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Politics with Michelle Grattan: Bill Shorten on Robodebt report’s sealed section, and progress on NDIS reform

Politics with Michelle Grattan: Bill Shorten on Robodebt report’s sealed section, and progress on NDIS reform

The Robodebt royal commission’s report has excoriated a raft of former ministers, especially Scott Morrison, who was a main instigator of the program, as well as public servants who were involved.

What we don’t know is who has been referred for prosecution or other action, because the names are in a sealed section of the report.

When in opposition, Bill Shorten pursued the scandal, mobilising a class action. Now Shorten is Minister for Government Services, overseeing a department that in an earlier iteration was at the centre of Robodebt. He’s also Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

In this podcast, Shorten joins The Conversation to discuss the aftermath of the royal commission report, and progress in reforming the NDIS.

Shorten sees Commissioner Catherine Holmes’s report as groundbreaking: “I genuinely believe that this royal commission and the report has the opportunity to educate a generation of politicians and senior public servants about the errors that have occurred here […] the way that the royal commissioner has drafted the report, her words, her analysis […] I think has sent shockwaves through Canberra.”

He condemns Morrison’s lack of contrition in light of the strong findings against him. “I just think that a lot of politicians I know, not just on the Labor side, but also the Liberal side who, when confronted with the same evidence, would show more contrition, would show more self-awareness.”

On the sealed section, naming those against whom action should be taken, Shorten toes the Labor line on Holmes’ advice to keep it secret – although he notes, “the discredited trade union royal commission certainly released the names of delegates and organisers” it recommended action against.

He says Commissioner Holmes did “such a fantastic job” in getting to the heart of matters, so if she believed not putting out all the evidence “improves the odds of better investigation by regulatory authorities […] well, I think the government’s prudential to listen to her advice”.

“I do, though, accept that there’s an interest in accountability, that there’s scepticism […] I just want to reassure people, as the person who helped organise the class action and who campaigned for the royal commission, I and the government are completely committed to accountability in this.”

Shorten says he has already undertaken major reform of the NDIS since taking it over, changing the leadership and getting more people with a disability into senior roles. The scheme is about to undertake a mass conversion of labour hire staff into full-time roles, as promised in the May budget.

A major part of Shorten’s reform drive is to tackle fraud, taking particular aim at agencies “rorting” the scheme. “I’m talking to the ACCC [The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission] about how we can clamp down on price-gouging.”

“Our criminal task force [is] going after not the people on the scheme, but some service providers who are rorting the system, and we’ve got a lot of operations underway. We just want to get rid of the crooks out of the scheme, but we’re not creating notional budgets that somehow this will deliver some mountains of gold. I just want to straighten up the scheme in the best interest of participant.”

Earlier this year the government said the growth rate of the scheme would be cut to 8% a year by 2026. Shorten recently suggested it wouldn’t be the end of the world if this target wasn’t reached, but he quickly had to backtrack. “I was a bit naive in my language,” he says, explaining he’d been trying to make it clear this was a “target” not a “cap”. “It’s not a cap. Funding for people isn’t going to run out [at] 11 months in a 12-month program,” he says.

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