Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

Government dis-services
Stuart Robert is doing the PM’s dirty work

Image of Government Services Minister Stuart Robert

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert. Image via ABC News

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert came under relentless pressure today over the illegal robodebt scheme, with Labor MPs asking a string of hard questions after being gagged on the topic yesterday. Former Labor leader and now shadow government services minister Bill Shorten led much of the attack, asking Robert again about the tragic suicide of Jarrad Madgwick, whose mother, Kath, believes her son would still be alive if he had not received a robodebt notice. Shorten asked why the government had not released data on robodebt victims who had threatened self-harm, as Robert had promised yesterday. “Why won’t the minister admit the government received at least 14 official reports of robodebt victims threatening self-harm?” he asked. “Is it because the number is even higher?” He was backed up by the member for Cunningham, Sharon Bird, who asked Robert why the government persisted with the scheme until the end of last year, even though the Administrative Appeals Tribunal first determined robodebt was illegal in March 2017, and again on 75 subsequent occasions. Next came shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus, and then the Opposition leader, Anthony Albanese. Faced with a barrage of questions, Robert’s mantra in his replies was to repeat that suicide is complex but deny a causal connection to robodebt notices. He said the Commonwealth did not accept any liability in last month’s $1.2 billion settlement with the 400,000 victims of the scheme, and repeatedly pointed out that the scheme’s income-averaging technique, which was found to be illegal, began under the Keating Labor government 26 years ago. It doesn’t wash. 

Robert said that Labor used exactly the same income-averaging process in good faith during the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd years from 2007–13, and cited a June 2011 media release from Shorten, who was then the assistant treasurer, and Tanya Plibersek, then human services minster, claiming that a new ATO data-matching initiative was expected to claw back millions of dollars from welfare recipients who had debts with the Australian government. “Why can’t Labor accept that?” Robert asked rhetorically. 

But the robodebt scheme is about much more than income averaging. It’s also a story of bungled automation, with the government reversing the onus of proof and putting it onto vulnerable people, then sooling private debt collectors onto them, and then defending the indefensible for years as the wheels came off, to the point where both taxpayers and the welfare system have lost out. Labor is right to pursue Robert over the scheme, even if he only proves to be the fall guy for the larger target: the prime minister.

Albanese brought it all to a point in the motion he moved yesterday, which triggered the government gag. Albanese moved: “That the House: (1) notes that: (a) as minister for social services, the prime minister was personally responsible for the design of the illegal robodebt scheme; (b) as treasurer, the prime minister continued his illegal robodebt scheme, announcing it would save the budget $2 billion; (c) after deposing Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister continued his robodebt scheme for years despite knowing it was illegal; (d) the prime minister announced his robodebt scheme would save the budget $2 billion but it has in fact cost taxpayers at least $1.2 billion; (e) the prime minister’s illegal robodebt scheme harmed thousands of Australians and led to the suicide and self-harm of vulnerable people; and (f) no one in this eight-year-old Liberal–National government is willing to take responsibility for the prime minister’s illegal robodebt scheme; and (2) therefore, condemns the prime minister for designing and maintaining the illegal robodebt scheme which led to the suicide and self-harm of vulnerable people. This was illegal, cruel and harmful and it came at a cost to the budget of some $1.2 billion.”

Seconding Albanese’s damning motion, Shorten near-shouted at the government MPs: “This government broke the law, and you have blood on your hands!” Opposition business manager Tony Burke directly attacked Scott Morrison, who was attending via video from the Lodge. Burke had noticed Morrison texting – presumably to tell House leader Christian Porter to gag the Opposition – and commented, “Even when he’s not in the room he can’t cope with debate!”

The government’s response? That the Opposition members be no longer heard. 

“Today, as our country awards its most sacred military honour, we ask ourselves the question asked all those years ago: Why did Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean make the choice that he did that day?”

Prime Minster Scott Morrison honours Ordinary Seaman Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean, who went down with the HMAS Armidale in World War Two, and has become the navy’s first recipient of the Victoria Cross.

“Why does the board consider it is appropriate that the privacy of the Attorney-General and Minister Tudge should be compromised by the way in which the program deals extensively with aspects of their personal lives?”

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher complains to ABC chair Ita Buttrose about a recent episode of Four Corners titled “Inside the Canberra Bubble”.

What Scott Morrison can learn from Daniel Andrews
The pandemic has exposed big cracks in the way Australia’s economy and social services operate, particularly when it comes to insecure work and aged care. Today, Rick Morton on how the Victorian state government is trying to lead the national conversation on what needs to change.

The dividend that coal barons Trevor St Baker and Brian Flannery reaped from the Vales Point power station in 2019–20, after buying it from the NSW government for $1 million in 2015.

“The attorney-general’s Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC) model which has been re-released for consultation is weak, ineffectual and unfit for purpose. It is the integrity commission one proposes when one does not want an integrity commission.”

Federal MPs from Labor, the Greens and Centre Alliance, along with independent MPs, join the Australia Institute’s National Integrity Committee of Former Judges, the Australian Federal Police Association and Transparency International in calling for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission with teeth.

The list

“Oodgeroo and many other great, fearless leaders of her generation led us into a new era of publicly fighting for our rights. She chose the pen as a weapon, and her poems demonstrated that we did not need to mimic other people’s literary ideas, or be assimilated into Western paradigms of thinking about what was ‘real’ English literature. Her rich legacy – to write on our own terms – runs through the generations of poets and writers who came after her.”

“Work by women artists had reached 25 per cent of the NGA’s collection when the gallery decided to bolster its representation. It adopted the hashtag #KnowMyName, taking cues from the #5WomenArtists campaign by the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington DC. The US museum had started with some galvanising statistics: according to a Public Library of Science survey, based on more than 40,000 works by more than 10,000 artists in the permanent collections of 18 prominent American art museums, 87 per cent of artists are men and 85 per cent are white.”

“After a hiatus caused by coronavirus, the twin issues of climate change and energy have resumed their place, secured over two decades, as the most intractable and dangerous in Australian politics. As ever, they are plaguing both sides. The Morrison government finds itself increasingly at odds with its NSW Coalition colleagues on the issue of climate, particularly in the wake of the state’s decision to legislate an advantage for renewable energy producers over the fossil fuel industry.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.


The Monthly Today

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison announcing a cabinet reshuffle today.

Shuffling the deckchairs

In time for summer, Morrison announces his new cabinet

Image of Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass.

The coronavirus hangover

Better economic forecasts still leave a fraught recovery

Image of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg during Question Time last week.

Bad investments

What will it take for the Coalition to give up its fossil-fuel addiction?

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking in Tasmania today.

Perfect storm brewing

Australia’s export industries are being smashed, and not just by China

From the front page

Image showing installation view of Refik Anadol’s Quantum memories, 2020

NGV Triennial 2020

With a mix of eye-catching works, the second NGV Triennial blends the avant-garde with the populist

Bangarra’s Spirit. Photo © Lisa Tomasetti

Healing story

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s ‘Spirit’ pays tribute to collaborators

Image of ‘Jack’

‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson

History and suffering matter in the latest instalment of the American author’s Gilead novels

Image from ‘The Dry’

‘The Dry’ directed by Robert Connolly

Eric Bana stars as a troubled investigator dragged back to his home town in a sombre Australian thriller