ABC BRISBANE DRIVE
MONDAY, 16 NOVEMBER 2020
SUBJECTS: Robodebt class action settlement; Digital media news code; Labor’s membership base.
STEVE AUSTIN, HOST: Let's go to Labor's Jim Chalmers. Jim Chalmers is the Shadow Treasury spokesperson for the ALP and the Member for Rankin on the southside here. Jim Chalmers, Labor has been a critic of the whole Robodebt scheme. How do you see the settlement of it?
JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW TREASURER: We've been fired up about this for a long time, Steve, as you know. It sounds like you have been too, judging by your introduction. This is the biggest ever class action settlement involving the most people ever, and that reflects the fact that it is the biggest social security scandal of all time. Today we've seen, because the Government didn't want ministers in the dock for the class action, them settle to the tune of $1.2 billion. That's a good thing, to see people compensated, but in the meantime, over the years since Scott Morrison announced this scheme, heaps of lives have been ruined, including people that I personally know here in my own electorate.
AUSTIN: Is there a story that you can recall from your electorate that you are able to recount, briefly?
CHALMERS: I've publicly told the story of Michael and Athol. The dad is a military veteran who got a debt. He told us, bravely, that he couldn't sleep at night. His son has a substantial disability. He was worried about what it meant for them. We were able to help get some of that money repaid, but in the meantime, there was a lot of needless anxiety and needless stress before they came to us. Michael and Athol's story is the story of 400,000 Australians who've had their lives ruined by the carelessness and the cruelty of what's gone on here.
AUSTIN: In my mind, it could have happened under a Labor government, Jim? Labor governments also do data matching programs. I know you didn't do anything this big, but all governments do data-matching audit-process exercises. How would Labor have handled this one differently?
CHALMERS: I appreciate the opportunity to explain this Steve to your listeners because the Prime Minister even today was trying to pretend that we all go about it the same way. That's complete and utter rubbish. There's been data matching in this regard since about 2004, under the Howard Government. The key difference, as you indicated in your introduction, was that Labor had an element of human oversight, which is a bit like a guardrail to make sure that the widespread devastation of lives that we've seen under this Robodebt scheme doesn't happen. What we'd do differently is when the data shows that there's an anomaly or issue, we will have a real person go over that case before we ruin somebody's life. If there's an issue there, then obviously you can relay it to the person who's got the issue. As you rightly pointed out, they've taken the guardrails and human oversight out. What must happen is we need to put the humans back into Human Services.
AUSTIN: My guest is Jim Chalmers, Labor's Shadow Treasury spokesperson, also the Member for Rankin, the federal electorate on the southside of Brisbane. Every time you watch a Senate Estimates there's always a public servant, quite reasonably, asking for money to upgrade the computer systems, their IT systems or their data banks. But it seems to me that it's very hard for ordinary people to argue with a computer, Jim. It's very hard for ordinary people to say, I think the database has got it wrong, because of course, the public servant at the Centrelink counter says, come on, it's a computer and you're just a person. It strikes me that whenever you get these massive databanks, problems arise with them. Unless there's some better way of having oversight or not automatically assuming that the computer is always right, this is this sort of thing is going to happen no matter who's in power?
CHALMERS: I don't know about that for the reasons I just ran through. We can't have a situation where people are guilty until proven innocent. The very first time I spoke to you, Steve, a few years ago, we talked about data. I think that data has the capacity to do a lot of good in our society. We can work out where the patterns are, and where some communities need more help than others. It actually has the capacity to do a lot of good. What we're seeing here instead is the Government with this ideological view about people on social security payments. They go out of their way to hound them, they found a way to sick this Robodebt system onto them, and ruin 400,000 lives. Now they're trying to make good on it so that ministers don't have to show up to a class action. That is a world away from the best available use of data. We've never said that there shouldn't be a role for working out where people are being overpaid, or underpaid or whatever it might be. There needs to be a human element to this so that when a red flag is flown up, the first person to find out isn't the person who opens the letter who feels sick in the pit of their stomach; the first person that finds out should be somebody in the bureaucracy, who sees what's going on, has a look at it, and deals with the person and in good faith.
AUSTIN: The Commonwealth has already agreed to repay $721 million in wrongfully collected debts. This is on top of the $112 million and the nearly 400,000 people I just mentioned a short while ago. Who is the minister responsible for this? I think it's the Queensland LNP MP Stuart Robert?
CHALMERS: There's a handful of ministers who are in the gun here. Stuart Robert -
AUSTIN: He's the primary minister because he's the Human Services Minister?
CHALMERS: He's the current minister, yes.
CHALMERS: Just be aware that the guy that actually announced this was Scott Morrison when he was the Treasurer. I'm looking right now at my screen at a press release from May 2015 where he's bragging about tightening up these arrangements and changing these arrangements to recover all of this money. So there's also Scott Morrison. I think also Alan Tudge who's the former minister. There needs to be some ministerial accountability here because as it stands right now, the Commonwealth just paid out $1.2 billion to settle this biggest ever class action, but the ministers are not properly in the gun here. We need them to be accountable -
AUSTIN: So what should they do? The one who is currently in the portfolio, in the tradition of Westminster accountability, what should happen?
CHALMERS: They need to be accountable for it.
AUSTIN: i.e. what? Do they resign? Do they apologise to the parliament? Do they send a letter to the people who've been wrongly targeted?
CHALMERS: All those options should be on the table. We've said that there needs to be a royal commission into this. We don't want to gloss over this, or pretend that the settlement ends it all there.
AUSTIN: It just ends the court case.
CHALMERS: It ends the court case but there has been a diabolical debacle happen here. The amount of money gives you a bit of a sense of that; the amount of people, 400,000 people, gives you a sense of that; but the idea that we might get to the end of this and nobody's responsible whatsoever, I think people won't cop that. They certainly won't cop that in my neck of the woods.
AUSTIN: Let's move on to a couple of other things that are happening. I know parliament's not sitting at the moment, but the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg indicated on the weekend that the media bargaining code that would force tech giants to pay news publishers for their content will be finalised in the next few weeks. This comes against the backdrop of former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pitching a slightly-over half a million strong signature petition into the federal parliament, calling for an inquiry into the media, particularly the Murdoch media with the support of a former Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Can I ask you, have you seen this code? How do you think it plays into the petition called by Kevin Rudd to actually investigate News Corp in particular?
CHALMERS: We haven't seen the legislation that the Treasurer was talking about putting in the parliament. We've only got two weeks of parliament left and he says he will try and get it through in those two weeks. We haven't seen it yet. The competition watchdog told the Government 18 months ago that there needed to be some kind of code. The Government said we'll make it voluntary; that wasn't working. Then they said, we'll make it compulsory. They've been dragging their feet on that. Now all of a sudden they appear to be in some kind of rush. We think it's a good idea in principle that what you call the tech giants pay for the news that they use on their sites. We want to make sure that good journalism is supported. One of the issues we've had with this model that's been pitched up before over the past 18 months is it excludes the ABC and SBS from getting remunerated for their public interest journalism. There's an obvious gap there if that stays in there by the time the legislation hits the parliament at the end of this month or the beginning of next month. In principle, it's a good thing. Let's see what the details of it say. Having a code is one thing; having a good code is another thing. It does have implications not just for News Corp, but all of the media organisations. The media has been doing it, in financial terms, pretty tough as you know. One of the things that we -
AUSTIN: Massive job losses. Massive job losses -
CHALMERS: Massive job losses. Yep -
AUSTIN: They're quietly still going here the ABC by the way; another big name was told last week his future is no longer going to be with this organisation, but anyhow -
CHALMERS: That's one of the things that I think people are really suspicious about when it comes to this government because they know that the ABC has been cut back. They see this new development to try and get news organisations paid for their content on these big media platforms, and they can't understand why the Government's been talking about excluding the ABC and SBS from that. Let's see what it says. Maybe they'll fix that when the legislation hits the parliament. We don't know. We haven't seen it.
AUSTIN: What's your current position, after seeing the half a million signature petition that was lobbed onto the table of the House of Reps last sitting of Parliament by Kevin Rudd? Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull have never been shy of saying what they think about News Corporation, but it's the biggest petition ever to be lobbed onto the Tables Office. I think that indicates that there's some level of support there for some readdressing of the Australian media landscape, but we've already had a couple and they didn't really achieve anything positive.
CHALMERS: Obviously, there is some appetite in the community to look at some of these issues. Our position hasn't changed from when you asked me last week. We don't have a position that we'd have a royal commission into News Corp. We can recognise that half a million signatures is substantial. If anyone has earned the right to comment on these issues, it's a couple of former Prime Ministers. I think since we last spoke and since that petition was tabled by my colleague Andrew Leigh, my understanding - I'll have to check this - is that the Senate has initiated an inquiry which will do some of the work that Kevin is looking for, but obviously not all of it.
AUSTIN: My guest is Jim Chalmers. Jim Chalmers is the federal Labor Treasury spokesperson. He's also the Member for Rankin on the south side of Brisbane here. Before I let you go, the John Curtin Research Centre, which is - for want of a less bland term - a left-leaning Labor think-tank, their Executive Director Nick Dyrenfurth has suggested that your side of politics should have quotas to introduce genuine working class young people into the party at an early stage, to get rid of all the union apparatchiks and university students, and all the bourgeoisie out of your party. Jim Chalmers, how do you feel about quotas for actual working class, heartland Labor-type people in your political party?
CHALMERS: I know Nick and I always pay close attention to what he says -
AUSTIN: He's a smart guy.
CHALMERS: He's a good thinker. He makes controversial suggestions that get us talking about important things like how we make the Labor Party broader and more representative. This is a real passion of mine too. In my own community, one of the things that we try and do is to get kids from the outer suburbs, kids with backgrounds like mine, involved in politics, because if they don't, the system ends up being run by a narrower and narrower group of people. We don't want to see that. That's what Nick's on about. That's what I'm on about. I don't think we should be excluding young people who want to work for unions and stand up for working people. I'm not sure about quotas, but if there's an opportunity to get more young people involved, I want to play a part in that. I've been doing a bit of that in my local area. We do need to make sure that the political system is as broad and diverse as it possibly can be because if it becomes narrower and narrower then the interests it serves will become narrower and narrower as well.
AUSTIN: Nick says the narrowness of the Labor Party's membership has contributed to the cultural problems and electoral weakness at the federal level. I'm assuming he's talking about Queensland here, because as you know, you guys don't have a seat north of Brisbane.
CHALMERS: We'd love to change that Steve. Thanks for the reminder -
CHALMERS: Not that it's north of the southeast corner, but I'm off to campaign in the Groom by-election tomorrow, which is a tough ask for us. We need to be out and about in the regions; we need to be representative of the outer suburbs, provincial towns, and regional areas. That is uncontested. The best way to go about that, in my view, is to show up again and again and again and again and understand and be able to represent people's issues from every corner of Australia. Part of that is making sure that our membership is diverse as well. That's what Nick thinks, that's what I think, that's what Albo thinks. How we go about it is something that we can keep talking about.
AUSTIN: Thanks for your time.
CHALMERS: Thank you Steve.