The architects of Robodebt have been referred for civil and criminal prosecution by the royal commission into the unlawful scheme.
In her report handed down today, Commissioner Catherine Holmes branded the former Coalition Government’s debt-recovery program an “extraordinary saga” of “venality, incompetence and cowardice”.
“Robodebt was a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal, and it made many people feel like criminals. In essence, people were traumatised on the off-chance they might owe money. It was a costly failure of public administration, in both human and economic terms,’’ Commissioner Holmes wrote.
“It is remarkable how little interest there seems to have been in ensuring the scheme’s legality, how rushed its implementation was, how little thought was given to how it would affect welfare recipients and the lengths to which public servants were prepared to go to oblige ministers on a quest for savings.
“Truly dismaying was the revelation of dishonesty and collusion to prevent the Scheme’s lack of legal foundation coming to light. Equally disheartening was the ineffectiveness of what one might consider institutional checks and balances – the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s Office, the Office of Legal Services Coordination, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal – in presenting any hindrance to the scheme’s continuance.”
The $30 million commission investigated who was responsible for the scheme, what government officials knew about its legality, and the harm it caused to victims.
Its 990-page report makes 57 recommendations and is the result of an assessment of nearly one million documents and hundreds of hours of evidence over nine weeks. A video livestream of the hearings attracted almost 700,000 viewers.
A sealed chapter in the report recommends referrals of individuals for civil and criminal prosecution. Their identity remains a secret to protect the integrity of any prosecution.
The Robodebt scheme ran from 2015 to 2019, with hundreds of thousands of welfare recipients wrongly accused of owing money to Centrelink.
In June 2021, the Federal Court described the scheme as a “massive failure in public administration” as it approved a $1.8 billion settlement between the Commonwealth and victims.
The report’s recommendations were welcomed by Economics Justice Australia (EJA), a peak organisation for community legal centres providing specialist advice on social security issues.
Acting CEO Kate Allingham told ABC News that many problems raised at the commission still existed, however.
“We hear a lot about how we want to make sure this never happens again. We are still seeing, our member centres, community legal centres, who represent people every day whose lives are being seriously affected by automated decision-making, their lives are being affected by debts that have been raised against them. They still don’t know why those debts are being raised,” Ms Allingham said.
“When Robodebt first started I was working in a member of parliament’s office and within the first two weeks of the Robodebt scheme beginning, I had constituents in my office having panic attacks in a foetal position on the floor.
“I had a mother who rang whose child had unfortunately suicided, shortly after receiving the debt notice.
“We were flooded with calls. It was immediately obvious that whatever was happening was not okay. We raised issues very quickly and it just took, it just took years too long to be addressed. People were being hounded by debt collectors, they did not know why they had the debts. It was appalling. And I think it was very obvious from the beginning and it just took years too long for it to be addressed.”
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