Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services

Transcript: Sky News, interview with Laura Jayes – 17 November 2020

17 November 2020

The Hon Stuart Robert MP

Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services
E&OE

LAURA JAYES:

Let's go live now to the Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert, thanks so much of your time. Will you apologise now to the thousands of victims that your government targeted?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well thanks Laura. The Prime Minister has already apologised on behalf of the nation’s Parliament. And I certainly join him in that apology.

LAURA JAYES:

How did you get this so wrong? Is a royal commission now necessary?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Laura the use of ATO averaged income data to determine eligibility for benefits goes back decades and decades, almost 30 years to the Hawke and Keating era. So this has been a part of the social welfare or social services platform for decades and decades and decades, simply this Government has determined that is at odds and has finally decided that further proof points will be sufficient to raise debts. So unfortunately it's been a long standing practice.

LAURA JAYES:

It hasn't been a long standing practice though so it's very clear that this practice of ‘Robodebt’ did start after the 2013 election, and it was your government.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well I reject that premise Laura, because it does go back decades. I've got letters from 1994 which state very clearly business practices in place and being used. We've done sampling of the years from 07 through to 13 and was used in 25% of cases and now this Government used it more extensively, but the practice has been well used since the Hawke and Keating years.

LAURA JAYES:

Okay well how many of these class action cases actually came before 2013 under the previous government that you speak of?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well the class action only specially captures cases from 2015 forward. So by virtue of the terms of reference of the class action it couldn’t have gone back prior to 2015.

LAURA JAYES:

Well isn’t it true that you removed safeguards, replied-relied on automated systems rather than humans doing the work, you also reversed the onus of proof and you relied too heavily on an income averaging tool that was wrong?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The use of income averaging has gone back decades and decades, from 2015 as the government continued to use that there was always a person in the chain that sought to engage with Australians, it was just at scale- [INTERRUPTED]

LAURA JAYES:

Yeah but you’re only talking about data-matching you're not addressing the other parts of the question, the Ombudsman report from 2017 clearly confirms that the start of this flawed scheme was under the Coalition Government do you dispute that?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The scheme at scale began in 2015, but the basis on which it was run, which was the use of ATO averaged income data, goes back to the Hawke and Keating days. The Ombudsman also makes that quite clear.

LAURA JAYES:

The income averaging is not the biggest problem here. Before the system was automated under your government only 20 interventions-20,000 interventions were being made every year. Under this scheme, under your government it was 20,000 a week.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Laura, the class action was all about the use of ATO averaged income, and exactly that is exactly what thus is about. It is about the sufficiency of the proof point to determine if a debt exists, based on how much someone has earned per fortnight in that specific fortnight. So the whole case was about ATO averaged income data. And that's the issue that's gone back to 20 or 30 years whereby governments of all persuasions since Hawke and Keating have used this exact measure to determine debts. Now we stopped it 12 months ago almost the day has been a number of court cases that have shown that this government stopping it was indeed the right thing to do.

LAURA JAYES:

So you're saying the practice that you engaged in was exactly the same as the Hawke and Keating Governments?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The use of average income data goes back- [INTERRUPTED]

LAURA JAYES:

That is only that is only a small fraction of the problem with ‘Robodebt’ you also made it possible for debts to be raised for payments, going back more than 7 years, and you mistakenly issued 1 in 5 debt notices.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Laura, the process of retrieving debts over a sufficient period of time going backwards has been a long standing practice. The way that the income compliance program has done under this government, using average income data was exactly the same approach has been done by previous governments except done at scale.

LAURA JAYES:

Okay, so you issued debt notices also to natural disaster victims, is that okay?

MINISTER ROBERT:

There's a range of issues and challenges when it comes to raising debts. Right now, we're commencing from one November, of course, letting people know the debt exists and will collect or start collecting debts from February next year. It is always a challenging part of the Social Security system that many, many ministers have had to deal with. And for so many years or so many decades, averaged income data is being used which we stopped with this government stopped it and subsequent court cases have shown that we're right to stop and say more proof points will now be used to ensure that debts are raised properly and sufficiently and transparently.

LAURA JAYES:

You even considered expanding this to vulnerable groups when you knew of the problems as late as September of 2019. You didn't rule this out, and more than 2000 people have died under the ‘Robodebt’ scheme is that just a coincidence?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Oh Laura, again I reject that suicide is a very difficult topic, and we need to handle it sensitively. So we reject the premise, the connectivity between suicide and ‘Robodebt’ because it is complex, in terms of how we deal with those matters. This is why we stopped the scheme in November last year, because we had concerns about the sufficiency of using this long standing practice-[INTERRUPTED]

LAURA JAYES:

You had warning well before that. Why didn't you stop it sooner, when you had these multiple warnings?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Laura I had only been in the portfolio for a few months before I stood in and stopped it. As soon as I came to the conclusion that I believed that there were issues with the sufficiency of how averaged data was being use from the ATO absolutely I stood in and stopped it. I stopped it on the 19th of November last year to be precise.

LAURA JAYES:

And do you accept that some Australians died because of this schemes that your government pursued?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Laura suicide is a very delicate topic and one we should tread in carefully. So I accept that the sufficiency of the scheme wasn't there, hence why I stopped it 12 months ago, and hence why we've moved to repay $705 million to 405,000 so 95% of all refunds have already occurred prior to yesterday’s settlement.

LAURA JAYES:

Would you say that to Kath Madgwick who’s 22 year old son Jared committed suicide. And she directly attributes the ‘Robodebt’ scheme to her son's death?

MINISTER ROBERT:

So again, suicide is very, very difficult, any loss of Australian lives is tragic.

LAURA JAYES:

You sound, you're saying you're apologetic this morning, Mr. Robert, but you don't sound that apologetic you seem hell bent on making comparisons between your government and this practice going back 30 years which is only a very small fraction of the problem. So, do you apologise? Frankly, this morning, do we need a royal commission?

MINISTER ROBERT:

As I have said Laura this is a practice gone that has back 20 or 30 years, and they are just the facts of the matter whether we wish to accept them or not they are, it’s a long standing practice, a practice this Government stopped. The Prime Minister has apologised and I certainly join him in that to ensure that any debts that are raised are done sufficiently with substantial proof points or more importantly transparently so people understand exactly what debts they've got and how they've been raised. This has now been through, ostensibly two court cases, numerous Senate inquiries, including one on at present that goes through to the beginning of next year. I think this issue has been well and truly canvassed and gone through and the Government of course has admitted it wasn't sufficient and repaid the amount.

LAURA JAYES:

In fact you told Parliament you'd never apologise. When did you change your mind?

MINISTER ROBERT:

It was up to the Prime Minister to apologise and the Prime Minister has apologised on behalf of the country and I join in that.

[ENDS]

 

Page last updated: 17 November 2020