The federal government’s refusal to release key documents relating to its robodebt scheme for a fifth time has been branded “cruel” and “contemptuous” by a number of senators.
The Labor-led Community Affairs References Committee issued its fifth interim report on the Online Compliance Intervention system, dubbed robodebt, on Tuesday afternoon. The report focuses on the class action settlement repayments and the government’s continued reliance on public interest immunity to keep documents relating to the legality of the program secret.
The report found that nearly 10,000 robodebt victims are still waiting for their debts to be refunded, and that the payments from a class action settlement over the scheme won’t be finalised until late next year.
Robodebt was launched by the Coalition in 2016. The program used an algorithm to average out a welfare recipient’s yearly income using data from the tax office and cross-matched this with income reported to Centrelink.
If the system found a discrepancy, a “please explain” notice was sent to the individual automatically, with the onus placed on an individual to prove the debt didn’t exist. If they did not, then a debt notice was issued.
The program was found to regularly incorrectly match data and issue inaccurate or false debts. The government backed away from it in 2019 and announced plans last year to refund the debts raised through it.
A class action lawsuit over the scheme was settled earlier this year, with the government agreeing to refund $720 million in debts, scrap a further $400 million in debts and provide $112 million in compensation.
The Senate report included an order for the government to provide answers to 19 Questions on Notice centered on the legal advice provided to the Coalition about the robodebt program before it was launched and during its operation, with the Labor-led committee rejecting the government’s continued reliance on public interest immunity.
The Senate has also ordered the government to provide a copy of the executive minutes of a meeting about robodebt in 2015.
“The committee remains deeply troubled that the government has not released publicly or in camera its legal advice in relation to income compliance programs,” the report said.
“This program has cost the Australian government hundreds of millions of dollars and had a devastating impact on hundreds of thousands of individuals. The Australian public deserves answers as to how this could occur.”
Government services minister Linda Reynolds told the Senate on Wednesday afternoon that the government would be keeping these documents secret under a public interest immunity claim, despite the class action lawsuit now being settled.
This was the fifth time that the government has refused a Senate order to release these documents, claiming that individuals who opted out of the class action are still able to launch their own individual claim and releasing the advice could jeopardise these lawsuits.
This was slammed by Greens Senator Janet Rice, who said it is “essential” that the documents are released.
“It’s sad to see the minister has chosen to avoid scrutiny and transparency. The committee did not make this further request for documents lightly and it is essential to get to the bottom about what went wrong with this appalling scheme,” Senator Rice said.
“The minister’s answer is not unexpected, it’s just continuing her profound, callous and cruel indifference to the impact robodebt has had on innocent Australians.”
A Royal Commission is now needed to investigate how the robodebt scheme came about, the senator said.
“That’s the only way to ensure a full and independent review of the robodebt program and a forensic audit of the mess because the government is refusing to cough up the information that we should be able to see in the Senate,” Senator Rice said.
Labor’s Senator Deborah O’Neill said peoples’ lives were “shattered” by robodebt, and they deserve to know why this happened.
“That they have the gall to show up here for the fifth time and say it is not in the interest of the Australian people to know what it was that this government found out about the laws when they concocted robodebt,” Senator O’Neill said.
“It’s hard to believe that this minister could come in here and heartlessly, cruelly and without any care stand up and say to the Australian people that they don’t deserve to know.”
“While the government makes haste to move on and refuses to reveal the documents upon which Mr Morrison concocted this scheme they continue to insult every Australian to whom they should be apologising.”
The government’s response to the Senate order was a photocopied version of previous responses with no date, Senator O’Neill said, who labelled it “contemptuous”.
“It smacks of self-indulgence and a refusal to take this claim of the senate to get to the bottom of this matter seriously,” she said.
“I will not allow this to rest because too many Australians got done over by Mr Morrison and his scam plan and we will not allow that to go uncritiqued. We need to know what happened.”
The Senate committee report also called on Services Australia to ensure that the robodebt refunds and settlement payments are made as quickly as possible. More than 9000 robodebt victims are still yet to receive their refund, the report said, while settlement payments aren’t expected to be finished until September next year.
“The committee insists that the Australian government and Services Australia do everything in their power to ensure people receive their settlement sum as quickly as possible,” the report said.
“The committee remains concerned that many will not receive any form of compensation, particularly for the severe psychological and financial hardship the program inflicted on individuals.”
About 648,000 people were members of the class action, with approximately 443,000 people eligible for a refund and share of the settlement. About 426,000 people have received a refund or had their robodebt zeroed, while more than 5000 members opted out of the settlement.
Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.