Stuart Robert is doing the PM’s dirty work
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.
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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...
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