Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services

Transcript: Doorstop Interview, Canberra Conference Unit

17 September 2019

The Hon Stuart Robert MP

Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services
Topics: 
Debt recovery and compliance measures
E&OE


MINISTER ROBERT: 

Announcing a class action into income compliance with no lodged case, no lodged papers, and indeed no plaintiffs. And with no plaintiffs coming forward, this is what it is: it's just a political stunt. In fact, Bill Shorten in the press conference made the point that this was, and I'll quote Bill, a legitimate political strategy. He might as well have said it what it is: a stunt.

Keeping in mind, this was the man that before the election on 9 May out the front of Redcliffe Hospital made that, when a journalist asked: is robodebt illegal? Bill's statement wasn't a class action, wasn't a yes or no - he simply said: we want to make sure that people aren't receiving welfare that they're not entitled to. No one gets a leave pass. Well, apparently four months ago before the election, no one got a leave pass. Four months later, whilst Bill auditions for the Labor leadership, he wants 900,000 Australians to be given- or forgiven, $5 billion worth of debts.

This is just a political stunt. You can't change your mind over four months from no leave pass to absolute leave pass.

QUESTION:    
                    

[Indistinct] Do you concede that there is a high percentage of people who have been robodebted - if I can use that word - where those claims were incorrect from the Government?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Not at all. We know there's been 850,000 Australians where the Department has gone forward to say that the income that you declared to Centrelink on the left hand does not match your tax return on the right hand - can you please explain it. Twenty per cent of those have adequately explained it. Of the remainder, 0.8 - 0.8 - per cent have been overturned on appeal. That's a 99.2 per cent effectiveness rate for those who cannot explain why what they reported to Centrelink does not equal what they told the ATO in their tax returns.

QUESTION:      
                    

Minister, you say this is a political stunt and yet two of the cases that have gone before the Federal Court have been settled by the Government and by the Department. If it is a political stunt, why not fight it in the court?

MINISTER ROBERT:  

I'll let the court cases speak for themselves. But remember, citizens at any point have the opportunity to bring forward documents to show that the income they reported to Centrelink matches or explain the discrepancy between what's been reported in their tax return. And Australians who've been asked to explain that can present those documents at any point in the process.

QUESTION:        
                  

How confident are you in the legal basis of robodebt?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The Government has not received anything to say that the process that was started in 2011 by Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek, that process that we're continuing, that process that Bill Shorten was asked on 9 May is this illegal and he said no one gets a leave pass, that process, we have not received any comment from the Department to say anything otherwise what we are doing is lawful.

QUESTION:         
                  
[Inaudible question]

MINISTER ROBERT:      
        
The way income compliance has always worked, since Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek introduced data matching in 2011, in June in fact, and the press release is instructed to read, is that Australians are required to report their income to Centrelink. That income or what they report is then matched against what they report in their tax return to the ATO and if there is a discrepancy, Australians are asked to explain that discrepancy. There is always a person in that chain so that they can speak to the Australian and that Australian citizen has the opportunity to explain that discrepancy.
And in 20 per cent of the cases, that discrepancy is adequately explained. In the other 80 per cent of the cases, 99.2 per cent of them, a debt is raised.

QUESTION:      
                     
How do you justify it when the families of people who have passed away have been approached by Centrelink to say: please explain? How do you approach those outliers where that is obviously compounding the trauma [indistinct]?

MINISTER ROBERT:    
           
The law requires all debts to be recovered, including debts from trustees. So the law requires that if someone has deceased and owes a debt, the Department will contact the trustee of that debt in the first instance as required by law. And in the second instance, if that debt is uneconomical to recover the debt would be wiped.

QUESTION:        
                   
You say that there's 0.8 per cent - [indistinct] per cent - wrong on the robodebt scheme. Should that 0.8 be eligible for some compensation?

MINISTER ROBERT:      
         
That 0.8 per cent is overturned on appeal.

QUESTION:      
                   

In a case where the robodebt process is wrong should those people be entitled to some compensation?

MINISTER ROBERT:            
   
There are many areas across Government where citizens are able to go to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and appeal a decision of a Minister or a policy position of a government. And in cases where that's proven, or the AAT finds it not to be correct, it's simply wiped and waived, as it should be.

QUESTION:        
                   
Minister, you talk about how the robodebt scheme came in in 2011, yet don't you concede that in 2016 there were fundamental changes made to the system, that is the automatic generation of letters that were sent out without staff oversight that has created what we now call the robodebt system?

MINISTER ROBERT:      
      
Well, right now I can guarantee you, as a responsible Minister, that any correspondence that goes to Australian citizens is a correspondence that says: we believe there is a discrepancy between what you've said you've earnt and what you've actually earnt. Please call us to explain it. Right now, there is always a public servant from my Department in that process.

QUESTION:            
               
Wouldn't you then concede that saying it started in 2016 is misleading?

MINISTER ROBERT:           
     
It started in 2011. Fact. You can read the press release. Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek - a new data-matching exercise. They couldn't have been clearer, they could not have been clearer, Labor, when they commenced this process in 2011.

QUESTION:                
           
B
ut it fundamentally changed in 2016.

MINISTER ROBERT:      
         
The Ombudsmen then reported upon that and made the point - in fact, I think it's Section 3.4 - to say that it is entirely appropriate for the Commonwealth Government to collect debts.

QUESTION:      
                    

Minister, Mr Shorten may not have filed papers but it seems he's got himself a lawyer, Gordon Lawyers. Are you saying that you're not expecting this class action to go ahead?

MINISTER ROBERT:    
            
I'm simply saying that if you're going to launch a class action before Question Time and you were serious about it do you think you'd ask a single question of the Government Minister during Question Time? Just one? Do you think on 9 May when a journalist asked you: is robodebt lawful? Do you think he would say: no, we want to make sure that any Australian receiving welfare isn't getting more than they're entitled to and no one receives a leave pass? That was the exact words that Mr Shorten made. Miraculously, four months later now, Bill wants to give 900,000 Australians a leave pass but can't explain where the $5 billion of revenue will come from.

QUESTION:     
                      
[Inaudible question]

MINISTER ROBERT:  
             
I'm sure we'll let the court process stand for itself.

QUESTION:    
 
                      
If this court case proceeds will you suspend robodebt while that takes place?

MINISTER ROBERT:               

Well, there is no court case. There's no case, there's no papers and there's no plaintiffs. Bill Shorten stood there and appealed for people to come forward to help him with his political stunt to roll Albo (*). That's where we are right now.

           

Page last updated: 18 September 2019