Govt keeps robodebt advice secret

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The federal government has again blocked the release of documents relating to the robodebt scandal, in an “enormous undermining of public confidence” which could lead to similar failures of public administration in the future, according to a number of senators.

Late last year the federal government agreed to pay $112 million in compensation to 400,000 victims of the robodebt scheme, which saw the use of automated data matching and debt recovery to issue debts to welfare recipients which were often inaccurate.

Government Services Minister Linda Reynolds. Image: U.S. Secretary of Defense.

The Community Affairs References Committee has repeatedly ordered the government to table documents relating to the legal advice received on the robodebt scheme, along with a copy of executive minutes to the social services minister from early 2015.

While the class action has been settled, the government has still refused to answer these 19 questions, which would reveal whether there was any warning that the robodebt scheme may have been unlawful before it was launched or during its operation.

It did so again in an interim report earlier this month, giving the government until this week to table the documents.

But this was blocked by Government Services Minister Linda Reynolds, who told the Senate the government was making a public interest immunity claim to keep them secret.

“The government does not make public interest immunity claims lightly. We never have and we never will, and we certainly don’t do it without the careful consideration of the particular harm to the public interest,” Senator Reynolds said

“I have personally carefully reviewed the claim of public interest immunity and recognise that it would not be in the public interest to disclose the information over which the claim is being reiterated in relation to legal advice and also the deliberations of cabinet.”

In blocking the request, the government pointed to what it said was the “very, very long-held” practice of claiming privilege over legal advice, and that it would possibly prejudice the Commonwealth in relation to litigation around the scheme.

“The claim is grounded in the importance of government being able to obtain legal advice in relation to normal decision-making functions without the risk of the advance or the information relating to that advice being disclosed,” Senator Reynold said.

“The availability of frank legal advice to decision-makers within government should and must be protected as a fundamental principle of good government.”

The possibility of future legal action over the robodebt scheme was also given as a reason to not disclose the documents.

“Disclosing the content or dates of any legal advice would obviously have the very real potential of prejudicing the Commonwealth’s ability to defend the claims,” Senator Reynolds said.

The Committee’s Labor, Greens and crossbench members have already rejected these claims.

“The committee continues to maintain that it is ultimately in the public interest for the Commonwealth government to be transparent about the advice it received in relation to the income compliance program,” the interim report said.

“Ultimately, the Committee is not convinced that the disclosure of such information could result in harm to the public interest.”

Speaking after Senator Reynold, a number of senators slammed the government for concealing the documents, saying it could lead to similar scandals such as robodebt and that a royal commission may now be needed.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said the lack of transparency would lead to an “enormous undermining of public confidence”, and rejected the arguments made by the government, saying that the Senate has never accepted that legal professional privilege provides grounds for a refusal of information in a parliamentary forum.

“I put it that they’re actually claiming government interest immunity, because this is about protecting the government and trying to make sure that the community does not get access to the information that the Community Affairs Committee has repeatedly asked for,” Senator Siewert said.

“They are seeking, repeatedly, to hide very, very important details about this whole sorry saga. Unless we actually identify what went wrong, the Australian community has no guarantee that this sort of thing will not happen again.”

A lack of transparency around robodebt could lead to similar failures in the future, Senator Siewert said.

“We have no guarantee that this won’t happen again if the government doesn’t come clean. By seeking to perpetually claim public interest immunity, the government builds further the case for a royal commission on this issue,” she said.

“We don’t want to see that happening again in this country, but we are at risk of seeing that happen again if this government continues to hide behind public interest immunity.”

Labor Senator Deborah O’Neill accused the Coalition of a “gross failure to actually tell the truth”.

“They are continuing to try to hide from … Australians what they did and how they decided to make this historic mistake. They refuse to provide that information,” Senator O’Neill said.

“The litany of failures and the abuse of artificial intelligence against human rights being perpetuated by this government on its own citizens continues. That is why the mistake of robodebt has not yet been acknowledged by this government. Despite the fact they paid $1.8 billion back, they still need to come in here and cough up the documents.”

Crossbench Senator Rex Patrick said the claims used by the government to block the release of the documents are incorrect.

“I’m sick of ministers standing up, as attorneys-general have done repeatedly in this chamber, and saying something that suggests legal professional privilege documents shouldn’t be tabled,” Senator Patrick said.

“It is wrong in law, and it’s wrong for attorneys to make that sort of assertion.”

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