Robodebt Settlement

03 December 2020

There is no easy way to say this, and it doesn't give me any joy, but the government is engulfed in scandal. From sports rorts to the Leppington triangle to the illegal robodebt scheme, this is a government with scant regard for public accountability and taxpayers' money. The defective robodebt scheme has caused unnecessary stress for some of our most vulnerable Australians, resulting in anxiety, poverty and suicide. For many years, the Morrison government has been in denial about the scheme's fairness and legality. And, at the last minute, this government made a pre-trial admission, conceding it owes robodebt victims their money back plus compensation—an admission that will cost taxpayers $1.2 billion. The settlement, for approximately 400,000 class action members, not only is the costliest settlement in Australian history but involves the most people of any settlement by any Australian government. This is gross malfeasance—complete and utter mismanagement of government services with no regard for people's wellbeing.

It is clear this case was settled so the government can continue to fawn over its most prized attribute: not being held to account. Coalition ministers across this House understand the implication of taking a witness stand. They can bluff and bluster on talkback radio, give their mates at News Corp an exclusive one-sided drop, walk away from a press conference and gag debate in this House. However, the minister for human services and the government services minister knew they could not do any of that if they were in the witness box to answer for this illegal and unfair scheme. Those officers in this House sat here pretending robodebt was above board, arrogantly denying it had ruined lives across the country. For months, the Minister for Government Services denied the scheme was unfair, inaccurate or illegal. When the minister put the scheme on hold, he said it was only a refinement, affecting a small cohort. That small cohort is over 400,000 desperate Australians. How many people does the government have to drive to anxiety, poverty and suicide before they publicly acknowledge their mass robbery of the Australian public? The minister went on not to apologise to the victims of this nasty scheme, even after having many opportunities to do so. I acknowledge the member for Bennelong for having the guts to apologise this afternoon. But for many of those opposite 'sorry' seems to be the hardest word to muster. It's a tough ask for this government, perhaps because they need to bring back the empathy coach for all ministers.

The Attorney-General, who calls the scheme 'legally insufficient', those opposite and the spin doctors in the ministerial wing might have been impressed with bitter, empty, legalistic gobbledegook. Terms such as 'legally insufficient' and 'refinement' are familiar terms used by the government. Here are a few more terms: lazy, callous unfit and negligent. Deflecting scrutiny and avoiding accountability are all hallmarks of this government, unfortunately. At every level, this scheme has had the current government and its ministers overseeing the implementation. The Prime Minister must explain what the consequences will be for ministers, including the members for Fadden and Aston, for their involvement in the single greatest social security scandal in this nation's history and the subsequent cover-up.

Surprising no-one, those opposite reverted to their usual excuse: it's all Labor's fault. However, a similar Labor government program used secondary checks, human intervention and oversight. In his contribution, the minister read a number of letters that were issued during previous Labor governments. Although the minister read the words, he didn't seem to understand the subtlety. When you wrote back to explain that it was not correct, a human being would have read that answer. They would have reviewed it, and the possibility of the debt not being needed would have been obvious. Not normally familiar with due process and accountability, the coalition government instead has used, unchecked, an out-of-control algorithm with no human oversight. The $1.2 billion settlement fronted by taxpayers is not accountability. The public want to know: When did the government know robodebt was illegal and why did they not stop it instantly? Who is responsible and what consequences will they face? We need to assure the Australian public that this absurd injustice can never happen again, and anyone who attempts to denounce this fundamental call to action should be ashamed.