By David Smith
10 June 2020
Address to the Federation Chamber, House of Representatives, Australian Parliament
In this debate, I would like to raise a few matters that relate to my electorate of Bean. Most items are of much pride but one, unfortunately, is of deep disappointment to many in my electorate. The first issue, a grievance, if you will, is out of the robodebt debacle. In September last year, I spoke in a matter of public importance debate in the House on the robodebt scheme and the catastrophic stress and anxiety that it was causing many of my constituents, as it did around the country. I read correspondence from a member of my local community. To repeat, that correspondence noted:
… our intellectually disabled daughter is undergoing a review of past income by Centrelink through the robodebt catastrophe. She is 28 years old and resides with us, her parents. She may owe money to Centrelink, but a letter came out of the blue to her, chasing debt back to 2015, without any prior notice or review of her earnings by Centrelink.
There have been many such cases across Bean, and the frustration, the stress and the anxiety were real.
But, for months, the Morrison government kept denying that its pet scheme was illegal or that it was doing harm. We had the member for Barker, during this debate in September, calling Labor's prosecution of the robodebt issue, just a 'robo-scare', saying that these harassment letters were all about integrity; that calling the Liberal government mean and nasty about this system was trite; and that the robodebt letters were just a simple request for information. Then we saw the member for Bowman get up and put forward another interesting line of logic—that it was very much okay to 'robo-target' sensitive Australians like those with disabilities, because they receive payments by electronic means.
This type of tripe continued for months. We had the member for Fadden denying the stand-over scheme was unfair, inaccurate or illegal, despite the settling of cases, and we've seen the member for Cook batting away questions on the legality of robodebt, a scheme cooked up on his watch. It beggars belief that this government was not advised of the illegality at the heart of this heartless scheme. After all of this out-of-touch spin and damage, the scheme was found to be illegal, with the government finally agreeing to zeroing the debts. Another way of putting it is that 474,000 Australians will be refunded over $700 million of robodebt that they had been illegally hounded for. But this doesn't help families who were devastated and damaged by this unfair process and in some cases lost loved ones.
As others have said, the coalition had to be dragged kicking and screaming to this point. Those coalition members that worked so hard in parliament to defend the scheme and attack Labor should take the next opportunity to put their hand up and say, 'I was wrong and I am sorry,' to half a million Australians and their families. And those ministers who delivered this debacle should do the right thing and not only apologise to my constituents in Bean who were caught up in this mess but also take responsibility for their gross failures and resign.