Member for Isaacs

Government response to Robodebt Royal Commission 13 November 2023

13 November 2023

Subjects: Government response to Robodebt Royal Commission; NZYQ High Court case, Immigration Detention, Gaza.






ATTORNEY GENERAL MARK DREYFUS: This media conference is to deal with the government's response to the Robodebt Royal Commission report, which has just been tabled in the House. The government has accepted or accepted in principle all 56 of the recommendations made by the Royal Commission, and I should say that there may be divisions. The Liberal Party's Robodebt scheme was not an innocent mistake. This was a deliberate, calculated scheme. The Royal Commission found that Robodebt was a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal, and it made many people feel like criminals. In essence, people were traumatised on the off chance that they might owe money. It was a costly failure of public administration in both human and economic terms.

The Royal Commission also found that unfairness, probable illegality and cruelty became apparent at the beginning of 2017, and instead of abandoning it, the path taken by the former government was clearly outlined in the report, to double down, to go on the attack in the media against those who complained and to maintain the falsehood that, in fact the system had not changed at all. The Australian people, and especially the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Robodebt scheme, deserve so much better. The Robodebt scheme was wrong, the Robodebt scheme was unlawful, the Robodebt scheme destroyed the lives of many innocent Australians. We said we'd act to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again and today we take the next step toward delivering on that commitment. I'll hand to Mr. Shorten.

MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES, BILL SHORTEN: Thank you. Robodebt was a cruel and crude mechanism, it was neither fair nor legal. It treated everyday Australians as criminals, guilty until proven innocent. I thank the work of the commissioner, Justice Catherine Holmes. I thank all the advocates, the activists, the victims, the whistle-blowers, who gave such compelling evidence. There were 100 witnesses over 46 days of hearing. The Commission, as you know, handed down, 56 recommendations across government represented by the Ministers here. The Albanese government is accepting in full or agreeing in principle to all of the 56 recommendations.

The government's already begun to move on a lot of these recommendations, in my portfolio there are 26 recommendations, even in the last week, we've announced 3000 extra staff to make sure that we can process payments in a timely and accurate fashion. We've stopped using external debt collectors, which was a feature of the previous scheme under Robodebt. We're improving our communications with people who use our system, most importantly, under the Albanese Government, we don't think that people who use our social security system are second class Australians. We do not believe in a war on the poor, it was Labor who called for the class action, which the Coalition opposed. It was Labor who called for the Royal Commission, which the now Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Dutton, called a political witch-hunt. The test is now for Mr. Dutton, he said the Royal Commission was a witch hunt. Does he now believe that? They denied that the scheme was unlawful, does he now accept that it was unlawful? Will he give an unequivocal, unambiguous apology to the hundreds of thousands of Australians who were treated as criminals by their own government? The test is on Mr. Dutton today to see if he will accept the Royal Commission's findings, accept that the previous Coalition government erred grievously, acted unlawfully and shamefully treated many of their fellow Australians.

MINISTER FOR FINANCE, WOMEN AND THE PUBLIC SERVICE, KATY GALLAGHER: Thanks very much, Bill. Well, there's no doubt that the illegal Robodebt scheme was a shameful chapter in public administration in Australia, and it wasn't an innocent mistake, and it didn't come out of the blue. What we saw in terms of the former government's approach to the public service was one of a lack of respect and a lack of value of that institution. Whilst Ministers have to bear the ultimate responsibility for the Robodebt scheme, the way the former government treated the public service, certainly led to failings within the administration of the public service itself. The eroding of capability and capacity across the public service was a feature of that relationship and you've heard Bill, in recent days, talk about the work that's happening at Services Australia to rebuild capability and resource the APS properly so that it can do its job properly.

The use of external labour, of consultants, of contractors, of outsourcing, key functions of the public service are also symptoms of what led to some of the failures across the APS, and these are reforms and areas that we have also put in place measures to fix. We need to ensure that the public service is appropriately resourced and also, I think one of the issues that was highlighted during Robodebt was the public commentary and messaging by Ministers, which made it clear they didn't want to take advice from the APS. We value advice, we want advice from the APS. Whether that's contested, whether it's advice we want to hear, it's an important role for the APS to be able to be in a position where it's able to provide that advice and I think another significant failing in the scheme that was highlighted by the Robodebt Royal Commission was that that environment was not one that the former government sought or encouraged, and that affected, I think, the longevity of the scheme and the impact on hundreds of thousands of Australians.

MINISTER FOR SOCIAL SERVICES, AMANDA RISHWORTH: Look, I'd just like to finally add to what my colleagues have said, that Robodebt was a shameful part of the way we treat our most vulnerable in our country. It was illegal, as we know, but importantly, it did demonise so many people that rely on our social security system. What our government has done is taken a very different approach to our social security system.

We have strengthened our social safety net and these recommendations put forward by the Royal Commission that the government has agreed to or agreed to in principle, allows us to take the next steps to ensure that we don't see any government in the future, be able to take this callous and illegal approach to our social security recipients. So, these are very important next steps, we will continue to work as a government on how we ensure that our social security system and our social safety net is there for people when they need it, so that they can get the support when necessary.

JOURNALIST: Minister, could I please ask, as far as the public knows, Katherine Campbell's suspension and resignation is the only consequence so far for the architects of this unlawful scheme. So, Minister Shorten, how long before we see some more robojustice? And for the other Ministers, is there any update you can give on the public service criminal investigations?

SHORTEN: Well, on the second part of the question, I'll leave that to my colleagues. But I think that the government's response to the Royal Commission is the next stage in what you call robo-justice. 56 Recommendations, Catherine Holmes, Justice Catherine Holmes was pretty exhaustive in what she said needed to change. We are agreeing to all of the recs. There's a few agreed in principle, we've got to work out how we implement them, but the vast majority were just agreeing in totality. Now, I think the fact that there's going to be more full time public servants working at Service Australia is actually a recognition that people who use our welfare system deserve to be properly resourced. The fact that we've moved to talking to civil society properly about the nature of how we communicate with people who use the system, is an overdue example of robojustice. The real shame of it all is that the scheme was invented under Mr. Abbott, it was expanded under Mr. Turnbull and it was doubled down on by Mr. Morrison. It is a fact, that some Liberal backbenchers, I think have given quite remarkable apologies as individuals, the Member for Menzies, the Member for Flinders. What has been deafening has been the lack of remorse shown by the current frontbench of the coalition, including their current leader. You can't have justice whilst you've got a potential alternative government not owning the problem. You can't have justice for the victims unless there's a guarantee it won't be repeated again. Mr. Dutton has given no sign of learning any of the lessons. We all know the difference between a standard politician's apology “If you felt offended, I'm sorry,” and a real one. Mr. Dutton hasn't given a real apology for this. He needs to today in Parliament, get up and show a bit of humility and just own the sins of the Coalition rather than airbrushing them from history.

GALLAGHER: Sorry, just jump in on the second part, there's 16 investigations or 16 referrals to the public service commissioner. All of those 16 investigations have commenced.

JOURNALIST: Can the AG comment….

DREYFUS: I won’t be commenting on any investigations by the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

JOURNALIST: Could I just clarify, amongst the recommendations from the Royal Commission was that the structure of the social services portfolio should be reviewed, as should the status of Services Australia. You've obviously recognised a few of the other changes that you wanted to take at the public service level. What's going to happen there?

SHORTEN: Well, with Services Australia we have confidence that Services Australia can be re-humanized. There's nearly 30,000 people who work at Services Australia. Many of them were traumatised as they were required to carry out really are morally bankrupt instructions from their senior leadership and the then government of the day. What we're doing is putting the human back into human services. Literally thousands of ongoing public servant positions will be created. What we've also announced as late as last Thursday is we're putting in place a new advisory board. I think it's a new model for government, but certainly we're going to trial it at Services Australia, where we get some of Australia's most respected independent thinkers. We've got Ed Santow on the advisory board, former Human Rights Commissioner, Simon Longstaff, head of the or maybe still the current Head of the Saint James Ethics Centre. It'll be chaired by Victor Dominello, the former Liberal Minister for Services New South Wales. I intend to use this body as a new way of governance at Services Australia, whereby when there's a serious proposition or a policy change, we will test it with the advisory board. Also on the advisory board, we've got Karen Batt, who's a trade union leader out of Victoria who understands public service. We also have Leanne Ho, a former head of Economic Justice Australia. We are trying to do government differently in Services Australia. One of the great failings of Robodebt is that when Mr. Morrison and Ms. Campbell dreamed this proposition up, when it was carried out under Mr. Abbott, they never tested it with people outside their own bubble, they never tested with anyone who wasn't part of the group [inaudible] that the poor on welfare are just automatically guilty until proven innocent, that there's a lot of cheats amongst them. So we're changing the nature of our governance approach at Services Australia, as well as properly resourcing it so we don't set it up to fail.

JOURNALIST: I have a question about the sanctions process and the update of whether you have an update on the timeline. Minister Shorten and the Prime Minister were at great pains when the Royal Commission report was handed to government, not to prejudice the process. However, if we just meditate on the case of Ms. Campbell, there's scope there that she may not be sacked in the sanctions she faced aren’t via sacking. Is it the Government's expectation that any public servant may be sacked as a result of the sanctions process underway?

GALLAGHER: Well, they're really subject to the investigations that are underway. They're being led by the Public Service Commissioner. There is an independent reviewer, and then there will be a sanctions reviewer appointed to ensure that there's fair and just process through that. They're all under way now, and so it's impossible for us to comment any further.

JOURNALIST: No timeline, no sense of timeline on that?

GALLAGHER: No, I mean, you know, it depends because of the number of investigations. They're all different, and, you know, it's a matter for the public service commissioner. He's been given all the resources and support that he needs, and he needs to lead that without commentary from us.

JOURNALIST: Are there any criminal proceedings going on, and perhaps Attorney-General, you could ask that in just in the broad, any criminal proceedings?

DREYFUS: No, I'm not going to comment.


GALLAGHER: Well, I can't comment any more than the information I've given you. The information I have is the APSC Commissioner has 16 investigations underway. There's Stephen Sedgwick, who's a former Public Service Commissioner, is appointed as the independent reviewer and an independent sanctions advisor will be appointed, and these are specifically into breaches of the APS Code of conduct. I should say…

JOURNALIST: So not criminal?

GALLAGHER: Well, those investigations that I have a line of sight over are into breaches or potential breaches of the APS Code of Conduct.

SHORTEN: Andrew, if I can, just… from the civil side, the people beyond government. The Royal Commissioner did say that she felt on the facts of the evidence that she'd seen, that she felt the case of the tort of malfeasance in public office may be able to be made out. I know, for instance, that Jennifer Miller and Kath Madgwick, the brave mums of the of the boys who took their own lives in the context of Robodebt, that I know they're considering civil action. So if I was a Coalition former Coalition minister, I wouldn't be breathing a sigh of relief that you're out of the woods, because people and your questions reflect this, something grievously went wrong. So there's the public service code and that is as it is, and that's appropriately being investigated, but I also think that it has tarnished a generation of Coalition ministers reputations. They will wear the stigma of Robodebt on their Wikipedia CV for the rest of their lives, but I now think if Mr. Dutton's to rescue what's left of the coalition's reputation in social services, the question is does he fully accept and does he unequivocally apologise?

JOURNALIST: Are you suggesting, Mr. Shorten, that the tort of malfeasance might rest upon the shoulders of former Coalition ministers?

SHORTEN: I'm just saying that the Royal Commissioner said that she felt that the elements of the tort had been made out.

JOURNALIST: As cabinet secretary and also as public service minister, how significant is it to this change in cabinet document status that it would no longer of itself justify keeping documents secret? I mean, everybody just stamps everything with cabinet on it these days, isn't it? Does it actually significantly change the access of documents to the FOI act?

DREYFUS: The Commissioner made a closing comment rather than a recommendation.

JOURNALIST: So you won’t be taking that up?

DREYFUS: We will not be amending the Freedom of Information Act.

JOURNALIST: Attorney General, just on government responses. How quickly can we expect to see a legislative fix in response to the High Court decision last week on indefinite detention, would that include perhaps extending the existing terrorism regime of control orders, continuing detention and supervision orders to extend to these people?

DREYFUS: Have we got any more questions on the Robodebt Royal Commission?

JOURNALIST: I have a question about the agencies that you've given additional funding to, most which following your portfolio AG. So Commonwealth Ombudsman, Administrative Review Council, Office of Constitutional Law and Legal Services Coordination. What sort of monitoring of the performance of those bodies will you do to make sure that they're making the most of that money?

DREYFUS: Well, they're all agencies within my portfolio. Obviously, we will be giving more money to the Ombudsman in line with the recommendations and, but overall, the key message of this Robodebt Royal Commission and the service that the Royal Commissioner has done to our country, is to explain the cruelty and illegality and the infliction of harm deliberately by a government on hundreds of thousands of Australians. We can give a guarantee, as the Government of Australia today, that we are going to do everything we possibly can to make sure that this can never happen again. One of the reasons for the reforms, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, one of the reasons for the reforms, as you've mentioned, and the additional funding for the ombudsman and other legal mechanisms, the reason that I've said we will be establishing or re-establishing the Administrative Review Council, which was unhappily allowed to wither away by the former government, is, as the Royal Commissioner says, we need to have a culture. It comes from the top, one which respects the rule of law, one which doesn't deliberately engage in illegality like the former government, one which looks after Australians, which is what our social security system should be for. So, I can assure you all, that the purpose will be to give effect to the principled approach that's been outlined for us in a great act of public service by the former Chief Justice of Queensland, Catherine Holmes, who was our Royal Commissioner.

JOURNALIST: Question for the public service Minister. You've talked about the impact of the eroded APS, and you have committed to rebuilding the APS. How committed are you in terms of leaving a legacy of a stronger APS, even if it is more costly in the short term, things like upping the APS pay offer or committing to more roles in the next budget on top of that 10,000 commitment this year?

GALLAGHER: Well, we take the job of ensuring that the APS is an enduring institution and an independent institution really seriously. That's why we've been doing the APS reform work. We have been increasing public service numbers, we've been converting a lot of the consultants and contractors and labour hire into permanent jobs, but we've also been making sure the APS is resourced adequately.
That comes with some cost in terms of cost to the budget, so I don't think you can see the pay off and the resourcing separately, they work together. So we've got an affordable pay offer on the table hoping to settle that really soon, but we're also listening to unions and other demands from other stakeholders and an acknowledgement by the government itself, we need to resource the APS properly if we want it to do its job. I mean, you can't you know, you can't erode an institution back to where it was when we inherited it, where you had whole departments without policy capability, developing policy or not developing policy as it turned out and expect them to to do all the things we, we need them to do on behalf of Australians. So we take that job really seriously and I think you can see over the last 18 months all of the effort that we've put into getting that right, there's more to be done, of course, I can't think of a Minister who doesn't come and say they need more staff in their department. We have to work through that, through the ERC, but adequately resourcing the APS is critical to making sure that some of these system failures don't happen again. We shouldn't also today take our eye off the main culprits of this illegal scheme, which is the former government and the ministers that held those portfolios, and the Prime Minister that led.

JOURNALIST Attorney-General on the High Court ruling, I would like to follow up and ask if you did have a response to Katina's question on what the government is considering, and can you explain what visa conditions have been applied to the cohort now to ensure Australian safety?

DREYFUS: Our first commitment is for the safety of Australians, equally as the government, we are required to comply with decisions of the High Court of Australia. The ultimate authority, the court of last resort in Australia. The court was very clear in its orders, the government will be acting consistently with those orders and, I don't want to speak for the individual visa conditions that are being contemplated in response to the particular circumstances for each of these visa holders, but I can assure the Australian community that the first priority of the government is to keep our community safe. There will be appropriate visa conditions, and the Commonwealth Government will be working with state and territory criminal justice agencies, who, of course, are primarily responsible for each of the people concerned. All of these people have already had interactions with the state and territory criminal justice agencies.

JOURNALIST: On the second point of Katina's question, the legislative fix to this. Is that something that's under consideration?

DREYFUS: Of course, we are considering, and I'd make the point that the former government did absolutely nothing to prepare for the eventuality, which has occurred because of the high Court's decision. Absolutely nothing.

JOURNALIST: How is it in the public interest to pursue David McBride, who exposed allegations of war crimes? And if I may, there's been a lot of talk about social cohesion over recent weeks. When will you appoint a Race Discrimination Commissioner?

DREYFUS: The processes for the appointment of the Race Discrimination Commissioner are underway, that will be a merit based appointment, consistently with the legislation. The very first Bill that I brought to the Parliament last year, restoring a failing of the former government in respect of its appointments to the Australian Human Rights Commission. We have now legislated to ensure that all appointments made of all of the commissioners of the Human Rights Commission will be merit based appointments, and that process is underway. I won't be commenting on a current criminal jury trial. That trial opened today in the ACT Supreme Court, the jury will be impanelled later in the week, and of all matters that ministers should not comment on, it is criminal jury trials. That's what this trial is and it's now underway.

JOURNALIST: Attorney General, can I just ask on community safety? Minister Giles said this morning said that the AFP would have a role in protecting the community in regards to the release of the asylum seekers following the High Court decision. What exactly is the AFP's role in this?

DREYFUS: The Australian Federal Police, the Australian Border Force and all Commonwealth law enforcement agencies work on a daily basis closely with state and territory law enforcement agencies, and that will continue.

JOURNALIST: Attorney-General, there have been reports of a rift between the AFP and the New South Wales Police will you be looking into this, and will you speak to them to cooperate with each other for the sake of the Australian public?

DREYFUS: I've not heard of any such rift.

JOURNALIST: Can I just clarify on the High Court? I assume you won't be able to legislate until the court's published its reasons, which will be a while. Is the interim measure just the visa process, or are you looking at regulations as well as an interim measure?

DREYFUS: As a Government, we will do all that is necessary to keep the Australian community safe.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] the legislative fix though that, is any of that to detain people, or is it a system of continuing detention orders of the judiciary would have to order. What are those options?

DREYFUS: We will act in accordance with the law, and with that, thanks very much, thanks everybody