Monday, November 16, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

The biggest and most costly class action against the Commonwealth is over

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Image via ABC News

One of the nastiest, most disgraceful episodes in Australian politics has ended with some form of justice as Gordon Legal today confirmed a landmark settlement of the so-called robodebt class action, on behalf of more than 400,000 victims of the illegal scheme. The settlement includes $112 million in compensation to be paid by the Commonwealth, as well as the cancellation of a further $398 million in debts that were wrongly claimed by the government using the automated income-averaging methodology, which the Federal Court last year ruled was illegal. Added to the $720 million in robodebts that the Commonwealth agreed to repay earlier this year, the total compensation to victims now tops $1.2 billion. It is a condition of the settlement, however, that the Commonwealth does not admit legal liability, and so far there has been no political accountability for the damaging debacle – whether from Government Services Minister Stuart Robert, now responsible for the scheme, former human services minister Alan Tudge, or from Attorney-General Christian Porter, who was the social services minister when the scheme began. Gordon Legal partner Andrew Grech would not be drawn on whether a royal commission was needed, or which ministers might have been called if the class action had gone to court. One thing is clear: the settlement will never make up for the harm done by the scheme. Greens senator Rachel Siewert, who chaired a Senate inquiry, has written of five families who believe they lost members to suicide caused by receiving a robodebt notice, which put the onus of proof onto the recipient. There were some 2030 people who died after receiving a robodebt notice, of which a third were considered vulnerable by the department, although the government has denied there was any connection. 

In his statement, Grech acknowledged the courage of the lead applicants, and the tireless work of the team at Victoria Legal Aid. “Our clients have asked us to especially thank Bill Shorten for his relentless pursuit of this issue, for his compassion over the last four years for vulnerable Australians hurt by robodebt and for bringing the case to Gordon Legal’s attention when it seemed that all other options had been exhausted and only resorting to the legal system would help,” said Grech. Shorten, the former Labor leader who is now shadow minister for government services and the NDIS, tweeted: “Finally some justice for #Robodebt victims. Now Ministers must be accountable for this epic scandal.”

Ahead of a doorstop press conference in Melbourne, Shorten described robodebt as the greatest social security scandal in the country’s history, adding that today’s settlement was both the most costly and involved the most people of any settlement by an Australian government. “It is only after the prospect of Coalition ministers, such as former minister for human services Alan Tudge, having to take the witness stand to answer questions on what they knew, that the government has now agreed to fairly pay back victims,” Shorten said. “What is the dirty secret about robodebt’s origins that the government does not want anyone to know? Were they told it was illegal and ignored the advice? Or did they not check its legality at all before unleashing it on an unsuspecting public?” Shorten reiterated his call for a royal commission. 

Responsibility for the robodebt disaster goes right to the top. Shorten has previously pointed the finger directly at the prime minister, describing Scott Morrison as “a key architect” of the scheme, having been treasurer (under then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull) when it was introduced. Guardian Australia’s “Politics Live” bloggers noted “the incredible timing” of today’s announcement: “as the news broke that the government will be repaying a $1.2bn settlement for robodebt, the PM was announcing funding for mental health services.” Unlike the spurious politically motivated royal commissions called by the Abbott government into the “pink batts” scheme and the trade union movement, a royal commission into robodebt may be the only way to ensure some accountability for the disaster. 

“Increasingly, trade agreements like this one have been more about the movement of people than about the movement of goods. And the obvious problem with this deal is that it’s been negotiated and signed in secret, with no public oversight, no parliamentary oversight.”

Michele O’Neil, president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, raises fears about the secrecy of the 15-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

“These are the sorts of challenges that, if we trade or engage with the world, if we bring Australians home, we will face … Having these strong testing, tracing and isolation systems are absolutely critical. And South Australia on all the evidence does have exactly that.”

Health Minister Greg Hunt takes a much more measured stance on Adelaide’s COVID-19 cluster stemming from hotel quarantine than he did when the same thing happened in Victoria.

Rudd, Turnbull and the Murdoch cancer
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is under assault, with two former prime ministers, from opposite sides of politics, uniting in their criticism of the media company. Today, Mike Seccombe on whether the world’s biggest media empire might actually be under threat.


The proportion of Australian gas used as feedstock in manufacturing, according to a new report showing that the government’s “gas-fired recovery” will not help manufacturers.

“The missing middle gap is a service gap encountered by several hundred thousand people who have symptoms that are too complex to be adequately treated by a GP and the limited MBS-rebated individual sessions with psychologists. But their condition also does not reach the threshold for access to state or territory funded specialised mental health services. Alternative services, such as private psychiatrists or private hospitals, may be inaccessible due to long waiting lists or very high out-of-pocket costs.”

The Productivity Commission’s final report from its inquiry into mental health, delivered in June, was released today.

The list

“The fact that the US has become more unequal, civically disengaged and politically polarised is not in itself surprising. What is more interesting, however, is that these metrics were all trending in a positive direction from the ‘gilded age’ of the late 1800s until The Beatles age of the 1960s. Then, with the precision of a flying acrobatic team executing a sharp turn, each of the metrics suddenly reversed. The Upswing is a book filled with lots of graphs, and many of them are inverted U-shapes, peaking a decade or two after the end of World War Two.”

“No doubt there was harassment, bullying, power imbalance, and even the threat of dismissal for those unwilling to come across. But much of the erotic activity was not only consensual but enthusiastically embraced as part of the sexual revolution. In the heady days and nights of the ’70s, when bursting out of brassieres was all part of the women’s lib movement, seduction was regarded as entirely appropriate by both genders.”

“The federal government is refusing to reveal the results of an investigation into a bullying complaint involving the office of Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt, including to the woman who made it … ‘It is disgraceful that a taxpayer-funded report was kept secret from the people whose lives it affected the most,’ Johnson told The Saturday Paper on Thursday.”

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.


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