Government must be held to account over Robodebt - Transcript, 2SM with Marcus Paul


SUBJECTS: Robodebt; Ministerial accountability; Labor’s positive policies.

MARCUS PAUL, HOST: Back in 1984, Bob Hawke stood down Mick Young from cabinet for failing to declare a stuffed Paddington Bear at customs. We know in New South Wales in more modern history, we had a premier rolled over a bottle of plonk. But we're wondering whether Scott Morrison will stand aside Alan Tudge or even Stuart Robert following the $1.2 billion Robodebt settlement. We know there was a class action. We know that unfortunately, a number of people took their lives and it was just a big, big mess. That's why you do not allow computers to take over social services – I don’t give a stuff what anybody says and how much money it saves, you cannot allow computer systems to generate bills. Because the chances are quite often there'll be errors in there, and that's exactly what happened with Robodebt. And now, as a result of this, taxpayers – you, me and everybody else who goes to work each and every day - are going to have to foot this bill to repay the money and to compensate victims of Robodebt $1.2 billion. Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury is Andrew Leigh. Good morning, Andrew. 


PAUL: Yeah, you too, as always. You’re becoming a regular and I enjoy our chats, I really do.

LEIGH: Likewise.

PAUL:Alright, so tell me about Robodebt. Why has this been a colossal mistake?

LEIGH: Marcus, this is really just a stand-over racket on the poor. The government sending out computer generated letters demanding money. I had a man, Shane Moore, in my electorate who was a house painter with a back injury who was asked to repay $2,900. And for him, it was utterly devastating. He was dipping into his long service leave in order to make the bills. We've had 400,000 people who've been affected by this - single mums, farmers, unemployed people, people who were unable to travel because they got to the airport and discovered the government that slapped the travel ban on them. And as you mentioned, even people who took their own lives. So Labor believes there needs to be a royal commission so that people are properly held accountable. The only reason the government settled for $1.2 billion yesterday is it didn't want Alan Tudge and Stuart Robert and perhaps even Scott Morrison to take the stand.

PAUL: Well, I mean, I'm sure that we can still get some accountability. I mean, it's all very well to hide behind taxpayer dollars and try to buy your way out of this debacle. You’re not going to stand for that, are you?

LEIGH: Certainly not. We'll continue pushing for a royal commission, and we'll also continue being absolutely clear that you've got to get the humans back into human services and that the social safety net isn’t just there for other people. We got to get out of this notion of stigmatising welfare recipients and separating Australia into leaners and lifters or strivers and skivvers. You know, over a 15 year period, about seven out of 10 Australian households get some welfare. The welfare system is much more like a piggy bank - it's there in hard times when you need it. But the Coalition really wants to dump on people who are on welfare, and it's that sort of mentality that led Scott Morrison when he was Treasurer in 2015 to announce the Robodebt system. He was beating his chest at that stage about the great savings that it would make for the government. So this is Scott Morrison’s scheme that's been exposed here.

PAUL: You’re right. The Prime Minister - this was, in effect, a little like iCare in New South Wales. It was Treasurer Dominic Perrottet’s baby. It’s fair to say that Robodebt was the Prime Minister's baby.

LEIGH: That’s right. And what he didn't realise is that basically people want to do the right thing by the government. Most Australians are not out there to rip off the government. They realise that in doing that they'd be ripping off other Australians. Where people have made honest mistakes, we should make sure that they repay the money. But you've got to have the human element in the checking system. Now there's been some computerised checking of welfare payments going right back to 2004 under the Howard Government, but the difference with Robodebt was you took the humans out of the equation and that's where the system went badly wrong. 

PAUL: Why is it that we seem to be ever more reliant on technology to take over? And you, I think you hit the nail on the head, Andrew, when you said why are we taking human out of human services? Social security is a very, it's an important safety net. At some point in our lives, we all need to rely on the government - whether it's, you know, when we are retiring or even before that. You know, the tough times. And we're very lucky that we live in such a democratic and prosperous nation that we are able to support and lift up and provide a handout, if you like, or a helping hand is probably the better way of putting it to our fellow Australians. But if we continue to, I don't know - it's a bit like banks, it's like a cold transaction. Why aren’t we putting people back into human services? After all, this is what it's - we're dealing with humans, not with other computers. 

LEIGH: Yeah, you're totally right, Marcus. This is a system that needs to be there for all of us. We should be really proud of the Australian social safety net in general. It's the best targeted social safety net in the world, does more to reduce inequality per dollar than any other social safety net around the world. And we shouldn't be scared about technology - I mean, technology used right can provide insights as to where you've got concentrations of poverty. You've just got to make sure that you're carefully checking those algorithms. The Robodebt scheme reminds me of the problems they've had in the United States, where they've had computers running sentencing algorithms that have turned out to the racist. And those sorts of systems need to be carefully checked. Artificial Intelligence can provide us fabulous insights, but we've got to use it carefully, and Scott Morrison utterly failed to do that when he set up the system in 2015. 

PAUL: So we're looking at a bill around $1.2 billion dollars. Is that a conservative estimate? Or is that the total amount? I don't want to read and hear in coming months or even a year’s time that it's blown out to something like, I don't know, $2-3 billion.

LEIGH: I only know what I've read in the government's announcement here, Marcus. That's the announcement they made - $1.2 billion and no admission of accountability. Well, did you expect that from Scott Morrison, a man for whom ministerial standards seem to mean nothing. And who knows what will happen down the track. But as you say, it just stands in complete contrast to the way in which previous governments have handled those things. Think back to the Fraser Government, where Michael McKellar had to step down over a colour TV in 1982. You mentioned Mick Young over the Paddington Bear affair. John Howard stood down a number of ministers for breaches of the ministerial code of conduct. So previous governments have upheld ethical standards in a way in which Scott Morrison, who doesn't believe in an integrity commission, just won’t.

PAUL: Yeah. Look, the Paddington Bear Affair. Now that's a great phrase. I mean, the Paddington Bear Affair makes the $1.2 billion Robodebt stuff up look like a fairytale - it's just incredible. 

LEIGH: It is extraordinary, isn't it? Mick Young, he’s out of Cabinet for three years - 1984 to 1987 - and the Paddington Bear was in his wife's luggage. But that was the standards that Bob Hawke held his ministers to. It’s one of the reasons I think people love Bob Hawke so much, that he upheld those standards for ministers and public life. Hawkie was a bit of a wild man in his personal life, but when it came to the accountability of ministers he was as strong as anyone.

PAUL: Alright. Now, I want to ask you a curly question. You are a part of the Federal Labor Party, Andrew. Has Labor lost its way? Federally? You lost one of your high profile shadow ministers last week, Joel Fitzgibbon. I've always said that Joel's kind of been stuck between a piece of coal and a hard place, up there in the Hunter. Some of the suggestions are that there's trouble within federal Labor, with Anthony Albanese and others on the left faction dealing with you know Joel Fitzgibbon and others on the right. Is there room for pragmatism when it comes to climate change? And I guess ultimately, my question is Andrew, is the party divided at the moment?

LEIGH: Marcus, happy to answer that question. As you know, Joel Fitzgibbon was always going to step down at some stage during this term and make way for Ed Husic, who is a great champion of Western Sydney, to come into the cabinet. Anthony's been doing a tough job this year. You look around the world at the approval ratings of leaders through the course of the pandemic. They've gone up considerably and that's true of Australian premiers, whatever their political stripes-

PAUL: True.

LEIGH: But Anthony's been out there with positive policies. His budget reply was very strong on childcare. He's held the government to account on Robodebt, on their response to the bushfires, and he's been there connecting with Australians which is one of the things Anthony does best. No one wonders what he gets up to on the weekend - everyone knows he loves his Rabbitohs and enjoys a beer. He's somebody who connects with so many Australians and will continue to do so right up to the next election.

PAUL: That was a really good way of not answering my question, Andrew.

LEIGH: We’re not in strife at all. We're in an environment in which we're playing as positive a role as we can. We want Australia to succeed. That's got to be the role for all of us in politics, Marcus - not to try to tear people down, but to demand standards of accountability and to put up positive ideas to help Australia do better.

PAUL: Alright, mate. Always good to chat. Let's do it again next week. 

LEIGH: Sounds great.

PAUL: Alright, all the best. There he is, Dr Andrew Leigh.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.