Minister Shorten Interview on 5AA Mornings with Matthew Pantelis


SUBJECTS: Robodebt Royal Commission report

MATTHEW PANTELIS, HOST: The federal government have accepted all 56 recommendations from the Robodebt Royal Commission report. More than 400,000 people wrongly sent computer generated debt notices. The government saying it's hired more staff to work in Services Australia to make sure such an incident doesn't happen again, and the National Anti-Corruption Commission has received at least 16 referrals, all public servants, as I understand it, in relation to the Robodebt fiasco. So where to from now? There's still… debt collection continues under the federal government, the Anti-Poverty Coalition calling on the government to ease up on that as well to immediately suspend debt collection activity. Let's speak to the Minister responsible for this area, Bill Shorten, who is on the line. Minister, good morning.


PANTELIS: So, accepting all 56 recommendations, you feel all are relevant and important?

SHORTEN: Yeah, I think they all do move the dial forward in terms of making sure that Robodebt never happens again and that we've got to be putting the human back into human services. So, I think that the recs are good. We've agreed absolutely to 49. We're just agreeing in principle the remaining 7. But you know, with a view to do, but just to see how we do it.

PANTELIS: Debt collection continues though and as I mentioned the Anti-Poverty Coalition saying it should all be suspended, the effects on people are just incredible trying to get money back, whether rightly or wrongly.

SHORTEN: Yeah, well, that's their view. We want to make sure that no one has… the best way to avoid debt collection is for there to be no mistake to begin with and that's why I want to make sure that from our end that we've got the most human based service. If the government can stop making mistakes with perhaps using pre-filled information, it just diminishes any subsequent angst. If a debt is raised, the first thing I've said to Services Australia is, don't assume that the person's wrong and that we're right.


SHORTEN: So, we want to improve the level of communication. And as I said it's not, I don't like the assumption automatically that we tell people they owe the money and the conversation's got to be, listen, we think there's an issue here. This is how we work it out. And then for the advocates, they've got to have the ability to resolve matters in a really quick fashion and an empowered way. So, I think we can improve the system generally. But the best way is not to make mistakes and not to break the law to begin with.

PANTELIS: All right. So essentially what you'll be doing from what you've just said there is sending somebody a letter saying, look, we think there's a problem here. Show us how you get to your amount, and we'll show you how we get to ours. Is that essentially what you're saying? The principle.

SHORTEN: I can't go to the text, but the principle has got to be that when the government says there may be a debt, that the person realises they've got lots of avenues to deal with this. And as I say, more people in the system. I don't think that anyone's saying this government is not a serious improvement on the last in the area of government services.

PANTELIS: Compensation for people affected by Robodebt. There are families who claim that loved ones took their lives as a result of it, getting a bill and not being able to cope. The final straw. So where do we go next with compensating people who are affected?

SHORTEN: Well, I think about, every time there's a Robodebt story, I think about Kath Madgwick and Jennifer Miller, I've been in touch with them yesterday and this morning. Nothing can compensate people, which wouldn't be better done by just turning back the dial to before it all happened and having an alternative reality. But we can't do that. The universe doesn't grant that. There's been a class action which has seen people repaid, and there was some interest paid on that. No doubt there'll be individuals kicking the legal tires in the light of the Royal Commission report, to see if there might be civil actions. That will depend on the legal profession and the people putting together the case possible to establish that. It's not easy, I don't think, but I don't think it's impossible.

PANTELIS: You've called on Peter Dutton to apologise as well, to give those people closure. Do you think he will?

SHORTEN: Well, he says he has. He says that when I do this, I'm just politicising the issue. What he doesn't get is that Robodebt was political, it was a political choice by the previous government to pick on the vulnerable and assume they couldn't fight back. So, it's political when you reverse the onus of proof on people on welfare and you make them feel like second class cheats. Anyway, I just wouldn't mind him just saying, clearly, we really did get this very wrong. And I mean, the problem for Mr. Dutton is when Mr. Abbott introduced the scheme, Peter Dutton was in the room. When Mr. Turnbull expanded the scheme, Peter Dutton was in the room. When Scott Morrison, with his trademark sort of stubbornness, doubled down and defended the scheme, Peter Dutton was in the room.

PANTELIS: So, it's on the onus is on the opposition leader, you claim, but we'll see where that ends up. I just want to -

SHORTEN: He was there for ten years, I don't know, did he have his - I don't know. Anyway…

PANTELIS: The way debt is calculated, does the system need to change? Does it need to become more transparent as to the rules around everything that's taken into account? People in reality don't really understand how the system works. They know they get a payment. They want to stay on the right side of the ledger. But there's a lot of complexity around all of that. Should that change, should it be simpler?

SHORTEN: In an ideal world, yes. But a lot of the complexity is initially driven by the fact that there's literally hundreds of different subheadings of payments. Our welfare legislation, our social security legislation, is a good historical statement of different pensions that have existed, and subgroups and problems solved. So, it is very complicated, and that isn't helped when you take experienced public servants out of the mix who are used to reading the laws and reading documents and understanding what's happening. So, it's going to take a fair while to rebuild all of that.

PANTELIS: Still looking for a million people with debts of 5 billion, as I understand it though, and their figures put out by the Anti-Poverty Coalition. Let's be frank about that. But is that correct? Is there a great deal of fraud within the Social Security system?

SHORTEN: Oh well I’d definitely want to check the numbers, but no, I don't think there is a great deal of fraud in the system. I think mistakes get made, but I don't think there's a lot of fraud in the in the system from people, no, and that was proven. Robodebt was based on the assumption there was a mountain of ill-gotten gold to be taken from the underclass of welfare recipients that the previous government wanted us to think of them as, and there was no mountain of gold. It was just in fact; the issues of fraud were far smaller. Now, that doesn't mean fraud never happened, but I don't regard most of the people where there's mistakes in the welfare system are because they're wrong.

PANTELIS: If there are mistakes, I mean, you say mistakes get made, potentially still today we're chasing people. The government is chasing people for debts they don't owe.

SHORTEN: I don't know if they don't owe or not, but I do absolutely want to just reduce the amount of friction in the system. We're not doing it the way the previous government did it. No one says that. We're going to put in more staff. We're going to have a statute of limitations to be worked out. We're going to improve our tech so that we can pre-fill data. I think we can get in the right direction. We've just got to talk to the people at the front line of the service and the recipients and make sure we're hearing their voices in our decisions.

PANTELIS: And that's probably the most important thing, isn't it, to give people a chance to have their say, especially if they feel wrongly done by it?

SHORTEN: Yes. So, one thing I know we're creating is an advocate’s hotline. So, if you have an advocate, they can just get through quickly and deal with the issues. We've said we'll do that. We're also meeting with civil society more regularly than used to be, certainly at my level that's the case. So, we're hearing from civil society more directly. We've also, I've visited more Centrelink offices and Medicare offices than I think all the Coalition Ministers previously. I'm at about number 45, I just want to catch up with the people at the front line and that helps too.

PANTELIS: Phone services are well and good, and you would know as Services Australia looking at that, just how busy they have been, and I regularly get people ringing in here saying that they've tried to get through and the wait extends hours for a human to answer the phone. Just intolerable really, and okay, you're recruiting more staff, that's got to help, but that's got to be the first thing you address in all of this, the frustration of somebody getting a wrong bill, accused of having a debt and then just waiting on the phone forever to try and get it resolved.

SHORTEN: Yeah, it would be just incredibly frustrating. Quite literally, though, that's why we've now announced 3000 extra hires and they'll be permanent ongoing work in the public service. I already get some hate mail from people saying, you're hiring too many public servants. Well, you know, I'd just say to that correspondent, talk to all the other people who want more people to answer the phones to process payments. The system has been let, other than the surges during Covid, basically, our public front line public service has been denuded for a decade, and we're now starting to turn that around. But there's a lot of knowledge walked out the door under the Coalition, and we've got to get back to being human and human services.

PANTELIS: All right. Bill Shorten, appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

SHORTEN: No, lovely to chat. Thank you, bye.

PANTELIS: Human Services and NDIS Minister Bill Shorten.