fella, Paul Fletcher, the senior member of the Coalition, they spent 3000 words attacking Labor for raising the Robodebt Royal Commission, but they didn't use the word Robodebt once. Like, that's a bit of a warning sign. It's a tell that they don't get it. They know they're meant to apologise, but they don't understand what they're apologising for.

JENNETT: Well, you directed this motion squarely at them, the condemnation is of former Ministers involved in the design and implementation. Shouldn't you also direct it at the many public servants, legal advisers, and others? And why didn't you?

SHORTEN: I think you'll find if you look at what we've said about Robodebt, we've spoken about the senior public servants. I mean, the vast bulk of public servants were also victims in this. The frontline Centrelink staff, many of whom I know. But yes, we've certainly been incredibly critical of the senior public service. But at the end of the day, when you were a Cabinet Minister for the Commonwealth of Australia, is it good enough to say I was just following a public servant’s orders? Does that wash?

JENNETT: Is this the final punctuation point in this? I noticed that you said in Question Time quite separately to this morning's debate, this issue will never cease for you, the opposition, until you get up and accept what you did was wrong. So, separate to Commissioner Holmes sealed section, is there anything else that you as a government are proposing to do in pursuit of individuals?

SHORTEN: Well, what we want to do is currently we've set up a task force and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to review the Royal Commission's 57 recommendations and see how we respond. We absolutely want to do that this year. So that's an important point. As a Minister for Government Services, I've already started quite a range of reforms working with the new leadership of Services Australia and Department of Social Services. There's a lot to be done to make sure that we never again fall into the trap of thinking that people who require income assistance are second class citizens. We've got to change this debate in Australia that somehow there's this big divide between the good people and the bad people, between the people who don't use Centrelink and the people who do use Centrelink. Access to social services is a human right in any modern democracy, and we've got to make sure that we don't sort of try and pretend that the individuals who come seeking assistance are somehow less moral or, or that they're just individually, you know, people who've stuffed up.

JENNETT: Yeah, that's understood.

SHORTEN: Anyone can need safety net.

JENNETT: There's not much more politically you can throw above and beyond what you've already thrown at former Prime Minister Scott Morrison, though, is there. I note today that the Speaker has ruled out any sort of privileges committee examination of the former prime minister for misleading or other contempts of Parliament. Are you about done on your long and painful?

SHORTEN: That was a Greens - the Greens dreamed it up to get a little bit of look at me attention I suspect, on that stunt. But I want to make sure that we build a consensus across the aisle, both sides of politics, that people on welfare shouldn't be automatically treated as cheats. The people seeking income support are not in some fashion second class. I am not convinced, and I think a lot of Australians aren't convinced that whilst the current mob at the front of the Coalition queue are in denial about Robodebt, do you know what I'd really like them to come out and say? We really got it wrong. It was an unlawful scheme. It hurt 434,000 people and we as Ministers shouldn't have just been passing the buck on to our public servants.

JENNETT: It's a moot point, though, for them now, isn't it, at least for the rest of this parliamentary term? If you see them as a threat to social welfare safety net in this country, there's not much they can do to damage it in their current position.

SHORTEN: Well, whilst Labor's in, people on welfare will be treated with greater, much greater, respect. But nothing's forever. And what we want to do, I think we have an unusual opportunity, paid for by the price of 434,000 victims paid for by the lawbreaking of the previous Liberal government, we've got an opportunity to redefine the welfare debate in this country. Sure, we want people to be at work. People on welfare, by and large, don't want to be on welfare. The ironic thing about the Robodebt victims is these were people who would be working sometimes and on welfare other times, yet they were the ones who were targeted and given a hard time. The very people who you would have thought - I mean, the Liberal Party is meant to be the party of the individual against the state. They often talk about freedom, but this was actually the Liberal Party using the power of the state against the individual. The Liberals say they're the custodians of conservatism, they say, conservatives say we believe in the rule of law, but they didn't.

JENNETT: Yeah. You've got, well, whatever's left in your locker, you can continue to fire from your position as Government Services Minister, Bill Shorten. Also just on another matter, the Prime Minister has confirmed in late October he's heading to Washington for an official state visit. He's not going to leave in the final phases of the referendum campaign, is he? What do you think this announcement tells us about dates for that?

SHORTEN: Well, this is a decision for the Prime Minister and the government as a whole to announce the date. I mean, I'm giving nothing away by saying it'll be on a Saturday. There's only a set number of Saturdays left.

JENNETT: You can kind of work it backwards, can't you?

SHORTEN: But it's not my decision to announce. And so, whilst I admire the elegance of your question, I can't come out to play on that one.

JENNETT: Carefully swerved. All right, look, time's going to beat us today. Bill Shorten, thanks for covering off at least Robodebt and we'll talk again soon.

SHORTEN: Look forward to it. Thank you.