Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services

Transcript: Sky News Live, Interview with David Speers

31 July 2019

The Hon Stuart Robert MP

Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services
E&OE

DAVID SPEERS: 

As we discussed earlier, Stuart Robert, the Minister for Government Services, has acknowledged there have been some problems. He says the department's apologised for those, but otherwise the system is working. The Minister joins me now. Thanks for your time this afternoon.

MINISTER:

David, pleasure.

DAVID SPEERS:

So, one of the issues that was raised in Parliament again today - Townsville flood victims. You said in Parliament, no victims in the four post codes around Townsville have received a debt notice. Is that right?

MINISTER:

That is correct, David. So if you look at timelines, when those terrible events occurred in very early February the department put a freeze on compliance, which is the letters to say there might be a problem, and debt, two very separate processes. That debt freeze has not stopped at all, that continues…

DAVID SPEERS:


[Interrupts] Because there was apparently a debt notice received this month on 8 July for $2000…

MINISTER:

[Interrupts] Well, I've seen Labor waive that. It's heavily redacted. We've asked to see a copy of it so we can have a look at it. We haven't received a copy and we know that Mr Shorten's last two press releases - both the examples he gave were completely wrong.

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] So the department's told you that this is wrong?

MINISTER:

The department has said no debt work or recovery has commenced.

DAVID SPEERS:

Okay.

MINISTER:

They commenced compliance work, though, on the 2nd of July. I was informed on 22 July the Department of their own volition had commenced. It was my wife's birthday. I remember it well. And immediately said, no, I don't want compliance to continue either. So debt halt had gone right the way through from 1 February to today. It's still in place, and I put a hold on any compliance work on 22 July as well.

DAVID SPEERS:

The other concern Labor has had is about, particularly elderly Australians, being issued with notices for overpayments decades ago. Now, you've been pointing out there will be no debt notices beyond seven years. What about those who do already have notices that go well beyond seven years?

MINISTER:

So, we're starting the income compliance work from 13-14 financial year now. And that's of course well within the seven-year framework, because that's where bank statements were available for people to prove the income they earned. There will be a range of people who'd been working with the department over the last few years, and that process will continue.

DAVID SPEERS:

But so some of them will have notices that go back to the '90s.

MINISTER:

I'd be surprised if they went back that far. For example, the two examples that Mr Shorten gave both had nothing to do with income compliance and everything to do with the wrong date on a Super Stream notice.

DAVID SPEERS:

Sorry, they weren't to do with Centrelink overpayments?

MINISTER:

Not at all. They were an incorrect date advising people about issues with their income stream on their superannuation payments. And because of the changes the government…

DAVID SPEERS:

[Talks over] [Indistinct] have to repay …

MINISTER:

Because of changes government had put in place, because of those income stream changes, there was a debt. In one case, I think $70.

DAVID SPEERS:

So, we're only talking about two issues as far as you're aware …

MINISTER:

These are the two examples that Mr Shorten raised in his two press releases from the last two days.

DAVID SPEERS:


And you're not aware of anyone else who's got a debt notice beyond seven years? Beyond 2013-14?

MINISTER:           

Oh, I'm sure there are many Australians who've been working through - on the last couple of years - working through this process to provide information to the Department. The point I made to the House is that going forward we're starting from 13-14 financial year, moving forward.

DAVID SPEERS:

But what about those many people who are still working through those old debts - they're not going to be waived?

MINISTER:           

No, as I said to the House, they will remain extant as they work through that program with the Department. Remember, the Department …

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] But why is that, and yet, as of now, you're saying only a seven-year window?

MINISTER:            

Well, as of now, because we're starting on 2013-14 - from now - it is only seven years. It's a mathematical point. But those who've started previously will continue that. But remember, David, since 1 July '15 there's been 850,000 compliance reviews finalised. In 20 per cent of those cases, the citizens have said, no, here's all of my facts. And they've said, nothing to see here. In 80 per cent of the cases the debt's been raised, and in 99.2 per cent of those cases the debt is correct.

DAVID SPEERS:

There are some 800,000 reviews that have been issued over the past three years, as you've noted.

MINISTER:          

Yes.

DAVID SPEERS:

How many of those notices wrongly estimated the overpayment?

MINISTER:          

In the end, in fact, I've got the number right here for you. Once the review had happened of those 850,000, 80 per cent had shown to have raised a debt. The other 20 per cent, of course, had gone through the process, delivered their payslips and shown that there wasn't a discrepancy. So I'd…

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] Twenty per cent of the notices were wrong?

MINISTER:           

No, they weren't wrong, because the notice says there's a discrepancy. Please explain the discrepancy. You assessed your income. The ATO has now said your income tax is X. Why don't they add up? In 20 per cent of the cases people have said for these reasons, Department goes great. The 80 per cent…

DAVID SPEERS:

[Interrupts] You don't see that as a failure or a mistake or a…

MINISTER:         

Not at all, because a question's being asked. It's like in your case, David. You've put in an assessment to say your income is X but your ATO says Y. The department has a lawful requirement to ask you: please Mr Speers…

DAVID SPEERS:

Explain the…

MINISTER:            

Explain the difference. And if you explain it, you're one of the 20 per cent who had successfully explained it. Great. But if you can't, you're one of the 80 per cent that actually can't explain it. The department goes through a review, and in 99.2 per cent of those cases that review has shown that you indeed have the debt.

DAVID SPEERS:

But in all of these cases it's a reverse onus of proof, isn't it? You've got to prove why you're innocent.

MINISTER:

Well remember, the citizen has gone through and said department, I've earnt this amount, X. Their tax return has said Y, and the law requires us to ask you, what's the difference? And you should, because you've been paid an income support payment based on X and then the tax return which is the truth, they've gone actually no, you've earned Y, you'd expect us to ask the question, David, because we have to ensure the right people get the right money at the right time. It's not my money, it's not yours, it's your next door neighbours’, it's the lady across the street, it’s hardworking Australians who pay their tax. It's their money that's being used for income support, and we should it treat as such.

DAVID SPEERS:

But you do have the Government saying, you're entitled to this payment. And then another arm of the Government saying, actually, your income was X. So it is two government agencies essentially making a decision on where it's wrong, and yet it is the client that's being asked to prove their innocence.

MINISTER:          


[Interrupts] No, not at all. Remember, it's a mutual obligation process. The individual citizen assesses my income as this, and therefore they get a payment according to the rules. And the rules are quite clear. Then the ATO gets their tax return, and it turns out their actual income is Y. We have to actually check the difference.

DAVID SPEERS:

Alright, so based on the figures that you've seen and the cases that you've been talking about this week, you don't believe there's a need for getting rid of robodebts, is there a need for any tweaking, any greater human involvement in the system?

MINISTER:            

There is human involvement in every single part of the system, David. So if you think back to when this was an issue in 2017, the ombudsman was involved, the ombudsman came along and said it's right and proper to do what the department's doing, but made a range of recommendations; they've been all followed. So now you'll get a notice to say there's discrepancy, please provide it, please call the department, individuals will look at that discrepancy and will make decisions accordingly. And in 99.8 per cent of those cases, 99.2, the department is correct.

DAVID SPEERS:

The story today, that the Government's looking at Medicare, and how to have an automated system along these lines with Medicare, what's actually happening there?

MINISTER:           

That's all about digital identity and digital fraud. So, it's looking at customers who are claiming on Medicare, and looking at their data from Centrelink. What we don't want is customers assuming someone’s identity theft saying hey, I've got a child for payment - they actually haven't got a child. So, it's about looking at the data and comparing it to ensure the truth is arrived at, and to ensure that Australians don't lose their identity, through identity theft.

DAVID SPEERS:

So, it's not about the claims being made through Centrelink; it's simply about whether you're entitled to make a claim or not?

MINISTER:            

Correct.

DAVID SPEERS:

Alright. So from what you're saying, there's no need to change the current system at all?

MINISTER:           

The current system is compassionate, it's sensible. Debt notices aren't sent out in the first instance, a verification letter is sent out to say there's a discrepancy. It encourages to call the department and talk about it. And in 20 per cent of the cases, the citizen has shown why there's no discrepancy, the department's gone, fabulous, job done, we now understand why what you put forward as your assessment doesn't equal what you put forward as your tax return. But in 80 per cent of those cases, it's actually the discrepancy can't be verified, and in 99.2 per cent of cases, the debts raised, that's very, very efficient in the world’s most highly targeted welfare program.

DAVID SPEERS:

And, as Minister, you're the Minister for Government Services and Minister for the NDIS…

MINISTER:            

That's right.

DAVID SPEERS:

…we know both sides have talked about the need for a bipartisan approach to fixing some of the problems in the NDIS. Can I ask, have you had anything to do with Bill Shorten yet? Have you met with him, talked about the way forward on this at all?

MINISTER:           

Bill and I have chatted a few times, quite informally. Bill's asked for some briefings, I've told him we'll provide any briefing that he wants. I'm not questioning Bill's heart when it comes to disability, the National Disability Scheme, I think he's very decent in that respect. I think the NDIS is a really serious national endeavour. The first time anyone's done this in the world. There'll be some issues. We're 80 per cent of the way there, I think the last 20 per cent is difficult, all power to the three ministers before me and what they've done, and I'm looking forward to cracking on with the last 20 per cent.

DAVID SPEERS:

Stuart Robert. Minister for, as mentioned, NDIS and Government Services. Thanks for your time this afternoon.

MINISTER:           

Great pleasure.

Page last updated: 31 July 2019