Illegal Robodebt scheme has caused real pain and anxiety to almost 400,000 Australians

The first sitting week of the 2023 Parliament is now under the belt and it’s good to be back. I’m raring to go.

After spending a lot of time away from Capital Hill over the summer, you get some perspective on what a unique place it is. Where else do you get more than 6000 people from every corner of the country descend on the same workplace with a focus on issues that impact all 25 million Australians?

Bringing together people who are passionate about representing their communities can make for some pretty robust discussion and maybe the odd argument here and there. It also makes for some weird and wonderful moments. So much so, you could open a Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum of Aussie politics.

Imagine the displays. There’d be the footage of Tony Abbott munching into an onion. We’re all still wondering if he mistook it for an apple or whether he actually eats raw onions. If it’s the latter, you’d hope he carries Tic Tacs with him at all times.

Then we had Queensland MP Bob Katter speaking on the marriage equality survey. What started as him being questioned by the media on his opposition to same-sex marriage, took a detour into poetry (“Let there be a thousand blossoms bloom”) followed by a reminder that he had more pressing issues to consider.

Number one on his agenda being the frequency and ferocity of crocodile attacks in North Queensland. Not to downplay the seriousness of croc attacks but that was quite the pivot. We were lucky to get away without whiplash after watching that press conference. Still, hats off to Bob. His constituents keep sending him to Canberra.

But, as the saying goes, let those amongst us without sin cast the first stone. I never thought I’d make the news for eating a snag in a roll but apparently starting in the middle of the roll is a transgression that is punishable by public shaming. Google “Bill Shorten eats hot dog” if you need your memory refreshed.

But I have to say that the strangest thing that has happened in Australian politics is playing out right now. We have recently learned that, despite tens of thousands of news articles, a Centrelink whistleblower in 2016, 713 mentions of Robodebt in Parliament, and Robodebt being the Macquarie Dictionary People’s Choice Word of the Year for 2019, four Liberal MPs appearing at the royal commission into the disgrace of a scheme couldn’t recall very much about it. Their memories failed them on the witness stand 140 times to be exact. It stretches credulity, doesn’t it?

The illegal Robodebt scheme has caused real pain and anxiety to almost 400,000 Australians.

One of those was 76-year-old Rosemary Gay who worked two days a week to subsidise her pension. Two days was all her health would allow. Ms Gay was meticulous in reporting her modest income to Centrelink but that did not stop her getting a $67,000 debt notice. She spoke of the sheer terror she felt at reading that letter. The thought that she would lose the home she had worked for a lifetime to own, turned her world upside-down. After raising a complaint, the debt was revised down to $6683 but Ms Gay would not rest and in 2020 the debt was scrapped altogether. The mistake was “an accident”, she was told. An accident that led to what Ms Gay described as “a very dark period” in her life.

Last week we saw the resignation from politics of one of the Liberal ministers who oversaw the Robodebt scheme. Alan Tudge was minister for human services from 18 Feb 2016 to 20 December 2017. This was arguably the peak of the scheme.

According to Mr Tudge’s senior media adviser, Rachelle Miller, who gave evidence at the royal commission the day before her former boss, he asked her to devise a strategy to investigate and, where possible, discredit 52 individuals who went to the media with complaints about the debts. They placed the names and circumstances of a number of social security recipients in what Ms Miller described as “friendly, right-wing” media. The aim was to intimidate others from coming forward.

But Australians don’t tolerate these types of bullying tactics. Brave, innocent victims and frontline Centrelink staff kept calling out the injustice and put their faith in the Labor Party election promise to uncover the truth of Robodebt. The royal commission has been gut-wrenching to watch; the statistics of the number of incorrect debts and lives destroyed hard to digest; and the incompetence, indifference and lack of accountability of those at the top of the Robodebt tree, beyond comprehension.

Alan Tudge resigned from Parliament and his farewell speech didn’t contain one word of apology for Robodebt and its hurt. That’s because former Liberal Robodebt ministers don’t think they were responsible. The ministers who oversaw the scheme may not recall hearing of its illegality but there are hundreds of thousands of Robodebt victims and their families who, as much as they want to, can never forget.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 15 February 2023.