A full inquiry into the government’s illegal robodebt scheme now seems inevitable, with the main question now centring around what form it will take.
On Friday afternoon Government Services Minister Stuart Robert announced that nearly 500,000 debts issued under the automated Income Compliance Program worth more than $700 million would be refunded.
This was because the method used as part of the scheme of averaging out ATO income data and comparing this to information reported to Centrelink, was found to be unlawful.
The robodebt scheme still faces a class action lawsuit being led by Gordon Legal, with those to have their debts refunded also expected to receive damages from the government.
There is now a widespread push from the Opposition, Greens and legal and civil rights sector for a full-scale review into the scheme, to look at who knew what about its illegality and when and how many people were actually impacted. Such a review would seek to prevent something similar happening in the future.
The concept has the ‘in theory’ backing of many of the key players, but it is not clear exactly what form such an inquiry would take.
The Greens are pushing for a Royal Commission to ensure a “full, independent review” and “forensic audit” of robodebt.
“It’s clear we will never get to the bottom of the social and economic costs of this illegal scheme until we have a Royal Commission. A Royal Commission will ensure that every single debt, regardless of age, could be audited,” Greens senator Rachel Siewert said.
“The government has been heartless and cruel throughout this entire process and their failure to even consider apologising means we cannot trust them to not do it again.”
Shadow government services minister Bill Shorten agreed that an inquiry needed to be undertaken into robodebt, but didn’t directly back the call for a Royal Commission.
“The most appropriate avenue of review is an independent inquiry into how this policy monstrosity was ever let loose on the Australian people. What was the legal advice? How long did the government know their scheme was illegal? And who was responsible for it?” Mr Shorten told InnovationAus.
“In the meantime, we urge the ministers involved to make an apology to robodebt’s thousands of victims.”
A robodebt inquiry should be focused on practical remediation and improved governance at Centrelink, La Trobe Law School senior lecturer Dr Darren O’Donovan said, and could also assist with implementing the potential class action settlement.
“An inquiry is the only way to deliver the Prime Minister’s promise to ‘make this right’. If this government truly believes that culpability for robodebt is shared across governments of all parties it would support an inquiry. A refusal to institute an inquiry will rightly be construed as a lack of leadership and party-political motivation,” Dr O’Donovan told InnovationAus.
“I am not troubled by the form of the inquiry, but a practical focus and independence is key. So many Australians have experienced oppositional interactions with Centrelink. It is time to platform the voices only ever placed on hold, talked over and talked about by those with power.”
Electronic Frontiers Australia and NotMyDebt founder Lyndsey Jackson also backed a large-scale inquiry into the damaging program.
“We must now examine this unlawful program in detail – warts and all – so that we can understand how it was allowed to happen and make the necessary changes to prevent a recurrence,” Ms Jackson said.
“Those responsible must be held accountable for their actions and be reminded that actions have consequences. Every Australian deserves to know the full truth of what happened here if we are to have faith in the so-called integrity of our welfare system.”
The inquiry calls come as The Guardian revealed the government has not ruled out passing new legislation to make its use of income averaging to produce Centrelink debts lawful. The government has been considering the option since last year and was discussed by ministers as late as last month, with a decision yet to be made.
“It’s absolutely beyond the pale that after all this unnecessary pain and suffering the government still hasn’t ruled out introducing new laws to allow a future reboot of a robodebt style scheme,” Senator Siewert said.
“The scheme traumatised many already vulnerable people in our community. The community will not forget the people whose lives have been irrevocably changed by this program.”