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Thursday, 12 September 2019
Page: 2823


Mr ROBERT (FaddenMinister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and Minister for Government Services) (15:25): I firstly say that this government will not be lectured by the Labor Party on collecting debts owed to the Commonwealth—not today and not any day. So let's go through the history of debt collection for the Commonwealth, starting in 2007. Back then, of course, it wasn't called 'income compliance' or 'earned income compliance'. That was the name that changed in 2015-16. Back then it was called 'pay-as-you-go debts'. In 2007-08, when Labor came in, there were 9,000 reviews. Labor quickly took it to 31,600 reviews, raising debts that exceeded, in total debt payments, over a billion dollars, and so they continued.

On 13 July 2010, the member for McMahon put out a media release to say the following: 'In the 2008-09 financial year, Centrelink conducted 3.8 million payment reviews, resulting in the reduction of 641,000 payments and the cancellation of 110,000 payments.' It states that payments reviewed during that year—2010—by the Labor Party minister, the member for McMahon, were: age pension, 898,000 reviews. Do those opposite want to know how many reviews of the disability support pension were done in one year by the member for McMahon and the government that they belonged to? It was 500,089. There were 500,000 reviews in one year of disability support pensioners when those opposite were in government in 2008-09. But those opposite have the temerity, the hide, the audacity to walk in and lecture this government on a process they were intimately involved in.

Let's move forward to how data-matching began. When did the Commonwealth start to move from a manual process—that manual process being pay-as-you-go—to a data-matched process? I can tell you the exact date: 29 June 2011. Let's go to the media release where the nation was told of this. It reads:

A new data matching initiative between Centrelink and the Australian Taxation Office is expected to claw back millions of dollars from welfare recipients who have debts with the Australian Government.

Minister for Human Services Tanya Plibersek and Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten today said the new initiative will enhance Centrelink’s debt recovery ability and is expected to recover more than $71 million …

Beginning on July 1 this year, Centrelink and the ATO will automatically match data on a daily basis as a way of cross-checking former welfare recipients who have a debt with the Commonwealth.

And on and on and on it goes. I table that for the benefit of the House. The godparents of earned income compliance—what pejoratively those opposite called robodebt—were the member for Sydney and the member for Maribyrnong. They began it, they started it, they put out the press release on it and they continued to collect on it. The member for Sydney, who had replaced the member for McMahon as the human services minister, continued the same spate of welfare reviews.

If that isn't enough, we can move forward to the sheer change of positions that happens time and time again. On 9 May 2019 at Redcliffe Hospital the then Leader of the Opposition, the member for Maribyrnong, did a wonderful doorstop. A journalist asked him:

On Robodebt, social advocates have talked about the legalities of this program and groups like ACOSS have asked Labor to more solidly outline what you would do on that. What's your view on the legality of Robodebt?

That was on 9 May. There was an election a little while afterwards, so you'd expect the Leader of the Opposition to be truthful. I'll quote:

We want to make sure that people aren't receiving welfare to which they're not entitled to. And no one gets a leave pass on that.

There it is. That was the then Leader of the Opposition, the member for Maribyrnong. They then produced Labor's fair go budget plan. Let's have a look at it. Let's see where it says that Labor is not doing income compliance. No, I can't see it anywhere. It's not in there.

Let's move on. It is 4 August. The election has finished. There's a new Leader of the Opposition, the member for Grayndler. He is asked by Annabel Crabb:

This week, Bill Shorten called to abolish Robodebt. Was that … Labor Party policy …

Why did Annabel Crabb ask that? She asked that because on 28 July the then Leader of the Opposition, the member for Maribyrnong, who had said everyone needs to pay their debt, said, 'This is why we in Labor say, "Scrap robodebt."' On 29 July the member for Maribyrnong said, 'The government's robodebt scheme must be scrapped.' My goodness! But he'd said two months earlier: 'We want to make sure people aren't receiving welfare to which they're not entitled. And no-one gets a leave pass.' So Annabel Crabb asked the Leader of the Opposition on 4 August on Insiders:

This week, Bill Shorten called to abolish Robodebt. Was that a Labor Party policy passed through Shadow Cabinet?

The Leader of the Opposition said:

We've expressed concern about the Robodebt issue over a long period of time.

Yap, yap, yap. The bottom line is that the member for Maribyrnong is making up Labor Party policy and announcing it on Twitter. It's almost as if the opposition shadow cabinet is run through Twitter. On 2 September the member for Maribyrnong said, 'Robodebt torment might be state-sanctioned extortion,' and then, of course, today he said, 'Robodebt is unlawful'. How many positions can one person possibly have? When the member for Maribyrnong is running for election, no, he's all tough and hard, isn't he? Everyone needs to pay what they need to pay and no-one gets a leave pass. He loses the election and suddenly, straightaway, it's: 'Oh, no, we can't possibly have that.' The Ombudsman reviewed the government's automated debt-raising recovery system. I'll table it for the benefit of members. It shows that what the government is doing is appropriate, is well targeted and is achieving the results that it is supposed to achieve.

Let's be clear. The Australian culture is built on a shared commitment to help those who need a hand. Whether someone has been knocked down by drought, flooding rain or just bad luck, we have long understood, and we accept this, that we have a moral obligation to support the most vulnerable. All of us accept that. That's why successive governments have developed a welfare scheme that gives a helping hand to the right people at the right time with the right amount of money. The federal government, endorsed by this parliament, spends $184 billion in welfare related payments each year. That is about a third of total government outlays. We are also able to support this expenditure because of one thing and one thing only, and that's strong economic management. A strong welfare system is underpinned by a strong economy.

We recognise that the welfare budget is not a magic pudding, and our capability to help people who need it the most relies on a prudent and responsible system featuring checks and balances. Australians expect the government to maintain the integrity of a highly targeted welfare system. In 2018-19 the average Australian earned $83,454 and paid $19,259 in tax. That means the average Australian makes a contribution of $7,610, or about nine per cent of their earnings, to our welfare scheme.

This government will not lose sight of the fact that Australians contribute more than a month of their working year to support the welfare system. We know right now 900,000 Australians have social welfare debts totalling almost $5 billion. Labor went to the last election with no word about ceasing any of that. All of those opposite went to the last election promising to recover $5 billion from 900,000 Australians. Those opposite can kid themselves that they didn't, but that is what your documents quite clearly show.

The bottom line is: we need to ensure the right people get the right amount of money at the right time, and the only way to ensure that that occurs is to make sure that people are not getting money they are not entitled to, that they have not earnt, following on from what Labor did in 2011 with the data matching. This government will not apologise for it. We will not apologise for ensuring that the right people get the right amount of money at the right time. We have a lawful obligation to do that, and we will continue to do that sensitively, compassionately and appropriately.