SHADOW MINISTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM
MEMBER FOR ISAACS
THE DISGRACE THAT WAS ROBODEBT
1 DECEMBER 2020
The Robodebt scheme was announced with great fanfare by the Prime Minister in 2015 when he was Social Services Minister. Since that time, members of this government, including the current Attorney-General and the current Minister for Human Services, boasted about Robodebt as a hallmark of their economic brilliance, as they gloated about all the money they were pulling in from all those poor people who they claimed were overpaid by the Department of Social Services.
But this Government’s self-congratulatory boasting about Robodebt ended very abruptly in November 2019 when legal action forced them to finally admit that the scheme was illegal.
The Government then faced a class action from hundreds of thousands of victims of Robodebt. Naturally, the Government frantically surrendered before the hearings commenced, and more the point, before any of its ministers or the senior bureaucrats responsible for the scheme, could be called to explain themselves, and their blatantly unlawful scheme, under oath.
So instead of putting its money where its mouth was, the Morrison Government put taxpayers’ money where its mouth was. We may never know just what this scheme has cost taxpayers, but rather than raising the over $2 billion the Government claimed when the scheme began, it has instead been a massive financial liability, with the Government agreeing to pay back all the money the scheme had raised over the years it operated, plus interest, plus damages, plus legal costs. And we still haven’t found out what it cost taxpayer to run this brutal, failed scheme for more than four years, including what was paid out to consultants and to the third-party debt collectors who were part of it too.
But the financial cost of Robodebt, as appalling as it is, pales next to the toll in human suffering this Government callously inflicted on the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Australians who received unlawful Robodebt debt notices. How can we assess the stress and misery experienced by those hundreds of thousands of Australians who received a debt notice or were hunted by debt-collectors? And we may never know how many vulnerable people were pushed over the edge by those notices and took their own lives.
What is unforgivable, is that this Government was advised on multiple occasions that the Robodebt scheme they had devised and let loose on vulnerable Australians was unlawful, and yet they continued with it until the threat of court action forced them to admit their scheme was not only cruel, but also illegal.
Yet when asked about the scheme this week in Parliament, this Government again refused to take responsibility for the monster it made and for the harm that it caused. No. It again fell back on the same marketing spin and slippery falsehoods that are the hallmark of the Morrison Government.
On Saturday Peter Van Onselen described the Robodebt disaster as “without doubt the worst example of maladministration and callous indifference to vulnerable Australians since the Coalition took office in 2013.” That’s quite a hurdle to clear. Because this Government has quite a record when it comes to “maladministration and callous indifference to vulnerable Australians.” For example, Australians will not forget this Prime Minister and his ministers slithering around trying avoid responsibility for the 685 deaths of people in aged care homes, despite manifest failings, making up more than two thirds of the total death toll from this terrible disease.
Australian will not forget this Prime Minister spending last year refusing to meet with retired Emergency Services chiefs who were desperately trying to warn him about the coming fire season, and of the urgent need for more resources and preparation for our nation to be ready. No, this Prime Minister refused to meet with them, and when Australian started burning, the Prime Minister thought the best approach was jet off to a secret holiday in Hawaii.
Reasonable minds may differ regarding what was the very worst example of maladministration and callous indifference to vulnerable Australians the Morrison Government is responsible for.
But I think the vast majority of Australians would agree that this Prime Minister has set a new low when it comes to taking responsibility for his and his government’s failings, and for holding himself and his ministers to any standard whatsoever.