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Robodebt royal commission kicks off in Brisbane

Luke Henriques-Gomes

Luke Henriques-Gomes

In her opening address kicking off the robodebt inquiry today, the royal commissioner, Catherine Holmes, said senior government officials would be called to give evidence explaining their role in the scandal.

Holmes said the Centrelink debt recovery program established by the former government employed an “automated” debt recovery process on a “scale not previously attempted” and had been based on an “unsound premise”.

The robodebt scheme was established in 2015 and ran until November 2019 when the Coalition government accepted in the federal court that the method used for raising welfare debts was legally insufficient.

Holmes said the royal commission would hear from victims of the scheme and take evidence from senior government officials from the period before reporting in April.

She said although much was known now about the way the scheme operated, less was understood about why the scheme was established and how the government had responded to any warnings and criticisms about the program.

“Many people have different levels of government will be asked to give an account of their role in the devising implementation and continuing with the robodebt scheme,” Holmes said.

“But the focus appropriately and in accordance with the terms of reference will be on those in senior positions, who had or should have had oversight.”

The former prime minister, Scott Morrison, current opposition frontbenchers Alan Tudge and Stuart Robert, and former ministers Christian Porter and Michael Keenan, all held portfolios with oversight for the scheme.

Holmes said she understood some victims would not want to “revisit” their stressful experiences of the scheme, but she encouraged those affected to make a submission.

Key events

Bill Shorten says robodebt royal commission is ‘final chapter in a very sorry story’

Bill Shorten is in Brisbane for the opening of the robodebt royal commission:

The robodebt royal commission is about finding out why Australia’s greatest failure of public administration and social security occurred. Robodebt went from about July 2015 to November 2019. It was overseen by successive Morrison government ministers. It was a scheme which was said it was targeted at getting Centrelink cheats to pay what they owed. The truth of the matter is the scheme was unlawful. It didn’t have legal justification. It reversed the onus of proof. It said that once a machine, an algorithm, a faulty algorithm, had asserted that a debt was owed, then the onus was reversed and the citizen had to prove why the government was wrong.

These were David and Goliath struggles, but for four-and-a-half years, successive individuals, advocates, strong family members, the Labor opposition and others said the scheme was out of control. It was only with the advent of a class action and court cases that eventually the Morrison government was forced to cancel the scheme. But four-and-a-half years, despite the warnings, despite the hardship, despite the trauma, the robodebt scheme was relentlessly implemented by the Morrison government. So this royal commission is to find out how could there have been such a massive failure of public administration? How could the government of Australia unlawfully raise debts against nearly 400,000 of her fellow Australian citizens, alleging $1.7bn was owed to the commonwealth? The scheme was unlawful. The warning signs were ignored. Trauma occurred. We hope the royal commission will get to the bottom of why this happened and make sure it can never happen again. Why successive Morrison government ministers and Turnbull ministers ignored the warning signs. Why senior public servants didn’t do the proper checking to see if the scheme was lawful. Anyway that’s all before us. This royal commission is the final chapter in a very sorry story of public maladministration.

Do not respond to any SMS/calls/emails you receive like this.

Victims of Optus data hack are now receiving text messages from hackers demanding $2000AUD be paid into a CBA bank account, with threats their data will be sold for “fraudulent activity within 2 days.” ⁦

— Chris O’Keefe (@cokeefe9) September 27, 2022

People in the ACT are getting very excited by this:

#Breaking: Government senate leader Penny Wong confirms Labor wants the territory rights bill to be put to a vote before the end of the year.

It’s happening.

— Dan Jervis-Bardy (@D_JervisBardy) September 27, 2022

Anthony Albanese meets Japanese PM ahead of Shinzo Abe funeral

Anthony Albanese has held a bilateral meeting with Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida while he is in Tokyo for Shinzo Abe’s funeral.

His office has released the public opening remarks:

Well, thank you very much for the welcome on my second visit to Japan as prime minister. It is important that Australia show our condolence to yourself as prime minister, but also to the people of Japan on the tragic loss of former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

He was very well respected. And as an international statesperson, it is clear that the Quad leaders’ dialogue would not have occurred without his leadership.

The relationship between Australia and Japan is so important and that importance is underlined by the fact that I am here as the sitting prime minister, even though our parliament is sitting.

I have brought with me as well the former prime ministers Turnbull, Abbott and Howard. So you have a very high-level attendance to pay our respects and show our respects to not just Mr Abe’s family but to the people of Japan.

We share such common interests, in particular for a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is so important that we continue to work together and to work with our partners as well to advance that common interest.

Josh Butler

Josh Butler

Review on Covid vaccines finds Coalition’s actions ‘consistent’ with other high-income countries

A review of Australia’s Covid vaccine procurement has found the former Coalition government’s actions were “consistent with other high-income countries”, and flagged that the federal government will end up with an over-supply of the Novavax jab and a potential shortfall in Moderna.

The review, by the respected public servant Jane Halton, has also warned the Labor government that Australia is “likely to continue to be challenged” by emerging virus variants, with concerns raised that the country’s “policy settings have not been updated to take account of widespread Covid-19 infections”.

Halton was in June commissioned by the health minister, Mark Butler, to investigate Australia’s Covid vaccine strategy. At the time, Butler said the review wouldn’t look to probe potential mistakes made by the former Coalition government, which came under fire for vaccines arriving late and not in high enough numbers in the initial vaccination period. Australia has since gone on to have one of the highest vaccine rates in the world.

Halton’s review noted she only investigated prior purchase plans in the scope of lessons that could be learned in future, and doesn’t make any critical findings of the Coalition. However Halton warned Australia was not “Covid-stable” and said the next two years would be critical to the recovery of health, economy and education systems.

Consideration should be given to the decision-making structures and advice required, and whether new and existing pathways for procurement and distribution of vaccines and treatments should be retained or adapted.

It is not possible to accurately predict the further evolution of the virus and Australia is likely to continue to be challenged, at least in the short term, by emerging variants and new waves of disease.

Halton noted despite Australia’s earlier success in keeping deaths and cases low, “relative performance is beginning to wane”, saying some policies had not been updated.

The need to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 is likely to remain. However, policy settings have not been updated to take account of already widespread Covid-19 infections and associated high levels of hybrid immunity, the possibility of future waves and variants, and developments in vaccine and therapeutic science and manufacturing.

A portfolio approach and potentially redundancy will be needed to ensure access.

Halton and Butler will hold a press conference in Canberra at 12.30pm today.

Early childhood education care subsidy bill introduced

The parliament is sitting now.

What we’ve learned about the National Anti-Corruption Commission

Paul Karp will be bringing you more from that press conference on the National Anti-Corruption Commission (Guardian style will mean we call it Nacc, because it is an acronym which can be said as a word) but as a recap: the main new thing we learnt there was the bar for public hearings will be very high – higher than what some of the state’s anti-corruption commissions have.

Mark Dreyfus would not say if that was part of the negotiations with the Liberals.

Public hearings will be part of the process, but there has to be a demonstrable “exceptional” need for them, which the Commissioner will decide.

It will also be up to the commission to decide what “retrospective” means in terms of how far back it looks, although it will have the power to look at things which occurred before it was established.

Whistleblower protection will be part of it as the normal processes, it seems, although whistleblower protections will be beefed up as part of seperate legislation, following up on the recommendations of Philip Moss, which were left untouched by the Coalition governments.

Paul Karp asked if the Liberals had asked for this particularly high bar for public hearings and Mark Dreyfus did not answer him.

Labor wants the Federal NACC to only be able to have public hearings in “exceptional circumstances” – this is too high a bar and ignores the fact that sunshine is a great disinfectant.

— David Shoebridge (@DavidShoebridge) September 27, 2022

Q: Should anyone be using it as vehicle of payback or fearing it will be used as political payback?

Mark Dreyfus:

That is not the purpose of this anticorruption commission … We’ve got anticorruption commission in every state and territory, I’d like to think we’ve learn lessons from the way in which those anticorruption commissions have operated over the last 30 years.

And I like to think also that we have best practice picking from the features of those anticorruption commissions, and when this commission … commences as we hope, around the middle of next year, people will see it operating in this way.

Dreyfus: whistleblower protections to be part of wider review into public interest disclosure

Q: With regard to the whistleblower protection, can you explain how they would operate and do they go far enough to allay the concerns that the crossbench have had?

Mark Dreyfus:

Put it this way, the concerns that have been expressed by a number of members of the crossbench go to the whole scheme of whistleblower protection …

I brought the legislation to establish the Public Interest Disclosure Act to the Parliament in 2013, conscious that it was going to need to be looked at to see whether it was working.

… Nothing has occurred to deal with the recommendations that Philip Moss made [to the former government about the operation of public disclosure laws in 2013].

I’ve said we’re going to pick up that report, update the recommendations and introduce legislation to reform the whole scheme of public interest disclosure protection which is not just confined to anticorruption measures, it’s about the reporting of maladministration, the reporting of any breaches of code of conduct, any bad government, all of these things are the subject of the protection.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission bill will have its own whistleblower protections, as is appropriate for Australian public servants and people working in the public sector who come forward with allegations that the commission should look at.

There is a specific set of whistleblower protection that will be in this National Anti-Corruption Commission bill in addition … but it’s important to see the distinction between anticorruption measures … and the wider whistleblower protection scheme that we put in place in 2013 that needs reform, that needs updating and we’re going to be attending to that.

So he is asked again:

I don’t think that, as the minister responsible for this commission, once it is established, that it’s appropriate for me to be making referrals to this commission.

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