Closing ‘shameful chapter’

Just before Christmas in 2016, about 40,000 Australians received an end-of-year surprise, and it wasn’t the good kind waiting for them under the tree.

It came in the mail, in the form of a letter from their government telling them to pay up on welfare debts they never knew existed.

For almost 18 months prior to this, the Liberal government had tested a new type of computer-generated debt-raising scheme, designed to cut humans out of the equation in checking debts.

The letters in Christmas 2016 were the first really massive wave of these debt letters, which put the onus on the person receiving notice to prove their innocence.

It was an illegal money-making scheme to balance the Budget.

It destroyed lives.

This was Robodebt.

Across 4 1 ⁄2 years years, more than 400,000 Australians were subjected to these callous demands to repay debts that were ultimately shown to be invalid.

Last week, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and I announced the establishment of a royal commission into Robodebt.

It’s ironic that the Liberals fought bitterly against a royal commission into the banks, but didn’t hesitate to punish the poor. Illegally, as it turned out.

This royal commission will finally get to the bottom of what went wrong and what needs to be done to ensure nothing like this scheme can ever be inflicted on the Australian public again.

I’ve campaigned hard on this issue for number of years as opposition leader, shadow minister for government services and I promised to make it one of my first priorities as Government Services Minister. I first raised concerns in 2017 and right up until the Morrison Government settled a class action claim on the door of the Federal Court and agreed to pay the victims back almost $2 billion, I never stopped raising the alarm.

I’m pleased we’ve delivered our commitment to hold a royal commission into Robodebt within a few months of being sworn in.

To understand why this is so important, it’s worth reflecting on the history of this program and the wide range of people who’ve been affected.

At the height of the program, more than 20,000 letters per week — and in one month 113,000 at its peak — came crashing into the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the country.

People like Anjuli, who was sent a Robodebt for $14,000 she did not owe.

She was pregnant and living in a refuge in Canberra after escaping a violent relationship.

She was working three jobs to stay afloat.

Money would be illegally taken from her account at random to pay a debt she did not owe, meaning she could not afford food or bills for her and her daughter.

However, it wasn’t just those who were receiving government support.

This also affected many people who’d stopped receiving welfare payments years before.

Working professionals in every field, from small business owners to tradies. Even lawyers and public servants.

People who’d rightly accessed support from the government to help them through study, or to keep food on the table while they were between jobs.

People who thought they’d done the right thing by declaring their income, suddenly got debts for payments they hadn’t received for up to seven years.

The 400,000 people caught up in this unlawful scheme have now been refunded. Many will receive some small acknowledgement of the additional financial cost through class action settlement payments.

Together with the debts that were wiped, this is an extraordinary $1.76 billion.

Instigating this class action result was a vital breakthrough when in opposition. What it hasn’t achieved, though, is a proper explanation and accountability from the former government ministers who presided over this deeply flawed scheme.

That’s why this royal commission into Robodebt is so important.

I know the hurt and harm from this “shameful chapter”, as it was described by Federal Court Judge Justice Bernard Murphy, is still very real and very raw for many people.

This saga has dragged on for too long already, and this final chapter will be executed swiftly.

The inquiry will run for around eight months, with the final report delivered to the Governor-General by 18 April 2023.

Thankfully, there is no need for a prolonged process because the inquiry is not starting from scratch.

Through multiple Ombudsman reviews, Senate inquiries and the class action proceedings we already have a good understanding of what pieces of the puzzle are missing.

The terms of reference for this royal commission have a laser focus to find out who knew what, when, at the most senior levels.

The commission, led by former chief justice of Queensland, the Honourable Catherine Holmes AC SC, will examine four key areas:

  • The establishment, design and implementation of the scheme; who was responsible for it; why they considered Robodebt necessary; and, any concerns raised regarding the legality and fairness;
  • The handling of concerns raised about the scheme, including adverse decisions made by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal;
  • The outcomes of the scheme, including the harm to vulnerable individuals and the total financial cost to government; and
  • Measures needed to prevent similar failures in public administration.
  • The use of third party debt collectors.

The damage to people’s trust in government from this epic fail has been immeasurable.

The royal commission, surely the emperor of all inquiries, is essential for us to begin rebuilding that trust and making sure the mistakes are never repeated.