Retired Queensland Chief Justice Catherine Holmes AC has been appointed to head the Federal Government’s commission of inquiry into the unlawful and now defunct public debt recovery scheme known as ‘Robodebt’.
Prime Minster Anthony Albanese today announced Ms Holmes would lead the commission, to be established in Brisbane with the final report due by 18 April 2023.
Mr Albanese also released the inquiry terms of reference.
Ms Holmes was the first woman appointed to the Queensland’s highest judicial office – as Supreme Court Chief Justice – on 11 September 2015, and officially stepped down in March 2022 this year.
She has a proven track-record and expertise in public inquiries, having served as counsel assisting the Forde Commission of Inquiry into Child Abuse (1998-99) and as Commissioner of the Queensland Floods Inquiry (2010-12).
Mr Albanese said Governor-General David Hurley AC DSC (Ret’d) had issued Letters Patent to establish the Royal Commission, with Ms Holmes appointed commissioner.
The inquiry will look into the 2015 so-called ‘Robodebt’ program – established by the former LNP Federal Government – which used an algorithm to calculate if Centrelink recipients had been overpaid, but unlawfully claimed almost $2 billion in payments from 433,000 people.
A total of $751 million was wrongly recovered from 381,000 people.
A $1.8 billion settlement was ordered last year for people who were wrongly pursued, and Government Ministers were the subject of ridicule by Federal Court Justice Bernard Murphy over what he described as the “massive failure”.
The inquiry will examine, among other things:
- The establishment, design and implementation of the scheme; who was responsible for it and why they considered Robodebt necessary, and any concerns raised regarding itslegality 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.
Mr Albanese said: “The Royal Commission’s focus will be on decisions made by those in positions of seniority. The full scope of the inquiry is outlined in the Royal Commission’s Terms of Reference.”
“Commonwealth agencies will work to respond expeditiously to requests made by the Royal Commission.”
A legal financial assistance scheme is expected to be established for people requested to formally engage with the Royal Commission, for example, to appear as witnesses.