Government Services Minister Bill Shorten has again bought into the Robodebt royal commission, criticising one of his Coalition predecessors over evidence given.
The Labor minister isn’t appearing before the commission himself, but felt the need to run commentary on former government services minister Stuart Robert’s Thursday appearance at the inquiry.
Mr Robert admitted that even though he had misgivings about the automated debt recovery scheme and its legal status, he nevertheless publicly defended it as a “dutiful cabinet minister” should, and in so doing made false statements.
On Friday, Mr Shorten berated Mr Robert for the comments, saying cabinet solidarity wasn’t a licence to mislead the Australian public.
“I do not believe that the doctrine of cabinet solidarity extends to giving permission for people, for ministers, to give false statements about the lawfulness of their actions or to misrepresent facts,” Mr Shorten told the ABC.
While saying he didn’t want to preempt the royal commission, Mr Shorten nevertheless went on to ridicule Mr Robert’s evidence.
He said ministers could resign if they disagreed with a government policy, but they should in no circumstances lie about it.
“I think it’s peak bizarre that you can say that cabinet solidarity allows you to give false statements,” Mr Shorten said.
“Cabinet solidarity means you’ve got to support a policy, but I don’t think it means that you’re allowed to make up facts to support the policy.”
It’s not the first time Mr Shorten has given a running commentary on the royal commission while it is still in process – or used the word ‘peak’ as an adjective.
In December, the Minister was moved to hold a media conference following former prime minister Scott Morrison’s appearance at the inquiry.
Mr Shorten described Mr Morrison’s performance as a “shocking train wreck” that showed no self-insight.
“Mr Morrison had the chance to engage in healing and accept responsibility and redeem the reputation of the Coalition government, at least in accepting responsibility,” Mr Shorten said in December.
“Instead, what we got was peak vintage Morrison.
“Lecturing, hectoring, not answering questions, splitting hairs on simple yes/no questions.
“We’ve seen Mr Morrison lecture the commission, we’ve seen Mr Morrison basically say, ‘I knew nothing, I did nothing, I’m a good person’.”
Mr Shorten used the same media conference to compare Mr Morrison’s performance at the royal commission with that of another former Coalition minister Marise Payne who had appeared a day earlier.
“I thought her evidence was, her presentation was superior and more plausible than Mr Morrison’s,” he said.
“But clearly, this was a Coalition government who had prejudged the outcome.
“They wanted to find billions of dollars for their budget.
“In their own minds they had convicted people on welfare.
“They had decided that if there was a discrepancy in annual data versus fortnightly data, that was proof positive something wrong had gone on and they reversed the onus of proof on the victims of the scheme.
“When the Coalition was arrogantly breaking the law.”
Robodebt was an automated debt assessment and recovery program employed by the Department of Human Services and its successor, Services Australia, for Centrelink compliance.
It began in 2016 and became hugely controversial due to its incorrect calculations and threat to issue illegal notices to welfare recipients.
It became the subject of numerous inquiries, leading to the Coalition government scrapping the scheme in 2020 and promising to repay 470,000 wrongly issued debts.
In 2021, Federal Court Justice Bernard Murphy ruled the scheme unlawful.
Following Labor’s election victory last year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese established the royal commission into the matter.
The inquiry heads into its final week of witness evidence before reporting to the Government before the end of the financial year.