Mark Dreyfus MP

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ABC RN Breakfast 23 June 2020 - Mark Dreyfus QC MP

23 June 2020

SUBJECTS: Dyson Heydon; Robodebt




SUBJECTS: Dyson Heydon; Robodebt

FRAN KELLY: Pressure is building on the Morrison Government over Robodebt. The Opposition is demanding a Royal Commission now into this widely discredited scheme. Labor says nothing short of a Royal Commission is needed into the way that Centrelink unlawfully recovered millions of dollars from welfare recipients, many of them pensioners and students. An inquiry would also look at the human cost of the Robodebt program, including reports that some people took their own lives after they received debt notices. Mark Dreyfus is the Shadow Attorney-General. Mark Dreyfus welcome back to Breakfast.


KELLY: Just before we get to Robodebt, the statement by the Chief Justice Susan Kiefel that an inquiry has found the former High Court Justice Dyson Heydon sexually harassed six young female staff. These are allegations that Dyson Heydon categorically denies. You're a QC, you're a former Attorney-General, does the legal profession, to your knowledge, have a problem with the way it treats women?

DREYFUS: Absolutely the legal profession has a problem with the way that women are treated. And I think today we have to think of the hurt that has been suffered, particularly by these young women who have come forward, but by all women throughout the legal profession and in every Australian workplace, who is suffering from sexual harassment. Let's take this as an opportunity, as the President of the Law Council has said this morning, let's take this as an opportunity to put some serious reform in place to make sure this never happens again.

KELLY: In terms of whether it happens again, one of the people quoted as being harassed says the culture is broken from the top down. When you were Attorney-General, did you make any efforts to try and address this problem, fix this problem?

DREYFUS: I've worked with the Human Rights Commission and after I left my job as Attorney-General I've been very pleased to see the current Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, do a tremendous report on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.

It's a long standing problem Fran. It's something I was aware of when I was on the Victorian Bar Council when I was a senior barrister. Its something I was aware of when while I've been in the Parliament as Attorney-General. It's still going on. We need to do more. We need to take the opportunity that's presented by this report, by the response, the magnificent response of the Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, who says that it's a matter of shame for the Court. She's apologised to the women.

Let's take this opportunity to work right across all Australian institutions and workplaces, to look after employees, to be proactive, to be preventative and not just wait for people to come forward with complaints which are often, as this example shows us, it's often extremely difficult to come forward with a complaint.

KELLY: And we'll get to Robodebt, but just before I leave this issue, you as Attorney-General appointed judges to the High Court. Im not referring to Dyson Heydon here, but generally, a person's past behaviour is taken into account when governments consider who to appoint?

DREYFUS: Of course.

KELLY: So you ask around, you question, investigative work is done.

DREYFUS: Indeed, and its a process that I regret, under the current government, has become less transparent. I think it's very important that there be broad consultation and that the process be as transparent as possible so that we get absolutely the best possible people into our judicial offices.

KELLY: Your colleague, Julie Collins, and Bill Shorten too this morning say it's not appropriate that someone found to have acted this way holds any honour recognising service to Australia. Can I be clear here is Labor calling for Dyson Heydon to be stripped of his Companion of the Order of Australia?

DREYFUS: I'm sure those matters will be looked at, are being looked at, but just today, I want to focus on the hurt that's been suffered by these women. I want to focus on what we can do to really let this be a catalyst for future action. To make sure that this doesn't happen again. To make sure that we absolutely minimise and try to prevent sexual harassment across all our institutions and all our workplaces.

KELLY: And given Dyson Heydons strong denials that we've read in the Nine papers from his lawyers, is it a bit quick for Labor to be talking about stripping him of his honours?

DREYFUS: This process isn't over, but I'm sure thats something that will be looked at down the track.

KELLY: Can I come to Robodebt now. Labor's going to call for a Royal Commission into Robodebt today. There's already a class action underway on this. There's already a Senate inquiry which will run all of this year. Why do we need a Royal Commission? What will that uncover that they wont?

DREYFUS: We need a Royal Commission Fran because Australians deserve the truth. Australians deserve action to stop this from happening again. We've got a Government that's ducking and weaving and hiding all of the details of this. And yes, there's a class action on foot, which of course has unleashed a war from the Government on class actions.

KELLY: But nevertheless it will be tested in the court and it's going to also be tested before a Senate inquiry.

DREYFUS: And we've seen before the way that this Government resists Parliamentary inquiries, refuses to provide documents to Parliamentary inquiries, refuses to allow ministers to give evidence before those Parliamentary inquiries. It's, part of the remedy but it can't go all the way. The way to get complete answers, the way for Australians to get the truth that they deserve, is by a Royal Commission.

KELLY: Is there a danger though that Royal Commissions are political play things now? I mean, that's certainly how Labor viewed it when the Abbott Government had Royal Commissions into trade unions and the home installation scheme. Are we just calling for Royal Commissions too often now and too politically?

DREYFUS: I don't think we should judge the worth of Royal Commissions by looking at the two politically inspired Royal Commissions that the Abbott Government put in train.

KELLY: Well isnt this politically-inspired?

DREYFUS: No. this is about a systemic problem, a massive systemic problem that affected more than 300,000 Australians who were sent these illegal debt notices by their own government. I'd rather think, when we think of Royal Commissions as being worthwhile, of the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission that was put in train by the Gillard Government.

KELLY: Thats a completely different order of institutional problem that that was dealing with. I mean, this is one government program that the Government has now scrapped and the Prime Minister has apologised for and they're paying back the money.

DREYFUS: Regrettably, the Prime Minister has not properly apologised for this. He's given the kind of half apology which is along the lines of if there was any hurt suffered, then I apologise for that. I want to hear this Prime Minister own up to the fact that he is the architect of Robodebt. He started it as Social Services Minister. He went on with it as Treasurer and expanded it, and now he's actually wanting to cover up what his own role was, and cover up the fact that the Government sent illegal debt notices to more than 300,000 Australians. Thats a shameful activity and if the Government won't allow it to be investigated - which they're not, they're refusing to answer even simple questions about how many times the Administrative Appeals Tribunal ruled that this was illegal - that's indicative of why we need this Royal Commission.

The Senate inquiry will go part of the way. The class action will go part of the way but we need to go all the way. We need to get the full truth here. We need the Government to cooperate and it won't have a choice about cooperating with the Royal Commission. It'll be compelled to answer questions, and that's what we need to happen.

KELLY: Mark Dreyfus, thank you very much for joining us.

DREYFUS: Thanks for having me.