Speech to Parliament - Pensions and Benefits

03 November 2020

House of Representatives

Matters of Public Importance

Pensions and Benefits

Thursday 3 December 2020

Mr DAVID SMITH (Bean) (16:00): US President Harry Truman used to have a sign on his desk saying 'The buck stops here'. If the Prime Minister had a sign on his desk, it would say 'I don't hold a hose'. In fact, no-one in this government holds a hose on anything or appears to care about the consequences of either maladministration or inaction.

That callous indifference to consequence was on show again for all to hear in question time this week.

Members of the House will remember that last September we had an MPI debate on robodebt. In that debate I provided examples of affected Bean constituents and called out this terrible scheme. Today I speak again to call out this government's failure to take responsibility for its illegal scheme, a scheme that has done so much damage to so many families in Bean and across the country.

You can just imagine the minister responsible for robodebt ringing around trying to find some members to talk in the September MPI debate and defend this shameless scheme. He may have said: 'Trust me. We'll give you some talking points you can obfuscate on. Just go in the chamber, blame them, attack the member for Maribyrnong, take no responsibility, say it's a scare campaign and, if you want to go there, remind people on welfare that they should consider themselves lucky for the support of the tax system.'

I'm sure he got a few knockbacks from MPs, like the member for Bass, but the minister did find a few members who were willing and able. We had the minister himself try his rubbish we-all-collect-debt argument. He failed then and is failing now to take responsibility for this scheme.

We had the member for Petrie, who spoke 'with pleasure' on this matter. Then we had the member for Barker, who too was 'pleased' to defend the scheme, saying that the pursuit of justice was nothing more than a roboscare campaign.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Llew O'Brien ): Does the minister have a point of order?

Mr Howarth: Just for the member, I am the member for Petrie and I haven't spoken on the matter.

Mr DAVID SMITH: I apologise to the member for Petrie. It was one of your other colleagues though. Haven't those talking points aged well? I'm glad the member for Petrie didn't use them.

In contrast, I raised the case of a constituent of mine. The mother of a person with an intellectual disability had undergone a review of past income by Centrelink through the robodebt catastrophe.

After receiving a threatening letter demanding a debt be paid the daughter passed the letter to her mum. Luckily, her mother appealed the decision on her behalf and demanded that Services Australia review all payments. I can update the House that the outcome of that stressful review was that Services Australia actually owed her.

As this devoted mum said, her daughter was very lucky because she had parents who could appeal the case for her. I know that other cases have ended disastrously for the individuals involved. To focus only on the Liberal members in the last debate lets the real architect off the hook for what has been described as the worst example of maladministration and callous indifference to vulnerable Australians.

It was the member for Cook himself who instituted this process to collect what the government hoped would be billions of dollars of overpayments. It was this government that attempted to justify the practice by claiming that Labor had done similar in the past—a claim we hear again and again from the minister. A lie repeated remains a lie.

For years this government has been in denial about robodebt's fairness and legality, and its obfuscation does not end there. This week we even had the blocking of the tabling of a simple and saddening note from a mother of a victim of this scheme. I had hoped Mr Robert provided some more humble and sincere talking points for today's debate, but I was sadly disappointed. Since the last MPI the government has made a last-minute pretrial admission conceding that it owes robodebt victims their money back plus compensation.

It is likely that the government owes victims of the robodebt scheme more than $1.2 billion. The settlement is some level of justice for victims who have been treated terribly by this government. The robodebt scheme has wreaked untold damage and harm to hundreds of thousands of people. As has been noted by many, the ministers responsible, all of whom are still in cabinet, and the public sector chiefs who oversaw it should be held to account and shouldn't remain in their positions. They shouldn't be simply reshuffled in coming weeks.

This whole episode is a shameful moment in Australian history. We need a royal commission into this failed and damaging scheme to get the answers the victims, the parliament and the Australian community deserve.