Radio interview – ABC Melbourne Drive
Subjects: Robodebt Royal Commission findings.
MADELEINE MORRIS: An extraordinary saga of venality, incompetence and cowardice. That’s the description of the mega Robodebt scheme by Royal Commissioner Catherine Holmes in handing down her 900 page findings today. It was highly critical of senior ministers in the former government. Scott Morrison, she found, allowed cabinet to be misled. Alan Tudge abused his power in pursuing welfare recipients in the media. Christian Porter could not rationally have been satisfied of the legality of the scheme. And former Social Services Department and head Kathryn Campbell knew of the misleading effect of the Robodebt proposal but chose to stay silent. She has handed down 57 recommendations to government and there is also a sealed section of findings that have not been made public but have been handed to a number of agencies and also the Attorney-General. Mark Dreyfus is the Attorney-General and MP for the South Eastern suburbs seat of Isaacs. He joins us now. Mark Dreyfus Welcome to Drive.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL MARK DREYFUS: Good afternoon, Madeleine thanks very much for having me.
MORRIS: Thanks for coming on. What was your reaction to this monster finding from the Commissioner today?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Sadness. I think we should all pause to think of the thousands and thousands of vulnerable Australians who were set upon by our government over a course of five years, something, as is made clear by the Royal Commission that should have only gone on for a matter of weeks before it was stopped, was allowed to go on for five years. Will past the time that ministers knew that it was illegal. Well past the time that it should have been allowed to go on. And I'd pay tribute to all of those who spoke up. To the parents who lost their children, to the whistleblowers, to the advocates, to the legal assistance services, a whole range of Australians who eventually brought this shocking program to an end.
MORRIS: Catherine Holmes was scathing of public servants, of former ministers including Scott Morrison. What should Scott Morrison do now? Should he stay in Parliament?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: He should apologise. And he's barely in Parliament now. He's spoken three times since the election. He's quite often not there. I ask all Australians to have at least a small look. It's a very big report and I'm sure that extracts of it will appear in the media. But we need to make sure this never happens again. That we could have a Royal Commissioner say of government program that it was a crude and cruel mechanism neither fair nor legal, and it made people feel like criminals. This was more than 500,000 illegal debt notices sent to Australians. The number's shocking, the scale of it shocking. And the effect of it on the most vulnerable Australians who receive these notice. These are people receiving government benefits. People receive government benefits for a reason and the idea that you could receive these demands from your government and be made to pay is truly shocking. So yes, Mr. Morrison should be apologising.
MORRIS: Some of the biggest criticisms are reserved for public servants. And I should say that Scott Morrison has rejected the Royal Commission findings, calling them unsubstantiated. Public servants were really in the firing line, but also there was a lot of praise for junior public servants who stood up, who tried to warn of the illegality of this, who tried to warn of the immorality of this and were effectively shut down and not listened to by their seniors. Now the National Secretary of the CPSU Melissa Donnelly told ABC News that workers tried to raise those issues.
MELISSA DONNELLY: Frontline public sector workers identified the flaws in the scheme. They raised it with their supervisors through their union, they raised it with the senior leadership, the Secretary, then of the department as well as ministers and their concerns were absolutely ignored. And in some circumstances people actually were threatened when they were raising concerns about this this program.
MORRIS: Some of the recommendations from the Commissioner have been about trying to make sure that this doesn't happen, that frontline workers aren't ignored in the same way. Can you be sure this isn't happening now under your government?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: We're going to make absolutely certain that nothing like this can ever happen again. One of the reasons why I've strengthened, already, the Public Interest Disclosure Act, that's the whistleblower protection scheme of the Commonwealth, since coming into office is that we value people who come forward. They need to be protected. People they come forward to report wrongdoing, as you just said, a number of more junior public servants tried to do under the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison Governments, they need to be rewarded for coming forward. They need to be protected when they come forward. And I think it's so important and that's why this Royal Commission is so important. It's a measure of justice for those who were so dreadfully affected. And it's a lesson to all of us to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.
MORRIS: People want accountability though, as well, don't they? And there is a sealed section which contains the names of people who have been referred for civil and criminal prosecution. You have that sealed section. It's under a suppression order at the moment so we can't talk about who is in that and indeed we don't know, the people who haven't been given that. Do you think it's appropriate that that should be currently suppressed? That we don't know the names of people who've been referred for further prosecution?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The Royal Commissioner Catherine Holmes, former Chief Justice of Queensland, is a person of the utmost integrity and she did an extraordinary job with her team on this Royal Commission in a pretty short space of time. She has created this sealed section. She said in a letter to the Governor-General "so as not to prejudice the conduct of any future civil action or criminal prosecution" and it's really important that we observe that she's made this order for suppression for a reason.
MORRIS: We can't speculate about who that might be, but given what we know about the evidence that was heard are you able to give us any sort of indication about what potential charges could be brought? What those charges might be? Or indeed what civil litigation could be?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Good try. I'm not going to, but the findings of misconduct, of concealment, of misleading of cabinet, of all kinds of maladministration are clear for anyone to read in this report. And as you've said, in your introduction, they're directed, at ministers who were responsible for the continuation of this scheme for over five years and in some cases, the comments are directed to senior public servants. And I'm not going to be speculating. One of the reasons Catherine Holmes says that she has created this sealed section is to avoid that very thing, to avoid speculation. She comments in the report that such speculation would almost certainly be wrong. So, I'm not going to join in any speculation.
MORRIS: Taxpayers paid $2.5 million for eight former ministers to prepare legally. In the case of Christian Porter it was nearly $800,000, the legal bill that he wrapped up preparing for the Royal Commission. Now your department approved that, as far as I understand it, or you approved that, is that right?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes, I'm the Minister responsible for ensuring that there's legal assistance for former ministers.
MORRIS: How is that right? How is that right that taxpayers have paid for ministers to defend themselves?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: This is a very, very long standing arrangement. Ministers and former ministers are entitled to legal assistance for matters that come up during their time as ministers, just like if, Madeleine, you were sued by someone for defamation, the ABC would provide you with legal assistance and it's no more complicated than that. I, of course, understand that many members of the public will find this distasteful but that is the very, very long standing arrangement. I'm part of a government that is committed to following proper and appropriate processes.
MORRIS: Should they pay it back?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I'm not going to comment further. I'm going to say that there is assistance provided to former ministers in circumstances where allegations are made against them arising from their conduct as ministers. That's what's happened.
MORRIS: Can I just ask you about Peter Dutton's comments this morning that the timing the release of this was political, designed to impact the by-election that's taken place in Stuart Robert's former seat. What's your response to that? Is it political?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: That's an absurdity. The Royal Commissioner asked for a short extension of her reporting to the 7th of July. She asked for that on the 10th of May. Mr Robert didn't resign from Parliament until the 19th of May. So it's an absurd suggestion from Mr Dutton and I think we're all now waiting to see whether he is capable of responding appropriately to this report, which of course concerns a shameful period of Australian government of which he was a part. He was in cabinet for the whole of this period, the period during which Robodebt was created. For a time he was a member of the Expenditure Review Committee. Let's see how, just how he responds. As yet, he's said nothing at all other than the absurd suggestion made this morning that the timing somehow had something to do with the by-election.
MORRIS: Mark Dreyfus, Attorney-General, thanks for your time this afternoon.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thanks very much Madeleine.