SUBJECTS: Robodebt illegality; Angus Taylor; Scott Morrison’s Cabinet reshuffle; sports rorts.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Today, in Question Time we started by asking about the correspondence that came from the Australian Taxation Office, that we know, as a result of Senate questions on notice, were delivered today, that months ago, the Government was advised that the Robodebt scheme was, in fact illegal. Even after being presented with that, what the Government did today was consistent with what it does on everything they couldn’t fess up, they said it was just an adjustment. They couldn’t say that they got it wrong. The fact is, given the ATO advice, it is very clear that the Government will have a very significant liability indeed. Because people were put under enormous pressure, people getting bills that we now know were not only unfair and just wrong but also illegal at the time. Bill?
BILL SHORTEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR THE NDIS: Thanks, Anthony. Today, due to the persistent efforts of Labor, a document was put up on the Senate website, which goes to the heart of the Robodebt scandal. 700,000 Australians received Robodebt notices over the last four years. The Government has taken $1.5 billion off Australians back to the coppers for themselves. Labor has campaigned against the Robodebt, it’s been unfair. Mothers report that their children have taken their lives, adult children, because of the pressure of his Robodebt notices. But, today a document has been released, which the Government did not want people to see, they resisted that. And what it reveals is that the chief legal officer of the tax commission has told the Tax Commissioner, that he’s been told by the Government, the Department of Social Security, that there is no valid legal basis for the Commonwealth to issue these debt notices. Or to put in plain English, the Government has been illegally, unjustly enriching itself, ripping off hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable Australians. Today in response to Anthony’s question, Minister Stuart Robert, in breathtaking arrogance, said, ‘We have refined it’. No, Minister you have been illegally taking money from Australians for four years. Now the Government needs to answer the following questions. When did they find out the scheme was illegal? Why didn’t they find out the scheme was illegal? Furthermore, how many people will be repaid? How much money will be repaid? Why are they wasting taxpayers’ money fighting legal class actions, when their own secret documents reveal the Government has been running an illegal Ponzi scheme, ripping off hundreds of thousands of its own people with no legal authority.
ALBANESE: We are happy to take question on this and other things but perhaps this first.
JOURNALIST: Is it reasonable to ask for the Government’s legal advice on Robodebt if that prejudice is their position in the class action? And how can you force them to provide that advice?
SHORTEN: Let’s be clear. We have already got documents where the Government confirms that they know that they have no legal authority. Let’s think about this for a second. The Federal Government has been illegally and unjustly enriching itself saying, ‘We are the Government, so we are allowed to get money back’. They don’t have the power to do it. So, the fact they are still running a legal action when their own public servants have already privately said it is not legal. This is a waste of money. The interest bill is ticking over because if you owe someone money that you have taken, you owe them the interest on that lost income. They are paying lawyers to fight it, they shouldn’t have taken the taxpayers’ money and they are spending more taxpayer money to get it. And now they are spending more taxpayers’ money to justify their mistake.
JOURNALIST: So, you are going to pursue the legal advice even if the prejudice (inaudible) because you think they should settle the case?
SHORTEN: The Government is prejudiced. The legal advice says, and I quote, ‘In view of the legal advice of the Department of Social Security, having regard to the sections of the Social Security act, it appears that Robodebts are not a debt to the Commonwealth’. The Commonwealth has been pretending that it is allowed to take money by issuing these notices. It is not. If I sent you an email demanding money, and you pay me, that is illegal. Why is the Government given a leave pass for robbing people and not being held accountable?
JOURNALIST: What is the timeframe for this? Do you expect the situation continue if the Government doesn’t reveal (inaudible)?
SHORTEN: As Anthony has said in his opening remarks, just how arrogant is Scott Morrison? He was the Treasurer when they invented Robodebt. No doubt his finger prints will be all over the scheme. The point about it is they want to pretend they are making a surplus, so they will string out vulnerable people. This is a Government who basically had no authority to send to vulnerable people on safety net payments, they just assume that people would pay up. As many people do when the Government says that you have a debt to pay up, you assume the Government has the power to ask. No, they didn’t. This is a mass act of unjust enrichment by the Government. It is theft of people’s money. The Government has abused its power. This should end now. How many times does this Government have to get caught breaking the rules before it simply says, ‘Actually, we got it wrong’?
ALBANESE: Let’s be clear here too. If you look at Stuart Robert’s answer today to my question in Parliament, it is clear he knows they will have to pay money back. That was clearly implied. Can I make two points in addition to the point that Bill has made, and I praise Bill for he has done pursuing this issue. The fact is, every single person who came to my electorate office seeking assistance either got their debt reduced to $0, or got it reduced substantially. Every single one. Without exception. The truth is that the most vulnerable people in our society don’t go to their local MPs office. People from non-English speaking backgrounds. In some cultures, if you get a demand letter from the Government, you rush, and you pay that money even if you don’t have it. You borrow it from a relative. That is what has gone on here. I had one person who was known to me who had cancer at a young age. He was in his twenties. First of all, he had used up all of his annual leave, all of his sick leave. He then had to leave his work. So, he got Centrelink payments while he was getting chemotherapy for cancer. Basically, he came through it. He went back into work. And because of Robodebt and the way it works, they assumed that things about his income, that he wasn’t entitled to any Centrelink benefit, when he in fact quite clearly was. Because he wasn’t in work, in fact he couldn’t be in work. He got a debt that, of course, was reduced. These stories are told throughout the nation. This is an outrageous act by the Government, done now, we know, illegally.
JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese, on the attacks on you from the Treasurer in Question Time. How was your handling of the infrastructure grant scheme different to how Bridget McKenzie handled the sports grants scheme?
ALBANESE: Well, you can compare with the Audit Office said about me with what they said about Bridget McKenzie in the Audit office Report. And I quote from The Report, ‘In addition to providing what was considered to be a reasonable geographical spread of approved funding’. Tick. ‘The proportion of total funding awarded on an electorate basis was consistent with the proportion of seats held in the House of Representatives’. Tick. ‘Three of the four largest grants were major projects located in Liberal Party held electorates’. Tick. ‘The third largest grant was made in respect to a project located in an independent held electorate’. Four largest grants, none of them in Labor seat. Not one. There was no evidence, listen to this. There was no evidence, quote from the Audit Office. ‘There was no evidence that the shortlisting criteria were intended to benefit electorates held by one Party compared to another’. The fact is the reason why Josh Frydenberg had to go back a decade and didn’t use a single example of a single project was because there isn’t one. Because there isn’t one. This was a program during the economic stimulus that benefited, done in two phases. The first phase, every local government area in the country got funding according to the Commonwealth Grants Commission formula. They got from $100,000 up according to the formula that was strictly applied. The second criteria which was for larger projects, that is the response from the Audit Office, proportional with electorates, no evidence that there were any criteria intended to benefit any electorates, and three of the four largest were in liberal electorates and the other one was in the electorate of Kennedy.
JOURNALIST: Are you disappointed with the Australian Federal Police for not continuing their investigation into Angus Taylor?
ALBANESE: What I am disappointed is a Government that has a minister sitting on its frontbench who was involved. His office forwarded to the Daily Telegraph a document that we know did not reflect the reality. The document did not come from the fairies. I don’t think you wrote it. Someone wrote it. Angus Taylor’s office knows who wrote it, who gave it to them, what the circumstances are. It is not unreasonable that any Government which had any integrity whatsoever would ask Angus Taylor’s office, they didn’t need police inquiries, frankly, where did you get the document from? Angus Taylor knows where the document came from. He knows. We know that it is not true. And we know it was designed to ridicule the Lord Mayor out of Sydney over climate change issues, to make a point ridiculing climate change. The stench remains around Angus Taylor. Where did this document come from? Where did this forgery come from?
JOURNALIST: You said we didn’t need a police investigation, but Labor referred this to the police. Has Labor been reckless with its use of these referrals?
ALBANESE: Not at all. The fact is, this is a serious matter. If a document is given to a newspaper from a ministerial office attempting to influence an elected official, not a Labor official, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, that is a serious matter. I think out there, in punter-land they think that documents should not be doctored and given to the media and then ran as if they are facts.
JOURNALIST: In terms of the Federal Police and their decision-making, are you disappointed they are investigating journalists and those inquiries continue but when it comes to ministers it is (inaudible)?
ALBANESE: I’m disappointed that they’re investigating journalists for doing their job. Journalism isn’t a crime. What we have in terms of forging documents is a major issue, in my view.
JOURNALIST: The police said they had to devote a lot of resources to this, unlikely they’ll find evidence and also that it was inconsequential (inaudible).
ALBANESE: Scott Morrison could ask Angus Taylor tomorrow, ‘What Happened? How did this occur?’ That’s what he should do. You shouldn’t need outside organisations. A Prime Minister who actually cared about integrity would have dealt with this. The Prime Minister quite clearly doesn’t care about integrity. And I make this point as well, and I’ll conclude with this. Australia needs a National Integrity Commission. We need one with real power to make independent investigations. The fact is that faith in our politics is at an all-time low. It’s at an all-time low because of the sports rorts saga that we can see, the fact that documents can appear and be written up in the Daily Telegraph which not only aren’t true, which of course couldn’t be true, unless every single Sydney City Councillor spent their entire time on a plane just going around the globe for 365 days a year. It can’t possibly have been true. But nonetheless, it was printed as fact. And it was used to denigrate climate change policy and to denigrate the need to act on climate change. It’s not surprising that this Government isn’t concerned about acting on climate change. Today we’re about to have sworn in a Minister for Resources who’s had some interesting comments about this because Michael McCormack questioned yesterday the fact of human activity having an impact on climate change. And the National Party hunting each other down over who can be more sceptical about climate change. That wouldn’t be such a big deal except that they’re holding back the Government and the entire country when what we need is action.
JOURNALIST: Is there a double standard in the Government when Bridget McKenzie is going, and Angus Taylor is staying?
ALBANESE: It’s just farcical. Angus Taylor, of course, has been involved in the Watergate scandal, he’s been involved in the issue around land and his declarations to the Parliament. He’s been involved in this document where we still don’t know where it came from. We know it was given from his office to the Daily Telegraph. Where did it come from? They can’t just say, ‘We don’t know’. Because quite clearly someone does know. We know it didn’t come from the City of Sydney because the police in their investigation went to the City of Sydney and went through their data. Now, why the data of Minister Taylor’s office wasn’t gone through is a question for others to answer. But quite clearly, the fact that Angus Taylor remains there but Bridget McKenzie is gone, I think speaks for itself. But of course, Michael McCormack said yesterday that Bridget McKenzie will be back. So, whoever is sitting in her seat and is sworn in at 5:30, I hope they don’t set up and get too comfortable in their Cabinet office. Because, it has already been foreshadowed, the fact that there is a deal to bring Bridget McKenzie back once the heat is off. Thanks very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.