Bill Shorten to Scott Morrison:
I refer to the prime minister’s illegal robodebt scheme. Cancer-suffering grandfather Raymond Murphy had to sell his house and move to his shed to afford medical treatment. He said debt collectors ripped him to shreds over a $2,300 robodebt while he was in hospital. Why won’t the government apologise to Mr Murphy and thousands of other Australians … with their unlawful robodebt scheme?
I’ll ask the minister for government services to add to the answer. The business of raising and recovering debts on behalf of taxpayers is a difficult job and it deals with Australians in many very sensitive circumstances.
Of course I would deeply regret –deeply regret – any hardship that has been caused to people in the conduct of that activity. The government has many difficult jobs that it has to do dealing with Australians in very sensitive circumstances and that is true particularly at this time.
It is our instruction that we would hope that all agents of the government when pursuing the debt recovery option that they would be sensitive to people’s circumstances.
And in relation to the particular gentleman that you referred to, that is a very distressing situation that you have raised. I would apologise for any hurt or harm in the way that the government has dealt with that issue and to anyone else who has found themselves in those situations.
But the issue is one of ensuring how the government can best do this. Where there are lessons to be learned here they will be learned. That is what the minister for government services is employing now. I will ask the minister for government services to add to the answer.
I would say to the member, if any member can refer any hardship cases through to me and I will ensure the department looks at it. Mental health and suicide, as we all know, and we all appreciate, are very delicate issues. There are many factors that go into them. Services Australia assess people facing difficult situations every day. We have the largest social services network to support people within federal government departments in times of crisis and vulnerability and we do this everyday.
As the prime minister said, the collection of debts is a lawful responsibility of all governments. Right now, just so that colleagues are aware in the House, 939,000 Australians have debts over $5bn that the government lawfully has to collect across a whole range of programs.
And governments of all persuasions have done this across the divide. The government has paused all debt collection across all programs as we work our way through the Covid crisis but government will have to restart that debt collection and will do it sensibly and do it engaging all people, do it in a very transparent manner.
It is incumbent on us all if we have constituents who are hurting or suffering, bring them through to me. All colleagues know where I am. Give me a buzz and we will seek quickly to help you out with that.