Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services

Transcript: Interview with Andrew Clennell - Afternoon Agenda Sky News

3 December 2020

The Hon Stuart Robert MP

Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services
Topics: 
Centrelink Debt and Compliance System

Andrew Clennell:

Stuart Robert, thanks for your time

Minister Robert:

Andrew, great pleasure, as always.

Andrew Clennell:

Was 'robodebt' an illegal scheme?

Minister Robert:

It was based on the concept of averaged income data from the ATO and that was shown to be insufficient. If you think back to where it began, back in 1990 with the data matching bill, by 1994 averaged income data had been used by the ATO and a program of how debts were raised became normalised, and the government just continued that normalisation.

Andrew Clennell:

And that's an illegal practice?

Minister Robert:

It's an insufficient practice.

Andrew Clennell:

What is, what's the difference?

Minister Robert:

The difference is to raise a debt is quite lawful. And the proof points required need to be definitive on an income per fortnight.

Andrew Clennell:

And this wasn’t?

Minister Robert:

No, it was done over an average of 26 fortnights.

Andrew Clennell:

So there was nothing under the Social Security Act to allow you to do this?

Minister Robert:

There was nothing that precluded it, and that's why it was a practice that had been going on for 26 years. The government didn't invent income averaging, it just continued it.

Andrew Clennell:

So just to be clear, you deny it's illegal?

Minister Robert:

I accept that it is insufficient and it has been for at least 26 years.

Andrew Clennell:

Okay well when Scott Morrison made announcements in relation to this in 2015 and 2016, he talked about a saving of $3.5 billion to the budget from a welfare crackdown generally. Budget papers from 2015-16 talked about a $1.7 billion dollar saving for these sort of measures. But that hasn't really happened has it? In fact the government has arguably caused a fair bit of pain with this program and spent more on it, or as much as the taxpayers saved, is that fair?

Minister Robert:

And the Prime Minister's apologised for any harm that came out of that, it's fair to say that these budget savings have not been realised because having becoming insufficient it was important then that the funds were returned. That's what I announced – [Interrupted]

Andrew Clennell:

Have any savings been realised?

Minister Robert:

Well, I'll leave that to the Treasurer in terms of the budget, all I can say as soon as the government discovered that it was insufficient it moved very quickly, 96% of all those funds have been repaid.

Andrew Clennell:

So you were handed this when you got your portfolio in effect, weren’t you?

Minister Robert:

Well, I had only been minister for a number of months. That's right.

Andrew Clennell:

Yeah, and really you've been handed one of the biggest federal government stuff-ups in recent years when you got to pay $1.2 billion back.

Minister Robert:

Well, it's a program that had been using the same approach of income averaging for 26 years, exactly the same approach.

Andrew Clennell:

Not on this scale though, and not in this manner.

Minister Robert:

Correct, the scale that the government used this long existing approach was higher than previous years, but its approach was exactly the same, that's key. So the existing practice. Now we took advice, and that showed the practice is insufficient and we took the step to stop it and to repay it. I think as was appropriate.

Andrew Clennell:

Are you taking the hit for the PM and subsequent ministers in relation to this?

Minister Robert:

Well, Westminster always has a concept that the minister who oversees the department is responsible for ensuring anything is corrected. I'm the minister who is overseeing the application of a policy. So I have responsibility to fix it and that's exactly what I'm doing.

Andrew Clennell:

All right, well I want to take you through some of the pleadings. I know you’ve been asked about this sort of stuff in parliament. But the pleadings in relation to this matter, so that by 25 January 2017, two senior bureaucrats Craig Storen and Malisa Golightly were in possession of Commonwealth data  that showed 4,884, or 5,629 'robodebt' raised debts had subsequently being reassessed. They also say this, on or around 1 March 2017 Minister Tudge had received a brief cleared by Ms Golightly, which stated that 33% of 'robodebt' raised debts were changed to zero dollars on review and reassessment. One third were changed to zero dollars. Shouldn't alarm bells have gone off in relation to this scheme in early 2017, when you hear that?

Minister Robert:

The numbers you're referring to the government has not accepted. They came out of a submission that Gordon Legal put in the class action to the courts. They weren't tested.

Andrew Clennell:

Is there a document, to your knowledge, which states advice that says in 2017 Minister Tudge had advice that 33% of 'robodebt' raised debts were changed to zero dollars?

Minister Robert:

That's not a document that I've seen.

Andrew Clennell:

Do you believe it exists?

Minister Robert:

It is not a document I've seen. I can't comment or hypothesise on what may or may not exist.

Andrew Clennell:

After the pleading went in did you take any steps to try and see if it did exist?

Minister Robert:

My steps were to repay the funds because of lack of sufficiency, and to ensure that any debt raising that moves forward is sufficient and multiple proof points exist, and the debts are transparently raised for Australians. So Australians know why they have a debt, how they are going to pay it and move respectfully on that, that's been my focus. Now, that the points, you've got, or the matters you’ve raised they were raised by Gordon Legal in court, they were never accepted never substantiated, and of course the Commonwealth and Gordon Legal have now reached agreement, and both have accepted the Commonwealth has not accepted liability for the issues at stake, or the matters which you've raised.

Andrew Clennell:

The first part of your answer it sounds like to me you're saying, if I can be more colloquial about it, you're saying, my job was to clean up the mess.

Minister Robert:

Well my job is to ensure that we run a proper welfare program. We have 130 different payments, $210 billion. Yesterday, for example, Andrew just yesterday we answered over 150,000 calls with an average of 71 seconds; 2.9 million Australians logged into our channels. Thirty-three thousand Australians came in 325 service centres, that's my day job to ensure that works at a world's best practice. And yes, in terms of the insufficiency of averaged income data in the compliance program government made a decision that was insufficient and needed to be paid back, and we've moved expeditiously on that with 96% of all those funds have been paid back. And the only reason it hasn't been 100% is because about 14,000 Australians haven’t updated their bank details, so I'd encourage them to do that.

Andrew Clennell:

It is hard to get past this when you say government made insufficient decisions Scott Morrison was the minister who made that insufficient decision wasn’t he?

Minister Robert:

Well from 1996, we know-[Interrupted]

Andrew Clennell:

Do you believe that to be the insufficient decision?

Minister Robert:

Well I believe that was the basis upon which the use of averaged income data started, and the documentation I put into parliament proves that categorically. And then for 26 years governments of all persuasions have followed that same stance.

Andrew Clennell:

Okay. I just want to take you through this catalogue of warnings about what this scheme, I guess has done to people that was in the pleading. So, 23 October 2017 the Commonwealth's escalation team came into possession of a document recording a person who had received a 'robodebt' and had a conversation with compliance Queanbeyan, the person became quite upset and advised me that after the phone call, they would kill themselves. On 26 October 2017, three days later, the person who received a 'robodebt' notification had a conversation with customer compliance Queanbeyan, called the person who said he would go into the branch Tamworth and shoot himself. Six November 2017 a Commonwealth document recorded a person who had received a 'robodebt' notification, had a conversation with compliance division to record the person was distressed during the conversation and on multiple occasions mentioned self-harm and suicide. Why wasn't something done then about this scheme?

Minister Robert:

Notwithstanding that the government hasn't accepted the list of allegations that Gordon Legal put into court. It's important that everyone understands at least every day, every day and this has been the case for decades, Services Australia and before that Human Services escalates comments of harm of people seeking harm for a range of issues and the complex reasons in people's lives and it's very sad. In terms of what that does. And then on top of the escalated issues, there are 4,5,6,7 others that are serious but not escalated

Andrew Clennell:

Yes, but minister that doesn't happen usually, when people don't actually owe the money. And it's been demanded from them.

Minister Robert:

Well unfortunately it happens every day and it's been happening every day for decades.

Andrew Clennell:

But on this occasion, it's been proven many of these people just didn't owe the money. Did they?

Minister Robert:

Well, nothing's been proven in that regard, Andrew.

Andrew Clennell:

Well I don’t think you’ve handed over $1.2 billion for no reason? 

Minister Robert:

Well, we've handed it over because the basis of collecting using average income data from the ATO is insufficient, that's the reason.

Andrew Clennell:

Do you accept that a lot of people had debt collectors chasing them for money, which they didn’t owe?

Minister Robert:

The use of debt collectors is a long-standing practice of multiple governments to collect debts.

Andrew Clennell:

Yes, but do you accept there were many people who had debt collectors chasing them for thousands of dollars when they didn't owe the money?

Minister Robert:

I accept that the basis upon which debts were raised was not sufficient. And that's why it's being paid back.

Andrew Clennell:

There are two cases in particular that keep getting raised. I mean, they're pretty distressing. Rhys Cauzzo, 28, took his own life after being pursued by debt collectors in 2017 and 22-year-old Jarrad Madgwick, who took his own life last year with $9,000 debt hanging over him. How do you feel about these deaths?

Minister Robert:

It's terrible, any loss of life is tragic, it is just tragic, as a nation, we have a target of toward zero for suicide, it is terrible. As I said in the parliament with Mrs Madgwick’s son I extend my enormous condolences to her. It's unimaginable. But we have a lawful opportunity, wrong, a lawful responsibility to raise debts. For Mrs Madgwick’s son the debt was raised sufficiently, it was not a case of using averaged income data at all.

Andrew Clennell:

So he did owe that money?

Minister Robert:

Sufficiently and lawfully, and it wasn't raised as a matter of averaged income.

Andrew Clennell:

What about Mr Cauzzo? What is the situation in relation to that matter?

Minister Robert:

Mr Cauzzo, I am not across in enough detail to be able to provide a response in that respect, and it's not something that's been aired in the public and I wouldn't want to continue doing that.

Andrew Clennell:

Do you believe, or do you have reason to believe there have been any other suicides or episodes of self-harm in relation to 'robodebt'?

Minister Robert:

We know that suicide is very complex, very sensitive matter, there are multiple causes that cause people tragically to take their own lives. And these are issues that all governments of all persuasions continue to tackle, and we should all continue to tackle it. And people who are feeling that way inclined or issues should reach out to help. Beyond Blue is a wonderful place to start.

Andrew Clennell:

But the administration of this scheme caused distress for a lot of people didn't it, the way it was handled?

Minister Robert:

Well, the Prime Minister apologised for that.

Andrew Clennell:

I mean there has been all this kerfuffle over the 4Corners story and the personal lives of a couple of ministers, isn’t this a bigger scandal?

Minister Robert:

The issue is that for 26 years Andrew, the use of averaged income data from the ATO has been established practice, and this government continued established practice until such time was shown to be insufficient, and it was stopped, and they are the facts however inconvenient or however tragic. They are the facts.

Andrew Clennell:

Okay. Well on 18 September you said this of Bill Shorten moving towards a class action, you said it's just a political stunt. In fact, Bill Shorten at the press conference made the point, and I will quote Bill, that this was a legitimate political strategy, he might as well have said what are these such as he got proved wrong you're wrong here didn’t he?

Minister Robert:

Well, he was moving forward very publicly in terms of, of court action, it was a political manoeuvring, and that's fine. We were at the same time exploring the sufficiency of what we were doing and where it was, which resulted of course in a press conference it did in the 19 November last year, we said that it was not sufficient and the government is stopping it.

Andrew Clennell:

How can the public have confidence moving forward the debts from Centrelink recipients being collected appropriately?

Minister Robert:

Because after 26 years this government is the one that said, this practice is insufficient further proof points are necessary, and the government will move forward in terms of ensuring that maximum proof points are used legitimately and lawfully to ensure debts raised.

At the same time, all debts, will have a complete transparency through MyGov so people will be able to see when they log in exactly the debt exists and why it exists.

Andrew Clennell:

All right, let's move to the COVIDSafe app. Now, 10s of millions spent on this, not to mention the money on ads with Nick Coatsworth compared to sunscreen but it just hasn't worked in the way it was supposed to, has it? I noticed the announcement earlier this week that you are going to make a change to it. Can you take us through that and why hasn't it worked in the manner that was dreamed of?

Minister Robert:

Right now, I believe we've got one of the best COVIDSafe or COVID-tracking apps in the world, and there's over 30. We use a traditional handset, Apple or Google handset if you like, and over, well over 95% of handsets are used.

The challenge has always been using the Bluetooth protocol, which is a sort of short term or short range wireless within Apple. When the application is in the background, and the phone is locked, the Bluetooth protocol that Apple uses, nothing to do with the app, lacks strength and the strength would be only up to 50%, and that was a problem I guess with how Bluetooth on Apple worked. We've just announced we're incorporating Herald as a new protocol and the Bluetooth stack, sounds a bit techie, whereby it ensures the app is always present and connecting. And all of our tests the results we've made public show that is now approaching 100% effectiveness on every step.

Andrew Clennell:

So even when your phone is locked it is going to work?

Minister Robert:

The tests have shown 100% effectiveness with your phone locked and the app in the background.

Andrew Clennell:

When does that come into the app for everyday use?

Minister Robert:

In the coming days, it'll be going into the Apple and Google App Store it's been thoroughly tested. The code has been put up for public comment. I encourage the tech community to have a look, pull it apart. It started with MIT and then with VMware to be working with our, our partners globally in that respect, and we are now starting to share this globally with other nations, because we now have an app that has solved that phone problem with Bluetooth and Apple, and that's pretty exciting Andrew.

Andrew Clennell:

Can we believe you this time on it?

Minister Robert:

Well you just look at the test results. And that's the beauty of publishing test results and publishing the code.

Andrew Clennell:

Because we were told it worked, and me as a punter as a citizen, you must be disappointed that it didn't really work?

Minister Robert:

Well it did work when it was used, and you saw that in New South Wales.

Andrew Clennell:

How many contacts has it traced?

Minister Robert:

Over 80 different contacts, 17 that were not produced by manual tracing. And because some of those led to large clusters over 544 cases of potential infection.

Andrew Clennell:

That's a small number by the number of coronavirus cases we've had in this country, isn't it?

Minister Robert:

Well it's small because we've had a small number of cases and we know of course Victoria wasn't using it at the height of the pandemic and they hadn’t engrained it into their contact tracing mechanisms, which they now have.

Andrew Clennell:

Let’s talk about the SAS report. I just wanted to raise this with you because you were Assistant Minister for Defence in 2015, Veteran Affairs Minister prior to that. Were concerns about the SAS in Afghanistan brought your way? What action did you take? How do you view what's come out in this report?

Minister Robert:

There were no concerns ever raised to government about activities in Afghanistan. Government had some concerns about some cultural issues within the SAS, hence why I went there in March 2015 with General Sengelman, the Special Operations commander, to address some domestic cultural concerns, and then from their General Sengelman continued his investigations but at no point did the ADF bring forward to government any issues in terms of combat operations.

Andrew Clennell:

What were the concerns around the cultural problems then?

Minister Robert:

From memory it was a bunch of little things, there was any incident at a soldier's mess, there was a missing piece of ordnance out of an armoury, a bunch of little things but it's the little things that point to perhaps there might be a cultural challenge and the best way to address that is directly.

Andrew Clennell:

And what do you think of the report, the reaction to it, the Meritorious Unit Citation issue, what is your view on all of that?

Minister Robert:

Well, Justice Brereton, who is an Army Reserve two star, in fact he was a reserve two star working in Defence, when I was the minister so I have enormous respect for Justice Brereton, he's produced a report they are serious allegations but they are only allegations. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, Andrew in that respect, and that’s up to the CDF now to move forward sensitively, conclusively and completely, and that's what the CDF is doing.

Andrew Clennell:

What did you think when he announced everyone was losing the Meritorious Unit Citation?

Minister Robert:

Well my understanding is the CDF has said that that is not a final decision that he is working his way through the recommendations. I think we need to give the process time to run out. There's a number of veterans in parliament, from both sides, and we all want to ensure that the great name of the Australian military is upheld, a very small number of allegations in the totality whilst extraordinarily serious are investigated properly, and we should let that process take its time.

Andrew Clennell:

Now just finally, you've been a close colleague of Scott Morrison's your entire time in parliament. Are you expecting a promotion or a shuffle?

Minister Robert:

I don't know if you're a student of history, Andrew, or indeed of Yes, Minister from the '70s series.

Andrew Clennell:

I'm certainly a student of that.

Minister Robert:

There's a wonderful, the first or second episode Windsor Humphrey makes the quip, 'The Prime Minister giveth, and the Prime Minister taketh away, blessed to be the name of the Prime Minister'.

Andrew Clennell:

Thanks for your time minister.

Page last updated: 4 December 2020