Jun 23, 2020










SUBJECTS: Federal Labor’s call for a Royal Commission into Robodebt; Australian Labor Party; JobKeeper; Dyson Heydon.


ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks very much for joining us. Robodebt has caused trauma for hundreds of thousands of Australians. It was wrong. It was illegal. The trauma experienced when someone receives, through the mail, a debt notice from their Government telling them that sometimes tens of thousands of dollars were owed, had a massive impact on individuals throughout this nation. We know now that it was illegal. And we know that the Government’s response has been totally inadequate. They have put their hand up and said they are going to pay back some $721 million to over 300,000 Australians. But unlike when a debt is owed by an individual to the Commonwealth and they charge interest, they are saying, ‘No, don’t worry about that. We will just give you the money back and we will just forget that this happened’. Which is why it was dumped out late on a Friday afternoon which is typical of this Government and its lack of transparency and accountability. Every single person who came through my electorate office and asked for assistance had their debt reduced to either zero or reduced substantially. But what we know is that a whole lot of Australians, and particularly the most vulnerable Australians, are unlikely to seek legal advice, are unlikely to go to their local member’s office for assistance. They are likely to just deal with it within their family, deal with it in a way that we know has caused significant health issues for Australians. That is why we need to put humans back into Human Services. That is why we need a Royal Commission into how this came about. Whose idea was it? Who set up the structures? What checks and balances were in place? Most importantly, how could we ensure that a debacle like this never happens again? Bill?


BILL SHORTEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Good afternoon, everybody. And thanks, Anthony. The Morrison Government has been running an illegal scheme against its own citizens. It has cost a billion and a half dollars, it is estimated, 740,000 debt notices were sent out to nearly three quarters of a million Australians. The Morrison Government proudly announced this new scheme when he was the Social Security Minister in 2015, and again when he was Treasurer in 2016. The problem is, for the last four years, the Morrison Government has been unjustly enriching itself with no legal rights from the most vulnerable people who rely on Centrelink. Centrelink is a safety net. It shouldn’t make you the target for illegal Government debt recovery schemes. This affects ordinary Australians in many different ways. There’s people who couldn’t get a job because they had a debt finding. There’s people who couldn’t travel overseas. There’s people who had family-relationship breakups. There’s people who were vulnerable, who suffer from mental illness, and engaged in self-harm and worse.


All along, the Government hasn’t actually said who was responsible for it. It took a Victorian Legal Aid Commission, a court case with a very brave individual person, to go all the way to the Federal Court. And on the day that court case was meant to start, the Government finally turned up and said, ‘Yes, this scheme is unlawful’. It’s taken a class action, with tens of thousands of ordinary citizens taking their Government to court to force a refund of $720 million. But the big question is, who is responsible? The Administrative Appeals Tribunal, a watchdog for the Government, a watchdog for citizens, said over 1,000 days ago that this scheme is unlawful. The Morrison Government gamed the AAT, they ignored the decisions. We need a Royal Commission because our system is broken, and the Government broke it. They won’t answer questions in Parliament. We gave the Government till last Friday to stop hiding behind arguments of legal privilege, come clean and tell us who knew what, when, why did this happen and how do we stop it again. We asked them to reveal their arguments. The Government at close of business last Friday said, ‘No way’. This is a Royal Commission that the Morrison Government is bringing on itself and their ministers should be held to account. We’re happy to take questions.


ALBANESE: Thanks, Bill. Questions?


JOURNALIST: The Greens put a motion out last week for a Royal Commission that Labor voted against. Why is that if that is what you are after?


ALBANESE: Because we wrote to the Government. And we wanted to give them every opportunity to stop hiding behind legal arguments. We gave them a deadline of last Friday to respond. They’ve refused to do so.


JOURNALIST: Labor was critical of the Coalition’s previous calls for Royal Commissions, why is this different?


ALBANESE: This has an enormous impact on hundreds of thousands of Australians. We want families and individuals to be able to tell their stories. We want a full exposure of these issues. On the issues that you raised, there were multiple coronal inquiries, of course, and other inquiries into those issues. But people participated in those inquiries. And I think today is probably not the day to raise the Trade Union Royal Commission as an example of Government best practice.


JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese, can I ask you, in relation to the Government JobKeeper program?


ALBANESE: Can we just stick on this for a tick? And if there are other questions, I am happy to take them.


JOURNALIST: You mentioned there were coronial reports and other inquiries, for example. There has been a court case into Robodebt, there has been a Senate inquiry into Robodebt. (Inaudible). What exactly do you think can’t be uncovered through any of those processes?


ALBANESE: I will ask Bill to respond to this as well. You witnessed Parliament. We’ve asked questions and what we get a stonewalling from this failed Minister Stuart Robert. We haven’t got answers. People are asking for answers. This had an incredible impact on people. If you go back and look at footage, I stood up with a young man in my electorate who was in his 20s who had cancer. So, he used up all the sick leave. He then had to go on Centrelink benefits because he had no income, to pay his rent, to buy food. At the time he was going through chemotherapy, a young man in his 20s, he was being pursued by the Government for a debt that he just didn’t owe. That added to the traumatic impact on his health. And that’s just one story. There are thousands of stories just like that.


SHORTEN: The reason why a Royal Commission is necessary, is first of all, the class actions about establishing a right to compensation will deal with that matter. But it doesn’t deal with; how did we get into the set of circumstances where a democratically elected Government is unlawfully sending debt notices out to hundreds of thousands of Australians. So, the court action can’t get to all of those issues. Secondly, we’ve tried the Parliament. But you see the Government, I mean, I don’t know if it is a cunning strategy to put one of your least-performing, low-expectation ministers into the portfolio and hopefully dumb the issue down, so we’ll just give up. But Parliament’s broken. It’s not fixing this issue. Thirdly, we need to protect the whistleblowers. I’ve already had people contact me this morning, when the first news of a Royal Commission started to filter out, saying that if there’s a Royal Commission, they wanted to give evidence. We’ve got to protect their public servants. And finally, I think the key reason why a Royal Commission and only a Royal Commission will do the job is because this Government, whenever it feels the blowtorch, it goes into denial, then it goes into bargaining. And then what it says is, ‘We’ve got legal immunity, legal privilege’. Well, that, you know, I just don’t believe that Government is serious about legal immunity. What they want is they don’t want to have their logic uncovered. The protection of Australian citizens having Social Security Law is that if the Government does something wrong, you can go to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. There were hundreds of cases filed. There were decisions in black and white. The third paragraph of the first decision by AAT member, Carney, just spelled out this is ill-lawful. We have to ask ourselves, and this Government will never tell us the truth, what did the Government do when it was put on notice by the watchdog that there was a problem with its system? And I tell you, I think they put their own economic self-interest ahead of the law. I think they had a legal strategy to settle up the noisy complainers and hope they could still keep getting the money in the backdoor for all the people who just gave up. So this Government needs to explain what it knew and when it knew. I mean, they remind me a little bit of the legal strategies deployed by James Hardie, different facts, same circumstances. But James Hardie used to say, ‘Oh, we’ve got immunity. We’ve got immunity’. The louder Mr Morrison squeals about legal privilege, the more I know there’s something being covered up here.


JOURNALIST: When the Prime Minister was asked about this, and he was again this morning, he always says it is based on a system of income averaging that was pioneered by Labor, as if to infer it was all your idea.


ALBANESE: Well, that’s typical of Scott Morrison. This is a guy who wants to run the country but doesn’t want to take responsibility for anything at all. The fact is Robodebt, the problem here is that they took humans out of Human Services. They didn’t actually have anyone in charge. And that’s one of the things that the Royal Commission would look at, about the impact of the contracting out and the use of basically robots, that’s why it’s called Robodebt, robots to automatically generate debts and letters, in spite of looking at the human element here. And that’s the big difference. For Scott Morrison, this crisis did not arise under the former Labor Government. It came under his watch and he proudly announced it with a media release.


JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese, do you think that it is fair that people who have been Party members for…


ALBANESE: Can we just deal with this for the moment?


JOURNALIST: (Inaudible).


ALBANESE: Well, that’s why we want to be having a Royal Commission. That’s why we want to get to the heart of; whose idea was this? What mechanisms were gone through to make these decisions? What departmental oversight was in place? That’s why you have an inquiry so that we get those details. We don’t have them now and the Government won’t provide them.


JOURNALIST: Is it fair that people who have only just signed up to the Labor Party…


ALBANESE: Is there any more on Robodebt?


JOURNALIST: Would they be able to vote in a decision over the Leader of the Labor Party?


ALBANESE: There isn’t a decision at the moment over the Leader of the Labor Party.


JOURNALIST: But the way the rules are structured mean that people who have only just joined the Party, rather than people who have been members for a longer period of time and have shown true commitment to the Party, can vote when there is a vote.


ALBANESE: Look, the rules of the Labor Party have been established. They were established National Conference. They were established to give members a vote.


JOURNALIST: On your Party leadership, Mr Albanese, if you lose the by-election in Eden-Monaro, do you have any concerns that there are people who would like the top job? Maybe Mr Shorten over there?


ALBANESE: Not at all. The fact is I was elected unopposed as Leader of the Labor Party. We intend to put our best foot forward in Eden-Monaro. We’re doing that. We have the best candidate. And we await the determination of the voters.


JOURNALIST: On the Government’s JobSeeker and JobKeeper program, which is due to expire at the end of September…


ALBANESE: Sorry, which one?


JOURNALIST: The JobKeeper program. Would Labor support industry-specific measures? Or would you prefer to see JobKeeper as a blanket program extended?


ALBANESE: Well, the first point to make is that there are whole sections of industry that are missing out right now. Whether it be the arts and entertainment sector, probably the camera people working today, there are people at this press conference who are probably missing out on JobKeeper due to the nature of their employment. There’s dnata workers who are missing out because of a change in ownership structure of that company that used to be called ‘Qantas Catering’. There are a million casuals who are missing out. What we say is that the Government simply shouldn’t put in place a system whereby there’s such an economic shock from the withdrawal in a brutal way of JobKeeper on one day.


JOURNALIST: But for those that are currently getting it, if the Government is looking at industry-specific measures, would you support that? Or would you support the existing program being extended beyond September?


ALBANESE: We will wait and see what the Government proposes. But what we say is that the Government can’t produce the sort of snapback which is what Scott Morrison said he would do. Scott Morrison’s own words, said we’d ‘snap back’ the economy on one date in September. And what I’m concerned about is that the Government, by now, will have a report into the state of the economy. They know what they are going to do in September, but they won’t tell people because there’s a by-election on July 4. So, what that’s doing is producing uncertainty for business, it is producing uncertainty for JobKeeper recipients, and that’s just not fair. It is about time this Government governed in the interests of Australians, rather than managing things through the political prism on every issue.


JOURNALIST: On Dyson Heydon, do you agree with Mr Shorten he should be stripped of his honours?


ALBANESE: Well, I think today, the big issue today, is my thoughts are with those brave women who came forward. Takes a lot of courage for, in some cases, three of them have left the law. To get to that position, as a young woman working in the High Court of Australia, you’re the brightest of the brightest. You’re someone who’s won a university medal or got honours degrees, you’re someone who has a bright future. Three of those women have walked away from the law because of their experience. And the power imbalance that is there, between a High Court judge in his 60s, and a young woman graduate in their first employment in their 20s, is just extraordinary. So, today’s the day to pay tribute to those women. I think Justice Kiefel has made her views very, very clear. No doubt there will be further consequences of this action.


JOURNALIST: Do you think it is unusual, though, that six women obviously with believable and accepted allegations of sexual harassment against a person in such an eminent position have made those allegations, they are found to be substantiated by the High Court, and the police haven’t been involved at any stage?


ALBANESE: Well, I think that will be a matter for the police. It’s not my job to interfere in police investigations. But I would find it remarkable if the appropriate authorities aren’t looking very closely at this and if there’s not further action.


JOURNALIST: There are two Victorian Labor MPs in maroon ties and a New South Wales MP in a blue tie today. Should Victoria have a border closure to New South Wales because of the spike in coronavirus cases?


ALBANESE: Look, what we should do is take the advice of the medical experts. The medical experts are saying that that’s not necessary at this point in time. That is what I’ve said consistently from day one, I will continue to say it. These decisions shouldn’t be made by politicians, they should be made by health experts. I will listen to not just the Federal health experts, of course, but the experts in New South Wales and Victoria.


JOURNALIST: Shadow Health Minister Chris Bowen on Insiders said it was good for premiers to exercise this kind of caution, that that was the right thing to do and political attacks on them were immature. Do you agree that it is the right thing to do, to be cautious, potentially, to have border closures in place as part of that caution?


ALBANESE: Of course, it’s right to adopt the precautionary principle. And it is right to listen to the experts and not to try and second-guess. Because we know the consequences of a further shutdown, should it be necessary, on the economy are negative. I don’t want there to be restrictions there for one day more than necessary. I don’t think anyone wants that. But we need to listen to the experts and that’s what Daniel Andrews has done, that is what Annastacia Palaszczuk has done, and that’s what Gladys Berejiklian has done.


JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese, to you and/or Mr Dreyfus, the High Court made six recommendations, which it says it adopted following those inquiries into the former Justice Heydon. Should other Federal Courts and tribunals also adopt those recommendations and should state-based courts also?


MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I think this is a moment for institutions and work places across Australia to look at what the High Court of Australia, the highest court in our land, has done and re-examine what they might do to prevent sexual harassment occurring in any institution, or in any workplace. We have had a recent report by Kate Jenkins, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, looking at sexual harassment in Australian work places. She makes a whole lot of very good suggestions as to how this can be prevented. Let’s take today, let’s take what the High Court has done, let’s take the heartfelt apology that the Chief Justice of the High Court, Susan Kiefel, has delivered as a moment for action, as a prompt for something to be done in every Australian workplace.


ALBANESE: Thanks very much.