Jun 23, 2020







SUBJECTS: Federal Labor’s calls for a Royal Commission into Robodebt.


JOHN LAWS, HOST: The so-called Robodebt scheme has weighed very heavily on the Federal Government, with hundreds of thousands of Australians wrongly pursued over Centrelink debts that they didn’t even have. But despite the Morrison Government promising to pay back more than $720 billion to all those who are affected by the scheme, Federal Labor is calling for a Royal Commission into this debacle. And let’s understand, it is a debacle. To tell us more, I’m delighted to say we have the Labor Leader, Anthony Albanese, on the line now. Labor Leader, Albanese or Albanese, it depends what day it is. Thank you very much for giving us the time.




LAWS: Good to talk to you. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already apologised for the failure of this scheme and committed to paying everybody back. How the hell are they going to do that?


ALBANESE: Well, it’s some $721 million. But that’s just the start. Because people who were wrongly given these debts, given them illegally, it turns out also, of course, are entitled to some interest, I would have thought. If you owe the Commonwealth money, then you have to pay interest on that debt. Here it is that the Commonwealth owes people money back. And this issue is far from over yet. And that’s why we need a comprehensive look at how this happened. Not just as an academic exercise, but so that structures are put in place, so it can never, ever happen again.


LAWS: You talk about a Royal Commission, or people mumble about a Royal Commission. It would be a very, very expensive thing for the taxpayer. Wouldn’t it be better to use that money to pay back those who are affected instead?


ALBANESE: Well, a very little cost of a Royal Commission compared with the cost to taxpayers of this debacle that has gone into the starting point is $721 million, but there’ll be more to come. And we need to properly examine it. People were traumatised, if you get a letter from the Government demanding payment of thousands of dollars back, that you don’t owe, that can be a very traumatic experience.


LAWS: Very.


ALBANESE: We need to examine this. There are stories of people taking their own life here, due to the trauma that was caused. I know that every single person who came into my office and asked for assistance had their debt reduced to zero or reduced substantially. There wasn’t a single case where Centrelink said that they got it right. And that is because there are other lessons here as well. They took humans out of Human Services. That’s what happens when we have robots and computers replacing humans having a look at what the specific circumstances are. And that’s why this is such a debacle and why it requires a proper look through a Royal Commission to examine what occurred here, to examine whose idea it was, what structures were put in place to examine the rollout of the scheme, and to ensure that recommendations are made that can make certain that it can never happen again.


LAWS: Anthony, the Robodebt scheme is now the subject of a class action after the Federal Court ruled it was unlawful last year. Shouldn’t we wait for the outcome of that first?


ALBANESE: Well, they have already conceded, the Government, that it was wrong. Which is why they’re paying that $721 million back to the hundreds of thousands of Australians that were wrongly issued debt.


LAWS: Okay, where does that 721, I think you said, million dollars, where the hell does that come from?


ALBANESE: That figure now comes from taxpayers. It is debts that were paid over by people that they didn’t owe that the Commonwealth has an obligation to pay back the money and it is interesting that they settled and made that decision prior to any people involved in the scheme having to give evidence before what would have been a substantial court case. The Government’s now conceded that it was illegal, conceded it was wrong, conceded that they owe money to people. But we need to examine the full detail of this, John. This is an absolute scandal of monstrous proportions that have real consequences for real Australian people.


LAWS: Okay, but if you’re going to go that far, what will that prove?


ALBANESE: Well, what it will do is prove how this happened. We need to know whose idea this was, how it is that someone came up with the scheme of replacing Centrelink workers and people actually analysing the debts that allegedly were owed. No one disagrees with the view that if someone has improperly received money, then they should pay it back. What happened here is something very different. This is computer-generated so that it assumes a whole lot of things that just weren’t fair. There was one fellow in my area who suffered. He was a young boy in his 20s and he got cancer. And fortunately for him, he managed his way through. But first he used up all of his sick leave and entitlements and then he had to leave work. He was unemployed without an income. So, he received payments from Centrelink. Now what Centrelink did through this scheme was average out the income without having any human oversight of what the circumstances were and say that this person earned an average of a certain amount each week over the year, completely disregarding, so, at the same time this fellow who has actually survived and is doing well, but at the same time he is dealing with his cancer, he’s getting the debt notices from the Government.


LAWS: Doesn’t help. All right, it’s a pretty bad mess, isn’t it, really, at the moment, it is a hell of a mess?


ALBANESE: No, it’s an absolute shocker. And the Government, for a long time, clearly, we have asked questions in Parliament about when they knew it was the legal, and we haven’t gotten those clear answers from the Minister, Stuart Robert. So, I think the Australian people are entitled to some clear answers. And a Royal Commission will certainly deliver that.


LAWS: Good on you. Well said. I’ve got to leave you, Anthony. It’s good to talk to you anytime. And I understand what you’re saying there. Thanks for your time. Thanks for your time, Anthony.


ALBANESE: Thanks, John.