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Robo-debt and China (a week in two acts)

Nov 22, 2019 • 15m 02s

The Morrison government has halted its robo-debt program, finally confronting issues with the troubled scheme. Separately, the government has affirmed its reliance on Chinese trade – irrespective of human rights concerns.

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Robo-debt and China (a week in two acts)

127 • Nov 22, 2019

Robo-debt and China (a week in two acts)

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, this is 7am.

The Morrison government has halted its robo-debt program, finally confronting issues with the troubled scheme. Separately, the government has affirmed its reliance on Chinese trade, irrespective of concerns over human rights. Paul Bongiorno on the week in politics.

[Theme music ends]

ELIZABETH:

So let's jump into it.

PAUL:

Righto, let's go.

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

All right. So Paul, we're gonna start with robo-debt this week. How big an issue is this program for the government?

PAUL:

Well, Elizabeth, it's become a huge embarrassment because it's a project to recover money from welfare recipients that betrays a very ugly side of the government's thinking. Welfare’s a dirty word. Everyone who receives a payment is a bludger and a cheat, and they must prove otherwise.

ELIZABETH:

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper.

PAUL:

The system, in fact, is designed to bully and intimidate, and an algorithm is at work to exclude as much human involvement on the department's part as possible.

ELIZABETH:

So there has been backlash at every stage of the program's rollout. What kind of pushback are we talking about here?

PAUL:

Well, yeah, it's pretty huge. Backbenchers from all parties, including government backbenchers, have been confronted by distraught constituents, a Senate estimates inquiry was told 2,030 people had died within two years of receiving the letters. The Greens Senator Rachel Siewert told the inquiry there are at least five families who believe the debt notice led to their loved ones taking their own life. One Liberal MP told me it's a shocking way for the government to treat its own citizens.

ELIZABETH:

And these are people on social welfare payments.

PAUL:

Yeah, by definition, we're talking about social welfare recipients, these are low income people who need safety net payments. So if a big corporation gets a letter from the tax office saying you owe billions of dollars or whatever, they just hand it off to a highly paid firm of solicitors and they go to bed and sleep well. But if you're a single mother, if you're a student and you're being told you owe an eight hundred dollar debt, that you know, you're pretty certain you don't. You get very worried about it. And this is big government dealing with an isolated individual, and I think that's the sharp edge of this. And that's why it's so disturbing.

ELIZABETH:

And Paul, what's the development this week?

PAUL:

Well on Tuesday, Elizabeth, in a brief doorstop interview, the minister responsible, Stuart Robert, he confirmed an ABC report that said a leaked departmental memo that came into the ABC's hands showed the department would no longer and I'm quoting, ‘raise a debt where the only information we are relying on is our own averaging of Australian taxation income data’.

Essentially, it means the robo-debt system as it's operated has been halted. One would hope it's been scrapped, but the minister says no. Now, in the past, the averaging system matched data of the ATO with income reported to Centrelink by welfare recipients.

The appalling design of the program meant a robot or computer automatically did the matching and dispatched the demand for repayment with the threat of harsh penalties.

The leaked email also said the compliance section of the department would conduct a sweeping review of all debts where the contentious averaging was used.

Now the matching doesn't take into account that Centrelink payments are done fortnightly based on the recipients situation, at that time. Any inaccuracy, though, are not checked by trained human assessors and the burden of proof is put on the alleged debtors.

ELIZABETH:

So the system, as you say, hasn't been scrapped yet, but it has been halted and that itself is a pretty significant about face for the government. Surely that's got to sting?

PAUL:

You know, up until this week, Stuart Robert, who has the demeanor of a no nonsense military officer, because that's exactly what he was. Well, he was resolute in his defence of this system.

Archival tape — Stuart Robert:

‘...we make no apologies, we do not stand back, from ensuring the legal obligations, that the right people get the right money and ipso facto, ensuring that the people that have been overpaid, repay that debt…’

PAUL:

Now, Robert has insisted only a small cohort of Australians are affected.

Archival tape — Stuart Robert:

‘...and identify small cohort of Australian who have debt raised solely on the basis of income averaging so we can commence discussions with them and seek further points of proof.’

PAUL:

Well, we wait to see if that's true. But what does he mean by small cohort? We know it's thousands and I guess thousands is small compared to 25 million in the entire population.

ELIZABETH:

What's changed for the government, do you think, out of this? Because complaints about the scheme and warnings from within the department itself have basically been made from the beginning?

PAUL:

Look um the opposition parties, particularly the Greens, but also Labor have played their part here, as we saw, as have journalists, particularly at the ABC, but also at Crikey has done a lot of work. And, of course, ordinary citizens, constituents complaining to their MPs, complaining to the media. One big change is that since the election, Labor's Bill Shorten has taken over the shadow portfolio and he has intensified the pressure.

Archival tape — Bill Shorten:

‘...this will be a David and Goliath fight but the Labor party fundamentally stands up for the underdog against the excesses and harm caused and recklessness of powerful institutions like the government…’

PAUL:

He's prosecuting the case very strongly. Shorten says the regime is, in his opinion, not validly based in law.

Archival tape — Bill Shorten:

‘For years the Liberals said that this was good enough, the robo-debt scheme, the use of computer programs just to simply assert that Australian citizens have debt. Today, in a complete backflip, the government has now said, that in future, no more letters of demand, debt letters, notices of debt will be issued against Australian citizens just by relying on a simple computer program. It is a scheme which the current minister Stuart Robert said was being enacted, carried out, exactly as was intended. But today, the truth has come out.’

PAUL:

The validity of the whole scheme, the legality of it, is due to go before the courts within the next couple of weeks. When Victorian Legal Aid challenge in the federal court with a test case and the law firm Gordon Legal is also going ahead with a separate class action.

ELIZABETH:

So while Shorten may have lost the election, he hasn't entirely lost his ambition then?

PAUL:

Certainly not, otherwise, why would he make a statement that he's going to hang around for at least another 20 years. I think Bill Shorten feels that if John Howard could be Lazarus with a triple bypass, well, why can't he? Oh, the question is, is he prepared like Howard was to wait 10 years? And the other question is, will his party be prepared to take him back on again?

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

So, Paul, one of the big political events this week was The Australian's strategic forum, mostly for the people that it drew together in the one room. The forum gathered to focus on China. Who was there?

PAUL:

Well, the forum drew together former prime ministers like Paul Keating, it drew together policy wonks from the various think tanks around the country and business people, of course. It also had a senior minister in Treasurer Frydenberg. So it was a high powered in the sense that the people gathered in the room had a vested interest as well as a technical and expertise interest.

ELIZABETH:

The keynote speech came from the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg. What did he say to the group?

Well, the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, was the government's most senior minister there. Naturally enough, being the Treasurer had a keen eye to his budget bottom line in that country's economic well-being. And he was encouraging a continued and even warmer relationship. He reminded the summit that even as the annual growth rate in China has more than halved from its peak in 2007, I think it's down from 14 per cent to around 6 per cent a year. The Chinese economy is still adding an economy the size of Spain to itself each year, just shows you how big it is.

The Treasurer said Australia, like so many other countries, has played a part and been a great beneficiary of China's rapid rise.

Archival tape — Josh Frydenberg:

‘As Treasurer, I want that economic relationship continue to deliver dividends for Australian people, I want to see that relationship to continue to be in our national interest….’

PAUL:

China is the number one trading partner for more than 50 countries, and it's in the top three trading partners for more than 130 countries that gives it enormous clout. Already, it's the largest economy in the world on a purchasing power parity basis. That's a technical term, but it means it's the largest buyer of stuff from other countries. And it's second to the United States on a market exchange rate basis, another technical term.

Look, Frydenberg says China and her growing role in the world is not going to go away. Comparisons with the Cold War are misplaced, he says. Australia will be best served by being clear and consistent in the policy positions we take in accordance with our values and national interest, which is a very delicate balancing act, I can tell you.

Mr Frydenberg said, we may disagree at times on human rights, for example, but that shouldn't derail the relationship and by that he means the business relationship.

ELIZABETH:

But certainly not everybody in the government and in the party shares that view because, it’s an easy thing to say, and a delicate balance to actually strike in practice.

PAUL:

Yeah, that's true. This week we saw former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. He was over in India and he was calling for, can you believe it, less engagement with China and warning that it was hard to see relations with China rising much more above the level of a “cold peace” anytime soon. And Abbott's old ally, Senator Eric Abetz, went on radio here in Australia calling for Australia to be more forceful, condemning China for what he calls the barbaric practice of forced organ donation.

He joined two other liberal China hawks, Senator James Patterson and Andrew Hastie, who wrote opinion pieces and gave interviews criticising China on a number of points. While the prime minister defends the right of all these people, politicians to speak out, although both Patterson and Hastie drew a travel ban to China.

In fact, the Chinese said that, not only are these two not able or not allowed to come, but he should repent for their views. That just shows you how sensitive China is to criticism. I mean, the fact of the matter is, anybody can wave their finger at China on its appalling human rights and its military build up in the South China Sea. But when you're as big as China, what are you going to do about it?

ELIZABETH:

Hmm. So did the summit go any way toward clarifying the government's position on China, or not?

[Music starts]

PAUL:

Well, it did really in the sense that Frydenberg’s main question was that Australia wants to continue to do business. In fact, it wants to even do more business. In a sense, we want to have our cake and eat it, too. We want China to think well of us, to keep spending money and investing in our way. And in a sense, take no notice, I know that's a funny thing to say to you Elizabeth, but take no notice of us when we wave the finger at it behind closed doors. Of course, it would wave back and say, yes, but look at the way you're treating, for example, asylum seekers and refugees. And look at your history with the way you've treated and are treating first Australians, so I think it's sort of a blank draw there. In the meantime, the government's position is: let's keep doing business. And you can hear the cash register, you know, a ca-ching, ca-ching.

ELIZABETH:

Thank you so much, Paul.

PAUL:

Always good to chat. Elizabeth, bye.

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[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere the news:

On Thursday, more than 80,000 homes in Victoria were without power as severe winds raged, extreme pollen alerts were issued and dust storms covered areas across the state. It happened to be the same day three years ago on which Melbourne experienced its last extreme thunderstorm asthma incident, after which ten people died, making it the most deadly instance of thunderstorm asthma on record. On Thursday, The National Asthma Council issued a warning, stating that, quote, the “perfect storm” of high grass pollen levels and thunderstorms was forecast again. Bushfires were also raging across Victoria, with the highest warning level - a code red - issued for the central and northwestern parts of the state. With a temperature of 40.9 degrees, Melbourne matched its hottest November day on record.

Meanwhile, smoke continued to blanket Sydney and Adelaide, while total fire bans applied in parts of Tasmania. In Queensland, firefighters took advantage of cooler conditions to expand the containment lines around major fires. 60 fires were still burning on Thursday but none were considered an immediate threat to homes and other property.

7am is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh with Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show.

Erik Jensen is our editor.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you next week.

[Theme music ends]

The Morrison government has halted its robo-debt program, finally confronting issues with the troubled scheme. Separately, the government has affirmed its reliance on Chinese trade – irrespective of human rights concerns. Paul Bongiorno on the week in politics.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

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Dogged by dollar dilemmas in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio

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127: Robo-debt and China (a week in two acts)