Paul Bongiorno
Bill Shorten and the robo-debt inquiry

No one was more shattered than Bill Shorten when he lost the “unlosable” election to Scott Morrison in 2019. But three years on, he is emerging as one of the Albanese government’s most impressive ministers.

It is a tribute to both men: Anthony Albanese for the trust and latitude he is giving his former leadership rival; Shorten for getting on with the massive job he has been assigned. The template of inclusive, consultative leadership applied by Albanese is proving effective. The prime minister is being rewarded, not only in Shorten’s case, but with the performance of his other key ministers in the early days of the new administration.

Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles noted it in his address to the Labor caucus on Tuesday. He was acting in the top job while Albanese was leading a phalanx of former Liberal prime ministers paying their respects at the Tokyo funeral of Shinzo Abe.

Marles observed that “a strong start to a change of government is not automatic”. He said “voters suffered buyers’ remorse within a month of the election of Tony Abbott’s government”. Marles thanked his colleagues for their discipline and for accepting the protocols surrounding the death of Queen Elizabeth II – an acknowledgement he was aware that many were privately highly critical of their prolonged and cloying requirements.

Shorten wasn’t at the Canberra meeting. He had flown to Brisbane for the first day of hearings at the royal commission into the robo-debt scandal. Shorten had been relentless in his determination to expose the full extent of what he calls the “greatest failure of public administration and social security”. He found willing allies in Albanese and Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, who quickly established this powerful probe.

The fact that this inquiry has coincided with the long-awaited legislation to form a national anti-corruption commission was not without irony. Both have as their primary targets the integrity of senior ministers, their advisers and top bureaucrats in the governance of the country.

The Brisbane-based royal commission into the unlawful debt-recovery scheme, chaired by former Queensland chief justice Catherine Holmes, is wasting no time cutting to the chase. The commission has no doubt there are real questions that need answering and that former senior ministers and bureaucrats will be hauled in to provide them.

Commissioner Holmes rejected the former government’s arguments that it was merely following debt-collection processes set up by its Labor predecessors. She noted that in November 2019 the Federal Court made a declaration, with the government’s consent, that the automated income averaging method “was not capable of satisfying a decision maker of the existence of a debt”. This conclusion had already been reached by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) over the preceding years.

In what Shorten believes should give “sleepless nights” to the former responsible ministers – Scott Morrison, Alan Tudge, Michael Keenan, Christian Porter and Stuart Robert – the commissioner said it now falls to her “to examine how it was that the robo-debt scheme was set up on that basis and why, perhaps more puzzlingly, it was maintained”.

Indeed, as counsel assisting Justin Greggery, KC, pointed out, the AAT first ruled that the method used to raise debts was invalid in 2017. Attempts by the senate and the media to access written advice to Morrison when he was Social Services minister in 2015 have been blocked. We may soon find out what he had to hide, if not why.

Shorten was accompanied on Tuesday by two women whose sons took their own lives while being pursued over Centrelink debts. They were among the 400,000 who the government unlawfully alleged owed a total of $1.7 billion, with the onus of proof on them to show otherwise. The trauma caused to some of the most vulnerable in our society was immense.

The Greens’ Janet Rice believes the commission has important work to do. She, like Shorten, believes Morrison and his government put returning the budget to surplus ahead of the wellbeing of people. But debt collection is an ongoing issue and Rice says the Greens believe Australia should develop a social services system “that supports people rather than punishes them”.

When Albanese announced the royal commission five weeks ago, Peter Dutton dismissed it as a “witch-hunt”. He said the prime minister was “obsessing about this sort of ‘get-square’ with Scott Morrison and families are struggling to pay their power bills”.

No doubt Dutton’s reaction was prompted by the precedents set by Tony Abbott, who in the early days of his prime ministership established two royal commissions into his defeated Labor opponents. One was into the “pink batts” home insulation scheme and the other into trade unions. Both were highly contentious.

The $25 million pink batts inquiry was the seventh into the scheme and provided no new insights into its operation. But it hauled former prime minister Kevin Rudd and his Environment minister, Peter Garrett, into the witness box in an exercise of vindictive humiliation. It had already been established that the deaths of the four workers during the scheme were a failure of state occupational health and safety regulations. Ignored was the success in installing insulation in two million houses, with measurable gains in energy efficiency, which was the purpose of the scheme.

The $45 million trade union royal commission was tainted from the start, when Abbott’s hand-picked commissioner, former High Court judge Dyson Heydon, was challenged over perceived bias. He found himself not guilty and continued the task of targeting former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard and then opposition leader Bill Shorten.

Heydon’s commission, like a police inquiry 20 years earlier, could find no evidence of criminality against Julia Gillard. Nor did he make adverse findings against Shorten. Still, the aggressive grilling of Shorten in the witness box for days did nothing for the Labor leader’s political standing among voters already sceptical of the unions – no doubt Abbott’s objective in the first place.

The Abbott royal commissions are instructive in trying to understand the opposition’s proffered concerns about the robo-debt royal commission and the national anti-corruption commission.

The most oft-stated worry is for the good name and emotional wellbeing of anyone, particularly politicians, who may be called to publicly front it. The demands for compassion and fairness are almost inspiring. Dutton and his shadow treasurer, Angus Taylor, say they “don’t want innocent people trashed”. Both say they want to avoid people taking their own lives, as “we saw in South Australia”.

Overwhelming public support for a powerful, transparent and independent national anti-corruption commission would suggest the concerns about public hearings are not widely shared. This is something Peter Dutton, unlike his predecessor, Scott Morrison, has accepted. It is the first real sign that the Liberal leader is ready to emerge from under Morrison’s dark shadow.

Midweek Dutton gave in-principle support to the Dreyfus proposal and said the safeguard of public hearings “in exceptional circumstances and the public interest” satisfied him. He will be hoping that his still shell-shocked and fractious Coalition party room falls in behind him.

Even so, there is something of a straw man argument here. In New South Wales, with the country’s most powerful anti-corruption body, public hearings are rare. One estimate is 4 per cent of all its investigations – a point Dreyfus made in parliament, where he also stressed the decision to hold public hearings always remains with the commissioner.

The other fact is even in NSW these hearings are held only after the commission has gathered enough evidence to convince it its target or targets have a case to answer. Deterrence through shaming is a powerful tool against corrupt behaviour. A watchdog without teeth or a bark is useless. This is the reason Dreyfus gives for wanting crooks or the corrupt to be “afraid, very afraid” of his new beast.

The arguments over public hearings can’t take away from the reality that Dreyfus has been very hardworking and consultative across the parliament. His bill is delivering on a key election promise. He, like Shorten, is not wasting a minute of his time.

Their paths may well cross in dealing with the hopelessly stacked and inefficient AAT. As Government Services minister, Shorten has real concerns. He says he would like to deal with the legacy caseload of 4500 national disability cases before Christmas.

Speculation is rife in Canberra that after Christmas the government will scrap the tribunal and start again. That would be bold and impressive.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2022 as "Robo-debt to inquiry ratio".

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