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Scott Morrison's robodebt to society

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

Labor has joined the Greens' call for a royal commission into "robodebt" — an unlawful Morrison Government debt recovery scheme. Executive editor Michelle Pini reports.

IT'S A SEEDY TALE spanning four years, linked to 2,000 premature deaths*, three senior ministers, two prime ministers, unlawful government behaviour and pending class action.

The unconscionable "robodebt" debt recovery scheme, conceived, delivered and overseen by this Coalition Government, should have been enough to end the careers of all responsible ministers. Certainly, once its illegality was discovered, the scheme should have ended immediately. The money should have been promptly paid back. There should have been an instantaneous and unequivocal apology.

The fact that none of these things happened and that the Morrison Government stubbornly refuses to answer questions? Well, that should be enough to end this Government.

Certainly, a royal commission is needed.

THE DEBT SCAM

The robodebt scheme, devised by Scott Morrison when he was Social Services Minister, sent automated letters of demand via Centrelink, alleging that vast sums of money owed, as far back as ten years prior, needed to be repaid with interest. Over 500,000 letters were issued — including to people with disabilities, carers, students, the aged and the unemployed.

As Gavin Silbert QC pointed out in IA:

Given that robodebt was designed to threaten people into providing documents required to establish a debt, the process was clearly in breach of the Commonwealth’s obligations to act as a model litigant, which lies at the root of our democracy. Yet Centrelink and its Minister, Stuart Robert, steadfastly continued to defend the indefensible, producing a tsunami of suffering and misery including suicides, depression and marriage breakdowns without a skerrick of compassion and made worse where those affected were current welfare recipients.

In 2010, four people were found to have died from the “pink batts” insulation program. It was tragic and, of course, it shouldn’t have happened. But the responsible minister resigned and his political career was over. There was a Royal Commission. The then Rudd Government was held accountable and the scandal made front-page news for months afterwards across Australia. The effects reverberate within the Labor Party today.

This is not about comparing deaths and pronouncing some as more important than others. But the callous disregard for the deaths of people linked to the Coalition Government’s illegal robodebt scheme points to the conclusion that this is what happens today. Some lives matter more than others — at least where this Government is concerned.

Four years on, the robodebt scam and its correlation to 2,000 suicides is still shrouded in secrecy and has only made intermittent appearances on the pages of our media duopoly's publications.

In November last year, the robodebt scheme was declared by the Federal Court to be invalid. The Government could no longer claim that it was unaware it was unlawful.

This raised more questions than it answered. When did the Government first become aware it was illegal? Why did it persist after thousands of reports of the scheme's inaccuracy? Would all letters be null and void? Whose money would be refunded? Would the scheme continue?

SORRY, NOT SORRY

Nonetheless, as well as exhibiting no evidence of remorse, Stuart Robert declared proudly on national television:

 “The Department has recovered $1.9 billion in overpayment and we have a legal responsibility to do that.”

Interestingly, the current Government Services Minister (an oxymoron in itself) chose to use the word “legal” in association with a government policy that had been declared by the court to be unlawful.

Former Prime Minister (and PM when the scheme was first hatched) Malcolm Turnbull apologised this week. Speaking from the safety of his post-parliamentary vantage point, Turnbull seems to have acquired a social conscience.

Turnbull said:

“I am very sorry it has created the dismay and distress that it has … Look, it failed and it obviously had serious issues of legal validity, so yes I am very sorry that that worked out the way it did.”

And finally, on 11 June, Scott Morrison, after years of defending the abominable scheme of his own making, gave an apology of sorts in Parliament:

“I would apologise for any hurt or harm in the way that the Government has dealt with that issue and to anyone else who has found themselves in those situations."

There was no mention that evidence of over 2,000 suicides had emerged back in February 2019.

But it is hard to apologise sincerely for something when you fundamentally believe you have nothing to be sorry about. The current Prime Minister famously announced he could not afford “unfunded empathy,” when asked about an increase to Newstart. What he didn’t disclose at the time is that empathy of any kind is simply missing from his repertoire.

Occasionally, there are naked glimpses into Morrison’s complete absence of concern for others. This week, for example, when asked if he thought it unacceptable that pregnant women in the Canberra town of Yass are forced to travel at least an hour to give birth, frequently causing them to do so on the side of the road, the PM replied:

“That’s why we’ve committed $150 million to upgrade the Barton Highway.”

When Parliament subsequently exploded with laughter, Morrison appeared completely bewildered.

This speaks volumes, not only to the state of mind of this PM but of his Government’s wilful disregard for the consequences of its actions on real people.

FIXING DEBTS

Thus, a royal commission is not needed, according to Morrison because:

"We're aware of what the issue is and we're fixing the problem, we're getting the payments made."

No further details as to how this will be achieved were forthcoming.

But just in case any of us were expecting any empathy for 2,000 dead or the untold misery to their families, the PM added:

"Let's not forget what this issue is about — the use of income averaging as the primary reason for raising a debt."

Morrison simply has no capacity for empathy.

DEBT TO THE DEAD

The most disturbing and heartless part about this scandal is that vulnerable people were broken by robodebt and then trod on and ignored by a seemingly deaf and blind government services department, led at different times by Scott Morrison, Christian Porter, Alan Tudge and now, Stuart Robert.

IA sought comment from Robert’s office but was told to read the Prime Minister’s latest media statement. Going by his gormless recent performances, it is no surprise the Government Services MInister's media advisers have recommended a "no comment" stance.

For its part, the Labor Party made a few noises in Parliament over the four-year period but was hardly a forthright advocate for the victims of the heinous scheme until recently.

Opposition Leader at the time and now Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten is now among those calling for a royal commission.

Shorten told IA in a statement:

‘Millions of Australians were targeted for four long years by this Government, in a bid to artificially boost the budget bottom line with up to 740,000 unlawful debts…

The Prime Minister himself was the architect of this cruel scheme designed to extract $1.5 billion in unlawful debts from the Australian people.’

Greens spokesperson on Family and Community Services Senator Rachel Siewert, who has long advocated on behalf of robodebt victims, said in a media statement:

The Government has clearly demonstrated they are not going to hand over this information willingly and will continue to hide behind “public interest immunity claims” or claims that they have no “duty of care". This is why it's so important to have a royal commission, we need to understand what happened and make sure it never happens again.

…Even after robodebt was deemed illegal the Government had the audacity to suggest they may change the laws and haven’t ruled out taxing the refunds of illegal robodebts! 

Details of how Morrison is “fixing it” remain unclear — like most of the activities of this Coalition Government. A class action is pending. A royal commission remains the only hope for the many unanswered questions and to ensure this is never repeated.

Without doubt, the families of over 2,000 people who are believed to have died as a result of robodebt deserve that much.

*EDITOR'S NOTE: Media Services Australia requested we change this story, as the Government disputes a link between robodebt and 2,000 premature deaths. However, while we do not state that robodebt is the sole cause of 2,000 deaths, 2,000 suicides did occur following the receipt of robodebts indicating this scheme as a contributing factor — as reported by the ABC, the Sydney Morning Herald and several other publications.

This editorial was originally published as part of the Independent Australia weekly newsletter. These editorials are usually only available to subscribers and may be read online in the IA members-only area.

You can follow executive editor Michelle Pini on Twitter @VMP9. You can also follow Independent Australia on Twitter at @independentaus or on Facebook HERE.

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