I move:

That this House:

(1) acknowledges the release of the report of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme, a 990-page report that examined the establishment of the scheme and who was responsible for it, and made 57 recommendations;

(2) recognises that the Robodebt Scheme, which was put forward as a budget measure in 2015 and was found to be unlawful by the Federal Court in late 2019, caused great harm to vulnerable members of the Australian community;

(3) notes that despite the mounting warnings and criticism of the scheme, in the words of the report the Government of the time ‘continued to illegally raise debts against some of society’s most vulnerable’;

(4) commends the courage, leadership and bravery of victims, families, advocates and whistle-blowers who continued to raise concerns about the Robodebt Scheme; and

(5) welcomes the Government’s commitment to ensuring such a tragedy never happens again, and to carefully consider the recommendations from the report and provide a response to these recommendations in due course.

Robodebt was a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal, and it made many people feel like criminals. In essence, people were traumatised on the off-chance they might owe money. It was a costly failure of public administration in both human and economic terms. Those are the findings of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme. There are 434,901 people who are known victims of robodebt. This includes as many as 2,125 victims in my community.

The impacts of robodebt went far beyond those who were told that they owed money. Children, parents, family members, community members and loved ones were all impacted by this scheme—all impacted in so many ways because of the program that those who sit opposite operated for years, despite the warnings and the criticisms and despite the fact that we now know it was illegal.

In a way, we shouldn’t be surprised that over these years the Liberals ignore the warnings, because if there’s a chance to be nasty, if there’s a chance to punch down on people in our community who we should be lifting up, then the Liberals will take it.

Of course, one of the chief proponents of the scheme in the coalition government was the member for Cook. The member for Cook has described himself as a bulldozer. When it came to welfare, to the social security net that holds our country together, he was—self-described—a tough cop on the beat. As both a minister and as a prime minister, issue after issue, he decided he’d just crash through, regardless of the impact on people’s live. The royal commission found that the member for Cook ‘allowed cabinet to be misled’. The commission found:

He failed to meet his ministerial responsibility to ensure that Cabinet was properly informed about what the proposal actually entailed and to ensure that it was lawful.

And yet, despite these findings, just last week the member for Cook made it clear he will not be changing his mind on the role he played in the robodebt scheme. In fact, he dismissed the findings of the royal commission as ‘disproportionate, wrong, unsubstantiated’.

The now Leader of the Opposition has called those words from the member of Cook, his former boss, a strong defence. The Australian people have a right to ask the now Leader of the Opposition, ‘Who do you support? Whose side are you on? Are you on the side of the victims of this illegal scheme or are you on the side of the member for Cook, the bulldozer?’ At the moment it seems like the Leader of the Opposition still can’t bring himself to side with the victims.

It is vitally important that we do not forget the stories of the victims of robodebt, to ensure that we never see another government running a scheme like this. This is a commitment our government have made—that we will work to ensure we never, ever see a scheme like this again. We understand, as the royal commissioner said, that ‘anti-welfare rhetoric is easy populism’ that doesn’t build up our country but just drags us all down. That, of course, is not what those on the other side have done. The nasty party are happy to engage in a bit of welfare bashing.

Rosemary Gay, an age pensioner, gave evidence to the royal commission. Rosemary said of the pension:

… (it) help[ed] keep my head above water financially. This benefit has enabled me to live my life with dignity and to pay my living expenses. It has been particularly important given my health issues and inability to work full-time.

Of course, Rosemary was shocked when she received a debt notice in late 2016, and then part of her age pension was withheld to pay the debt. Rosemary said to the commission:

It turned my life upside down. It was just sheer terror that I owed a figure that was such a huge amount that I’ve never earned that much money. How could I owe that much money? I could not possibly owe that amount of money to Centrelink.

Rosemary, the pensioner affected by this scheme and whose life was turned upside down by this scheme, knew it wasn’t correct yet, over years and years and with successive ministers, those opposite, who should have known and should have asked questions about what was going wrong and about why people were being slugged with these inaccurate, wrong and ultimately illegal debts, did not ask the questions. They failed these victims.

Rosemary’s story is just one of many shared during the royal commission. I want to acknowledge every victim, their families, the advocates and the whistleblowers, who, despite the roadblocks they hit, kept going. They didn’t let others shut them down. They, I hope, are reassured by our government’s assurance that this will never happen again.

Click here to watch this speech.

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