Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services

Transcript: Q and A, speech to the National Press Club

7 July 2020

The Hon Stuart Robert MP

Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services
Topics: 
Australian Government’s coronavirus contact tracing app, Centrelink debt and compliance, Centrelink Debt and Compliance System, Debt and compliance letters, Debt recovery and compliance measures, Online Compliance System, Welfare compliance

SABRA LANE:

Thank you Minister, for the speech. On the principles I'd like to pick up on that point, and saying- you say that the future lies with the Government being simple, helpful, respectful and transparent. The past is usually a pretty good indicator to future behaviour and many people watching this would probably think one, robodebt, how did all of those principles apply on being simple, helpful, respectful and transparent?

MINISTER ROBERT:

You could equally ask over the last ten years hanging up on 30 million Australians or keeping people waiting for 30 minutes on the phone. The last twelve months have demonstrated that we can solve all of those problems and putting down some key markers sets us up well for the future. One of the key things where we're going with enhanced myGov is to give people a personalised dashboard where they can see exactly how much they're being paid in tax, what benefits they've got, what they're claiming for, what their payments are, if there's a debt, what the debt is and exactly how it was raised. So going forward we're drawing some very strong lines in the sand to ensure that that transparency absolutely exists.

SABRA LANE:

But do you acknowledge that robodebt and the way that was handled wasn't simple, wasn't helpful, wasn't respectful, and it certainly wasn't transparent.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well certainly acknowledge that the use of average ATO data that's been going on for 20 or 30 years many decades that's now shown to be insufficient certainly was not helpful or respectful or transparent. But going forward - and this is where the transformation is so important - is that we've put down some solid markers. We're saying to the Australian people, this is how we're going to operate when it comes to your data digitally going forward and this is how we're going to be measured.

SABRA LANE:

Have you made it clear that you don't want another robodebt style thing under your watch?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Oh I think the nation's leaders have made it clear right across the country that no one wants to see long standing practices turn around and be shown to be unworkable and not wanted.

SABRA LANE:

Yeah. But you personally, because you are the minister with carriage of that.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Oh absolutely. We don't want to see any of these areas of contention come up again. We actually want to demonstrate on the brand promise and actually be helpful and be transparent and live out the brand promise we want to take to Australians.

SABRA LANE:

Alright. First question from the floor is Sarah Ison.

QUESTION:

Sarah Ison from the West Australian. Thank you for your speech. Just in terms of the next few months, is Services Australia preparing for an increase in people who are going to need unemployment support, some payments as we know there's going to be some tapering off for expiry of payments post September. Is that a directive you've been given? Is that something you're preparing for?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Absolutely preparing for it. So 1.6 million Australians are on payments. As JobKeeper starts to slowly come off - and the Treasurer of course will address all these issues in the coming weeks in his financial statement - we need to be prepared for more Australians to come onto payment. Now if they don't come on, superb. But the nation can be assured that services Australia will not be flat footed on this. It will have the capability, the people and the resourcing to deal with any increase should it arrive.

SABRA LANE:

On JobKeeper, the tax office is the agency responsible for handling that payment. How well-placed is your agency to be able to pick up that work in September, should you know, and again I'm not wanting you to give away secrets here, but should the Government decide that the one size fits all payment is not appropriate and it should be tailored more to what a person is actually earning? Is your- the systems you've been talking about today, are they capable of being up to the task of delivering payments like that?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well I'll leave the Treasurer to talk about the future and where it's going to land but Services Australia is the largest IT shop in the Commonwealth. The big IT shops are Services Australia, Home Affairs, Defence and the ATO. They are the big four in terms of where it sits. And if you look at our experience with myGov we can take 300,000 concurrent users. So 1 July, the day before so 29 June was about 30,000 concurrent users on myGov. 30 June is where they go up to about 90,000 and then 1 July right through the day, literally from 8am to 6pm you had an average of 123,000, speaking up to 140,000 concurrent users and the platform worked perfectly. So we've scaled our platforms to deal with huge numbers of users in anticipation of any change in government policy.

SABRA LANE:

Pablo Vinales.

QUESTION:

Pablo Vinales, SBS News. Minister, thanks for your speech. You mentioned the historical stigma for people on welfare and we're still seeing that evidence today particularly culturally and linguistically diverse communities. You have to look at the comments that Pauline Hanson made just yesterday. What is the strategy to try and address this? Particularly at a time where vulnerable communities are relying on these more than ever.

MINISTER ROBERT:

In the past you had no choice but to go to Centrelink where everything was in English. Yet we know we're one of the most successful multicultural nations on earth. What we're now building out in terms of digital platforms and [inaudible] platforms is massive alternatives to go into a shopfront. Where if you're someone from a cultural linguistically diverse background or someone from a remote Indigenous community, you'll be able to go to what will replace myGov, go to your specific personalised part on that and see all your payments and your claims. You'll be out to do all of your claims online. You'll be able to see where everything is up to and you'll be able to do it in 110 languages. So the first step is to provide services and information and support to communities where they're at in their language. And that'll go a long way to addressing that because it's all about saying we respect your time, we respect your language and we respect you may not be able to get out and about but if you do, if you do go to a service centre, those service centres will be geared to do the more complex transactions and spend more time with you because we've got that much more capacity.

SABRA LANE:

Stephanie Dalzell.

QUESTION:

Hi Minister, Steph Dalzell from ABC News.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Hello Steph.

QUESTION:

Hello Minister.

MINISTER ROBERT:

We had a lovely time last time here.

QUESTION:

We did, always. On the COVIDSafe app, has it ever uncovered a contact trace that hasn't been [inaudible]?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I don't think so yet, you'd need to actually ask the states and territories about this. But my understanding from what I've seen is that it's been used well over 30 times and it has picked up exactly what the manual tracing has got. One of the problems - one of the good things with a problem all in the same breath - is we've had so few cases to date, notwithstanding some of the real challenges we're seeing down south, that we really haven't been able to see the app rollout in its full capability. Remember the app is designed to enhance a manual tracing process, and if we get to the end where there is a vaccine and all we have done is backup manual tracing and confirmed, hallelujah for the country, that'll be a great thing

SABRA LANE:

Just on the lockdowns that are happening in Victoria at the moment, so far nine blocks are in a hard lockdown, those towers around Melbourne. I'd imagine that there'd be many people in those blocks who are NDIS recipients. How did your department get around the early provisions that the government in Victoria made? I mean they said no one's allowed in.

MINISTER ROBERT:

There's about 90 participants to be precise. The agency has contacted them all. I spoke to Minister Donnellan yesterday as soon as the Victorian Government made that statement to say here are the participants, we've provided all those details through to the Victorians. And I've made it very clear to Minister Donnellan, and he - can I say he is a very good minister and working really well - that we actually need to provide services through to those participants, that it is unacceptable if they don't receive the services because there are services of attendant and care, of support, that are quite critical to people with disability and Victoria has given every assurance they'll be provided.

SABRA LANE:

Rosie Lewis.

QUESTION:

Minister, Rosie Lewis from the Australian. Services Australia has said they'll start repaying the robodebt in small amounts from now with most to be repaid from the end of this month until the end of November. How much will someone receive in any one instalment? Because they've said they will be smaller amounts. And is it fair that we will still have people - presumably some of the 470, 000 owed that their debt refund - still owed that in December?

MINISTER ROBERT:

So, 373,000 Australians, the average repayment will be about $1,900. That's the average. One of the reasons there'll be some instalments, and there'll be about 7,000 give or take Australians who'll have instalments, only because there is a check in the system where the system can't pay out any more than $6,999 dollars in one instance as a check and balance. It came about many years ago. I think Kim Carr was the minister where a human services participant, instead of- wrong, a human services staff member, rather than- the secretary can correct me if I'm wrong, rather than putting the amount to be paid, put in the date. And $4 million was sent to an individual. And that was considered by the government of the day probably not the right thing. So, the Labor government of the day put it a check in at that 6999. So, that's still there as a check and sum. So that's why there'll be about 7,000 give or take that will be done in instalments.

QUESTION:

And how many will come, do you expect, after November?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, we'll start paying en masse from the 13th of this month. Government is not geared to do refunds; it doesn't have a system to it. So, we've actually built out that system. About 190,000-ish, we have all their details, their current clients. So the other almost 200,000, 180,000 odd will reach out to say: hey, come into myGov, update your bank details, and as soon as they're updated, we'll pay you. So, we suspect it'll take through to November for all those Australians to update their details. If they all updated their details in one go, great. We could pay them progressively over a number of weeks. Our experience indicates that won't be the case, that Australians will take time and update their details progressively

SABRA LANE:

Paul Karp.

QUESTION:

Paul Karp from Guardian Australia. Thanks very much for your speech, Minister. Will you put that transparency principle into practice today by telling us how many people had debts levied against them solely based on income averaging, over what you've just said is 20 to 30 years, long before the 2015 reference date for the class action? And if you won't say how many people, will you at least give a commitment to give them refunds?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I'm cognisant the issues before the court, so I'll guard my words somewhat carefully. We've come out to say there's 373,000 people since 2015 who had a debt solely or partially raised because of the use of averaged income data from the ATO. We know it's been going on for 10, 20 or 30 years. The Ombudsman report made that clear. We know that it started probably as early as 2007 [inaudible]. As I said in Parliament, we've done a sample of 500 in 2009, and 16.6 per cent or about five- 4000 debts in 2009 were raised wholly or partially with average ATO data. We did the same thing in 2011, and 24.4 per cent of those debts were raised either solely or partially through averaged income data. So, that's the only data sets we have at present in terms of where we sit, which just goes to show, I guess, the long history of the use of averaged ATO data that had been common practice for many, many years.

QUESTION:

So, you don't know how many people had unlawful debts before 2015, but will you commit to find out and to give them refunds?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well again, I'm cognisant it's before the courts. I'll keep my remarks to that, but that gives you an idea of the data sets pre-2015.

QUESTION:

But is the department undertaking an exercise to find out how many people had unlawful debts before 2015?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, the fact that we've sampled in two years, in 2009 and 2011, would indicate some of the efforts we're going to understand the scale and the length of how the use of averaged income data has been.

QUESTION:

Why are you able to commit to give refunds to the people that are plaintiffs in the class action, but not to all the people before 2015 that you've suggested might have had unlawful debts levied against them?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Those from 2015-because computing systems were built to do the income average process, we actually know who every single one of those individuals are and the amount of debt that was raised. Prior to that, there was no computing system that existed to do it.

SABRA LANE:

Thank you. Katina Curtis.

QUESTION:

Katrina Curtis from AAP. You talked a lot about the principles that you're working on, and the first key one you said seemed to be to make things simple for people. Before everything went digital, if Centrelink wanted to communicate to you, they'd send you a letter. Now I get a text message and an email to tell me there's a letter from Centrelink. I have to go through five screens online. I did it this morning. Had to go through five screens online to get the letter and it's in a PDF and I can't read it on my phone, has to be on a desktop computer. How is that simpler?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Great question, because that just leads straight into enhancing myGov in the future. You need to sit down and go to my.gov.au, go to the bottom and see the enhanced myGov, and you'll see exactly what the future is. Do it on your handheld because you'll see exactly how it's built for your handheld. And the future of myGov will re-envisage how all letters are being done. The intent is to move away from sending letters, but used an inbox- so you can go straight to the front door for government, the enhance myGov, straight to your inbox and everything will be there. One of the reasons right now we actually send people an SMS and others is to say: hey, there's something in your myGov inbox, please have a look. Because people routinely don't go there.

QUESTION:

Why can't you just send an email? Why can't you send the information in an email that you use to send in a letter to someone's post-box?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The cyber risks by using email raise exponentially. Through the roof. So we won't send secure documents to you via email, we'll put it through a secure inbox. Currently the myGov inbox. But the enhanced myGov where we're going will simplify it extraordinarily. You'll love it. If you're a Netflix fan, you're about to become the front door of Australian Government fan.

SABRA LANE:

Just going back to earlier points that you made in your speech about the mistakes. Are you prepared to list your mistakes and what you've learned?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Oh, absolutely. For example, on 22 March we prepared myGov for 50,000 concurrent users and it blew out 100,000. That- we should have prepared it for 300,000. But should I have gone for a 600 per cent increase not know what National Cabinet would do? We'd increased it substantially. We should have increased it more. Obviously, it set off our distributed denial of service alarms, but we didn't check and actually investigate before saying, hey, it's a denial of service attack. We investigate all of them now. And we do. I get a report every day in terms of the cyber activity that's occurring weekly for us. So, investigating is always wise. Where we started with the COVIDSafe app, moving forward it started in Home Affairs. We quickly realised it's all about health, this is a health app so it was taken out of Home Affairs. DTA did it as a health app, driving through health. There's a swag more in terms of where we sat. We rolled out office in a box in terms of our preparedness to have our staff work from home. I thought I might be faced with 20,000 staff from home, and we prepared for that. We only ended with six or seven thousand. Did we over-prepare? Don't know, it's sort of difficult to know, you've got to work through that. I think we were right in keeping all the service centre architecture open so Australians could come through. On 23 March when a million Australians were unemployed, by Wednesday we had the intent to claim up and running. Maybe I should have had the intent to claim on Monday, but then again it was sort of 10.30 at night that National Cabinet made their decision. So, we- once issues happen, we move very fast to resolve them and fix them within days. Hindsight's the exact science but where we did make errors, we acknowledge them and we fixed them very quickly.

SABRA LANE:

And on the cyber risks that you talk about, given all the developments that are happening now within your department in transformation and given the recent warnings that we've had from the Prime Minister about attacks that are happening from offshore, how confident are you about resilience in the system here and that they are robust enough to withstand these cyber-attacks?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Our cyber operations centre is probably one of the most effective anywhere, certainly in this country. It's an extraordinary capability we have to monitor and run it. The Prime Minister announced recently and spoke of a sustained actor providing a cyber-attack. Suffice to say, our department wasn't impacted at all in terms of our penetration impact or slowing down the capacity for people to receive payments or make claims. Remember we're Medicare, we do 600 million transactions a year. That's just Medicare alone, forget everything else we do. Our transactional flow is the big four banks put together - it's more than them, it's huge. $210 billion flowing out, and all of that without a cyber penetration or substantial assault that has taken the system down. Now, that's the history. We need to continue to do that level of delivery, and that volume is the major bank of government going forward, and there's enormous investment in terms of our cyber operations centre to ensure it is massively fit for purpose, but at present it's pretty good. And Australians can be very confident that government is taking this extraordinarily seriously.

SABRA LANE:

Michael Keating.

QUESTION:

Michael Keating from Keating Media, Minister. Services Australia's seconded many staff for their temporary task force which is now finished and those staff have returned to their parent departments. What is your department doing to capitalise on the lessons learned, the skills developed and the broader connections developed across the APS so that this experience isn't wasted?

MINISTER ROBERT:

It's a really good questions, because we took about 2,000 staff from every single government department agency and there's still many, many hundreds still working. And we trained them and gave them skills and more importantly gave them the opportunity to connect with Australians, and it was wonderful going and visiting and watching, and the secretary and the CEO to the Governor-General, and Mrs Hurley around as well, and seeing Australians - for example, Protective Service Workers, people from the Asbestos Safety Authority, other areas that didn't normally connect with Australians to get on the phone and just hear some of the heart wrenching stories of Australians and be able to process payments and provide hope. I think it's a really good opportunity. I think there is an opportunity for us to look at a few things, such as when we bring a graduate program, should everyone come and spend a few weeks with Services Australia? CEO would probably love it. I think that actually might be good for them. Now, that's a question for the Public Service Commissioner and for the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service. But I think that as an outcome in itself would be would be really, really good, for anyone coming into DFAT or Immigration or somewhere else just to start by serving Australians. Because if service is beneath us, leadership is well and truly beyond us.

SABRA LANE:

Nick Stuart.

QUESTION:

Thanks very much, Minister. MyGov's obviously a terrific way of communicating, for individuals to communicate with the Government, and vice versa. That's what the future's going to be about. On the other hand, we've had the COVIDSafe app, which the Australians have decided they do want to communicate with the Government. They want to provide the Government with their information. And you've had American technology companies saying, no, we're not going to allow the Government to host on our servers, on our actual phones. And instead, they're keeping you at a remove, which is degrading the effectiveness of the app. At what stage - you hinted at the potential for some future conflict, perhaps - just- do- are you finding that the technology companies are not embracing this in the way that you want them to? Do you find any pushback from that? And if not, can you guarantee us that the next or the future COVIDSafe app, next time we have a COVID, will actually be hosted on the mach- on the iPhones or whatever, the phones themselves, so that it won't drain the battery relentlessly, so that it will actually be usable with other and communicate with other technologies, other telephones regardless of which particular brand you happen to own?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, I gather you're referring to Google and Apple that run their Exposure Notification Framework, which is their way of saying to government, hey if you use our framework, data can be held and just go from phone to phone and bypass government completely. Well, that's Google and Apple's approach, and of course, they bump up the Bluetooth signal strength if you follow their way. Australia, many other nations of the world: India, Singapore, Norway, Cyprus, Israel, France, Great Britain, the first digital movers of the world, decided to actually take a sovereign view of COVID tracing in their app and connected through to their public health officials. So, our app of course works if you're- its polling every minute and collecting data, and if you test positive, a public health official will say upload it to the secure data centre, and then public health will work with you. Google and Apple's Exposure Notification Framework only polls, I think, every five minutes - I could be wrong, but I'm not far off, [inaudible] nodding at me - and plus us as a sovereign nation will determine when the pandemic is over. Not going to wait for Google and Apple to turn off their Exposure Notification Framework with a new update to iOS. So, I think there are some real sovereignty issues with allowing Google and Apple to dictate terms and how to do COVID tracing. I think we, the first 10 nations to move on this and determine how we connected this through to our public health officials, I think that needs to be respected. And I don't agree with Google and Apple that they should have a stronger Bluetooth signal if you use their system, but if you use the existing extant tech in the phone itself, you have a, not substantial, but a slightly weaker signal. I think Google and Apple are wrong on that approach. I think they need to recognise and support sovereign nations to make sovereign decisions. Now, I understand we're using a ubiquitous device - called a phone, because everyone's got it - as a way of doing things, but there's an opportunity I think here for the big tech companies to lock step in with sovereign governments and assist them with their sovereign approach to doing tracing. Remember, digital tracing simply enhances a manual tracing process. The big tech companies with their Exposure Notification Framework are saying that digital tracing unto itself is enough. The global experience shows quite clearly it is not enough. Digital tracing must enhance manual tracing. That's how our approach has been.

QUESTION:

So, will you tell them they've got to get on board?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, we don't lecture corporations and companies through the media, but suffice to say from my remarks that this is top of mind.

SABRA LANE:

You mentioned in your speech about the use of voice biometric service within government at the moment, and that people- one and a half million voice biometric enrolments are happening at the moment. Can you tell us- are you also doing- trialling, sort of, facial biometric work in designing new government services?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Absolutely. So, myGov ID, which is currently available, it's been used by 1.4 million Australians now across a staggering 70 services across the Commonwealth. Our intent by the end of the year is to step it up a notch into a facial biometric or facial authentication services, so it'll authenticate against a driver's license and the passport office will already have your photograph [indistinct]. And that'll allow you to securely connect and authenticate through to a service, so you won't need to worry about forgetting a credential, changing a phone number, or anything else; you'll simply use the native biometric on a phone or a computing device and then authenticate through your phone that way, and then you'll get the highest level of services. And then you have won't fear about any of your credentials being stolen from yourself, from your own phone, from your computer, and appearing on the dark web, because it's very difficult to steal your face, isn't it, Tim? A face we well-recognise and love.

SABRA LANE:

And Tim Shaw is our last questioner.

QUESTION:

Thank you, Sabra, and thank you, Minister. Tim Shaw National Director- Director of the National Press Club of Australia. What I think you've described today is myGov is actually becoming myLife from an Australian perspective, from every Australian's perspective. What kind of timeline are you looking at the engagement with Australians including more than just the ATO? COVIDSafe, Medicare. Do you see your services from a digital transformation perspective becoming all-encompassing and no Australian will go untouched from that opportunity to engage with government on their terms?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Government's agenda is that all services available digitally by 2025, so that's your hard right shoulder. You've got the first look at myGov - myLife - this is your life, Tim. You've got the first look at it. We'll progressively build it out with authentication services -so, myGov ID in a biometric authenticated manner - September-ish this year, but by the end of the year, including getting major payments up. I'd like to get this up and running not just as a beater but as a fully-fledged site by the end of next year. So, we want to move very, very quickly so that Australians can actually have that simple personalised transparent service. And then for those Australians who don't want to operate digitally, and we know only about 83 per cent of Australians actually have a handset, so this 17 per cent of Australians that don't use that will still have very strong telephony as well as shopfronts for people to go into. So, it'll be a full-service offering. We're not abandoning shopfronts in any way, shape, or form. [Indistinct] as many people as possible that can easily, simply, hopefully, transparently, access services digitally that will free up space on telephony channels and face to face for Australians with more complex needs, linguistically diverse needs, culturally diverse, or those in regional and remote locations. But the future is almost upon us. So go on to the myGov beta, Tim. Make some comments. Let us know what you think.

SABRA LANE:

With that, everybody please join me in thanking Minister Stuart Robert.

Page last updated: 8 July 2020