Robodebt ruins: Govt invests in automated decision framework

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Joseph Brookes

More than $10 million has been set aside to introduce a consistent legal framework for automated decision-making across government and to bring back an administrative decisions watchdog abolished by the Coalition almost a decade ago.

The new automated decision framework — expected to include allowing impacted persons to seek review, better disclosures of the practice and independent scrutiny — and the revival of the Administrative Review Council comes as part of the Albanese government’s response to the Robodebt disaster that was funded on Wednesday.

Automated decision making and a lack of oversight were key parts of the “neither fair nor legal” scheme, allowing the government to fast track the raising of $1.76 billion in alleged debts against around 526,000 Australians.

Automated decision making is still used elsewhere across government without a consistent government-wide legal framework, while legal experts say no entity has filled the void left by the Administrative Review Council in 2015.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Image: Twitter

The Royal Commission into Robodebt was unequivocal about the illegal and shameful scheme in its final report, recommending the government consider legislative reform to introduce a consistent legal framework in which automation in government services can operate.

According to the recommendation, this framework should include a clear path for those affected by decisions to seek review, government websites disclosing that automated decision-making is used and “explaining in plain language how the process works”, and that business rules and algorithms be made available for independent experts to scrutinise.

The government accepted the recommendation in November and on Wednesday unveiled $5.6 million in funding over four years for it in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO). $400,000 will be allocated in ongoing funding for the framework.

It is part of a $22 million response to Robodebt that also includes improving the government’s legal advice and bolstering watchdogs’ resources, including the reestablishment of the Administrative Review Council.

The Administrative Review Council was established in 1976 and had been a key element of the administrative review system and a check on executive power. It was the only entity that advised the Attorney-General on the operation and integrity of the administrative law system as a whole and also provided training to other agencies.

It was abolished by the Abbot government in its ‘smaller government’ reform agenda in the 2015-16 Budget — the same Budget that brought Robodebt into being.

The Robodebt Royal Commission found the Robodebt scheme would have been within the Council’s remit and its existence “could have played an important role in exposing the deficiencies of the scheme”.

The Commission’s final report recommended it be reestablished with its traditional functions and “consideration given to a particular role in review of Commonwealth administrative decision making processes”.

The Albanese government has accepted this recommendation as well and unveiled $5.3 million over four years from 2023–24 (and $1.8 million per year ongoing) in the MYEFO.

Another $8.8 million was allocated to improving legal advice across the Commonwealth and to the Cabinet, while the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman will receive an extra $2.3 million to provide additional capacity to handle complaints and undertake investigations of systemic issues.

The government has also accepted the Royal Commission’s recommendation to establish a body to monitor and audit automated decision making but did has not confirmed what form this will take and no funding was provided for it in the MYEFO on Wednesday.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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