Unlawful robodebt bunfight heats up

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

How the government came to be running an unlawful scheme needs to be properly investigated, crossbench senator Rex Patrick said, as the Opposition officially backed calls for a Royal Commission into the robodebt scheme.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and shadow government services minister Bill Shorten said on Tuesday that Labor would call for a Royal Commission into Centrelink’s Online Compliance Intervention scheme, dubbed robodebt.

The commission would investigate the creation and administration of the program, the human and financial cost of it and the role of ministers and public servants, and what they knew about its questionable legality and when.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison quickly knocked back the proposal, leaving Labor with a long fight ahead of it to establish the commission, which could stretch on past the next election.

Big questions; The political bunfight over robodebt into overdrive

The Greens have already called for such a Royal Commission, while Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick said he would also support it if other inquiries fail to shine light on how the illegal scheme came into being.

“I have a concern that I would like to see addressed, and if the current senate inquiry is not able to get to the bottom of this then I would support a Royal Commission,” Senator Patrick told InnovationAus.

“The government set up a program that ultimately was found to be unlawful and that is something that is hugely concerning to me, not just in respect to robodebt but in any circumstance, you would not expect the government to do that,” he said.

“That indicates a failing of governance, and that does need to be looked at. This remedy being announced is in relation to returning money to people who have been subject to the debt claims, but sadly some people will never be remedied.

“As the government embarks on a program to restore people to where they were before the scheme had an effect, it’s deeply concerning that we were ever in a position where the government was acting contrary to law.”

What advice was provided to the government on the legality of the scheme and who was responsible for this is important to investigate in order to prevent this happening again, Senator Patrick said.

“We need to see what processes the government went through in setting up the program in order to be able to see where the failing in its legal due diligence was. Was it flagged at the start that there were legal concerns and those concerns were overridden? Or was it simply poor legal advice?” he said.

“That’s what I’d like to get to the bottom of. That could have effect anywhere across government if whatever failing occurred in this instance inside Social Services and Human Services where to be occurring in other areas of government.”

The robodebt program used an algorithm to average out a welfare recipient’s yearly income using data supplied by the ATO and cross-matched this with income reported to Centrelink. If a discrepancy was identified by this system, a please explain message was automatically sent to the individual.

The program was found to regularly miscalculate debts and generate letters based on inaccurate or non-existent debts and placed the responsibility on welfare recipients to prove that such a debt didn’t exist.

It was launched in this form by the Coalition in the lead-up to the 2016 election, with most human oversight removed and the use of the technology vastly increased.

The government has since admitted that the use of income averaging through ATO data to identify debts was unlawful, with government services minister Stuart Robert announcing last month that 470,000 debts raised through this method would be refunded, worth $721 million.

A class action lawsuit seeking damages for the impact of the scheme is also underway.

A full commission is the only way to get answers from the government on how the scheme came to be and its full impact, Mr Albanese said.

“This has an enormous impact on hundreds of thousands of Australians. We want families and individuals to be able to tell their stories, we want a full exposure of these issues,” Mr Albanese told the media on Tuesday.

“They took the humans out of human services, and that’s one of the things the Royal Commission would look at – the impact of contracting out this and using robots to automatically generate debts and letters.”

Such an inquiry would hold those responsible for the scheme to account, Mr Shorten said.

“We need a Royal Commission because the system is broken and the government broke it. We gave the government until last Friday to stop hiding behind arguments of legal privilege to tell us who knew what, when,” Mr Shorten said.

“This is a Royal Commission that the Morrison government is bringing on itself and their ministers should be held to account.”

Addressing the media on Tuesday morning, Mr Morrison said the government had “no plans” to support a Royal Commission into robodebt.

“We’re aware of what the issue is and we’re fixing the problem. We’re getting the payments made and we’re working through this process now,” Mr Morrison said.

A spokesperson for Mr Robert pointed to these comments by the Prime Minister when asked for comment on the prospect of a Royal Commission.

Mr Morrison also pointed to Labor voting against a Greens motion in the Senate last week calling for a Royal Commission into robodebt. Mr Albanese said this was done to give the government a chance to produce a series of documents and information requested by the senate relating to robodebt by the end of the week, which it did not do.

The Greens have called for a Royal Commission since the government announced it would be refunding the robodebt scheme.

Greens senator Rachel Siewert moved the motion in the Senate last week, calling for an “independent review” and “forensic audit” of all elements of the scheme, including debts raised before 2015.

Labor senator Katy Gallagher said the Opposition would not be voting for the motion in order to give the government the chance to provide information on the scheme that it has withheld due to the ongoing court case centring on robodebt.

“The Senate has previously agreed to orders for the production of documents requesting details of the program and legal advice, and confirming that legal professional privilege is not a recognised ground for refusing to provide information to the Senate,” Senator Gallagher said.

“If the government complied with these orders a Royal Commission may not be needed. That’s why we are opposing the motion today…we will instead allow the government until the final sitting day of this week to do the right thing and reconsider its position on the public interest immunity claim and its attempt to cover up the robodebt scandal.”

A Royal Commission would only be established if the government does a backflip and decides to support it, or if Coalition MPs opt to cross the floor and vote for it.

It is likely to be a long campaign for Labor, which previously successfully forced the government’s hand in launching a Royal Commission into the banking sector.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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