Federal Government announces Robodebt Royal Commission

August 25, 2022 |

The Robodebt program, for want of a better word, animated those who have an interest in privacy.  Data matching, through the use of algorithms, was a key function of the program.  The Australian Privacy Foundation as well as other civil society groups raised concerns from an early date.

The Federal Government today announced the Robodebt Royal Commission.  The media release provides:

The?Governor-General His Excellency General the Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Retd) has issued Letters Patent establishing a Royal Commission into the?former?debt assessment and recovery scheme?commonly known as Robodebt. 

The inquiry will examine, among other things: 

    • 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 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.

The?Royal Commissioner is Catherine Holmes AC SC.?The Commissioner?is a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland and brings vast experience from a distinguished legal career.

The Commissioner?led the ?Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry following the?2010-11 floods?and?acted ?as counsel assisting the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions in 1998-99.

The?Government has allocated $30 million for the Royal Commission?and the final report will be delivered to the Governor-General by?18?April 2023.

The headquarters of the Royal Commission will be in Brisbane?and information?about hearing dates?and how to participate will be provided in the coming weeks.

A legal financial assistance scheme will be available to people requested to formally engage with the Royal Commission, for example, to appear as a witness

The ABC coverage Robodebt royal commission to investigate unlawful debt collection from hundreds of thousands of Australians provides:

The new federal government has officially called a royal commission into the former government’s unlawful debt recovery scheme known as ‘Robodebt’.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has unveiled the terms of reference and the commissioner who will oversee the inquiry.

Former Queensland Supreme Court Justice Catherine Holmes will lead the commission with the final report due by April 18, 2023.

The 2015 robodebt program used an algorithm to work out whether 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 lambasted by Federal Court Justice Bernard Murphy over the “massive failure”.

Election commitment

Labor committed to establishing the robodebt royal commission at the federal election.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has labelled the scheme a “human tragedy.”

“The royal commission will examine the establishment of the scheme, who was responsible for it, and why it was necessary, how concerns were handled, how the scheme affected individuals and the financial costs to government, and measures to prevent this ever happening again,” he said.

“People lost their lives.

“Every single member of parliament can tell stories like this.”

Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth said there were questions about why there was no action when complaints were raised.

“We know that as late back as 2016 there were members of public flagging concerns that these debts weren’t right,” she said.

“These were real flags the govt should have listened to.”

Scott Morrison, who was social services minister when the scheme was established, has said the problem was dealt with by his government when it was scrapped in 2020.

Labor said there were still questions over who held responsibility for the failed scheme and how much they knew.

The federal government said the full toll of the scheme had not been accounted for, including numerous claims of suicides caused by the unlawful program.

The transcript of the press conference announcing the Royal Commission provides:

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Today I am outlining the terms of reference for the Royal Commission into Robodebt that we committed to while in Opposition. Robodebt was the Coalition’s brainchild – a computer program to find out if someone owed the Government money rather than involving a real person. One of the commitments that I made was to put the humans back into human services, to make sure that this can never happen again. We know that almost 400,000 Australians fell victim to this cruel system, a human tragedy with very real consequences for its victims. The Royal Commission will examine the establishment of the scheme, who was responsible for it and why it was necessary, how concerns were handled, how the scheme affected individuals and the financial costs to government, and measures to prevent this ever happening again. Catherine Holmes AC SC has been appointed the Royal Commissioner. The Commissioner is a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland. She led the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry after the 2010-11 floods and acted as counsel assisting the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions in 1998-99. The final report will be delivered to the Governor General by 18 April 2023. It is vital that we get to the bottom of how Robodebt came about so that we can ensure that it can never, ever happen again.

AMANDA RISHWORTH, MINISTER FOR SOCIAL SERVICES: Thanks, Anthony. Well, the Robodebt fiasco was something that should be of deep concern to all Australians. We know, as late back as 2016, there were members of the public flagging concerns that these debts weren’t right, that there were problems with it, and we saw the government take no action whatsoever. These concerns, these stories where people were finding debt notices which they believed were not correct, kept coming and the complaints continued through 2017. These were real flags that the government should have listened to. And there are real questions about why these concerns, these complaints, these increasing problems – why the former government didn’t take any action. These are really important questions that need to be looked at through this Royal Commission. But I think the human consequence of what happened to people is also important as well. We’ve continued to hear stories where individuals felt increasingly anxious, depressed and worried because these debts kept coming and they couldn’t understand them. And so I think there is a real issue here about why the government didn’t act, why they didn’t listen to the concerns coming through, and what were the real impacts. Of course, we know this program was meant to save money. It clearly didn’t save money and the human cost was great.

BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Good morning, and thank you, Prime Minister, and Minister Rishworth. The last government gave us Robodebt. The last government gave us robo-victims. The last government gave us robo-denial. Today, Labor will give the victims some robo-justice. Robodebt, as you will recall, was an online automated debt collection system started by the previous government in July of 2015. It continued to November of 2019, when a successful class action finally forced the government at the door of the final hearing of the class action to stop this program. Robodebt was a shameful chapter in the history of public administration in this country. It was a massive failure of policy and law. Citizens will recollect that the government unlawfully raised debts of at least $1.76 billion against 433,000 Australian citizens. The previous Liberal administrations had no lawful right to raise these debts. It caused untold harm. I was speaking to some of the victims before this announcement today. There was Maddy, who received a debt which she didn’t owe at all from her time she was receiving Youth Allowance, legitimately, whilst also holding down jobs at university. She attempted suicide. We’ve spoken to Catherine, a 45-year-old lady who didn’t know she owed an unlawful debt of $3,500 until it was taken out of her tax return. We’ve spoken to Anjuli, she was a victim of domestic violence. She fled to a refuge while pregnant. She had been holding down three jobs and she was chased for a debt that she never owed. There’s a real toll. Yes, Labor helped organise a class action which has seen justice and the money repaid for the victims. But, no, we still don’t know who conceived of this. The Federal Court judge, Justice Murphy, said that the senior public servants and responsible ministers should have known, should have known but didn’t know. This Royal Commission has to fill a gap. At one level, it was certainly the conduct of irresponsible ministers and senior public servants. At another level, no-one ever asked the question: “maybe the machine was wrong and the people complaining were right.” Until we have these answers, we will never be able to have full restitution for the victims, nor can we guarantee that it can never happen again.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, there’s been some criticism that this is an expensive review, a Royal Commission, into something that has already been through the Federal Court. What do you say to that? This has already been through the justice system, so what are you hoping to learn? And is this just another expensive way to trash the former government?

PRIME MINISTER: I tell you what’s expensive – the more than billion dollars that this process has cost. It cost the Federal Government that money because of the way that this was handled. I’ll tell you the other cost – this is what Minister Shorten has been speaking about – the human cost of this. People lost their lives. Every single one of my local constituents, and every Member of Parliament can tell stories like this, who came through to my electorate office with one of these alleged debts had it either wiped in full or wiped in almost-full. What that told us was that those people who were more capable of going to their local member and making representations got their debts squashed because they didn’t owe any money. But what we also know is that those people who were most vulnerable were the least likely to go to their local member, to have the confidence to do that. And that’s why we need to get to the heart of why this occurred. This is such a serious issue. We committed, at the time, to this Royal Commission. This is a commitment that we have a mandate for and a commitment that we have a responsibility to fulfil.

MINISTER SHORTEN: The assumption of your question is the Federal Court dealt with all matters – that is not true. The class action was about seeking restitution of the money that was wrongly paid, or having the debts stopped. That class action was successful. But just to remind people what happened – on the day that the hearings were to start, the Commonwealth finally instructed its solicitors, six years after this sorry program started, that it would declare that it was unlawful. ‘Yes, we’d pay back the money’ – $112 million in taxpayer money in interest. But we never got to hear how the scheme got to be conceived, designed. It was unlawful. There was no legal power to do what they were doing, to take the humans out of the system, to reverse the onus of proof. We never got to hear that once people started saying it may be unlawful, why did the government continue it for four and a half years? Why did Minister Tudge in 2016 or 2017 say, ‘we will hunt you down’? He was proposing to hunt citizens of this country down for debts they didn’t owe, using legal power that he didn’t have. The government has never satisfactorily explained how this monster scheme got away from the system and just had a life of its own.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you expect or anticipate that this Royal Commission might recommend further compensation for the victims of Robodebt?

PRIME MINISTER: We don’t pre-empt Royal Commissions. What we do is set the terms of the Royal Commission.

MARK DREYFUS QC, ATTORNEY-GENERAL: There are broad terms of reference for this Royal Commission. As the Prime Minister has just said, we’re not going to pre-empt what the outcome will be. The Commission will have full power to inquire, full power to require the production of documents, full power to require witnesses to appear before it and make whatever recommendations the Commission thinks are appropriate as to any actions arising from what has already occurred and, most importantly, how we can make sure, as a nation, that this never happens again.

JOURNALIST: Just on that point… Are we one hundred per cent sure that this is not still happening? That something like this is still not happening?

MINISTER SHORTEN: In government services, Services Australia, they have changed their practices. Some of them started to change once we forced the last government to admit it was unlawful. What this scheme did is it basically data-matched a person’s annual tax record with a fortnightly benefit they might have claimed. What relying just on the algorithm did is that they didn’t stop to ask themselves that maybe a whole lot of Australians have casual work, they’re actually doing what people want them to do which is try and find work, so they would have periods where they were eligible in a fortnight for a government benefit, but other times during the year they were trying to make ends meet. We’ve stopped a lot of the processes that the previous government had. But we’re going to continue reforming debt collection systems because I don’t see why we should be using debt collectors to chase citizens before we’ve even explained to people why they might owe a debt. So the systems have distinctly improved and differed.

JOURNALIST: Ministers like Stuart Robert, Christian Porter, and even then-Treasurer Scott Morrison: do you expect they’ll be called to give evidence at the Royal Commission?

PRIME MINISTER: It will be up to the Royal Commissioner. We don’t pre-empt or control a Royal Commission process. What we’re doing today is fulfilling the commitment that we gave two years ago now, with myself and Minister Shorten as the then-Shadow Minister.

JOURNALIST: Can I ask you about the Greens’ plan, potentially, to freeze rents for two years to allow wages to catch up – do you support that in-principle?

PRIME MINISTER: What we do is support real action that has a real process to occur. It’s not clear to me, short of nationalising property, how that could be achieved. And I haven’t seen any proposal, nor have the Greens raised with the government that at all.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, it’s been six months since the war in Ukraine started. The US Government has committed more money, billions of dollars, to the Ukraine war effort. Is Australia anticipating any further supplies of aid to Ukraine? And just a second part to that question – Simon Birmingham wants the land in Canberra that’s used by the new Russian Embassy be given to Ukraine for an embassy of their own. Is that something you could see Australia doing?

PRIME MINISTER: I’ll be discussing things with the Ukrainian Ambassador rather than with Simon Birmingham. I have a good relationship with the Ukrainian Ambassador. He was there when I visited Kyiv and met with President Zelensky. The Ukrainian people are a beacon for democracy and the struggle for national sovereignty for the world. I travelled to Kyiv in order to clearly send the message that Australia stands with the people of Ukraine against the barbaric, illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia. We stand with the democratic nation. We stand with President Zelensky. And yesterday I paid tribute to the Ukrainian people who are sacrificing lives, sacrificing livelihoods, and making an enormous effort in order to defend their nation against this attack. This is important beyond just Ukraine. It’s important for the upholding of the international rules-based system. And that is why we’ll continue to be available for any practical suggestions that are made and requests that are made. When I visited I donated, on behalf of the Australian Government, a further $100 million in support. We will continue to engage as we have. The Australian Ambassador to Ukraine continues to engage through DFAT and through those official channels. This is an issue of bipartisan support. I acknowledge the support that the former government gave to the Ukrainian government and people – that’s something they did with our support as the then-Opposition. And I’d say I’m very confident that that bipartisanship will continue into the future.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, is your government in support of the unions’ push to have collective bargaining agreements across entire sectors?

PRIME MINISTER: The union movement speaks for itself. And employers speak for themselves. At the moment there is discussion taking place in the lead up to the Jobs and Skills Summit – that’s a good thing. What our government has acknowledged in a speech I gave to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry during the election campaign, I pointed out that enterprise bargaining at the moment simply isn’t working, that wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living. The difference between our government and the former government is that the former government saw low wages as a key feature of their economic architecture. We have a different view. We think that the economy should work for people, not the other way around. And we look forward to constructive discussion at the Jobs and Skills Summit.

JOIURNALIST: So that is something that you would consider?

PRIME MINISTER: We’re not pre-empting. What we want to do is to bring together unions, employers and civil society to have discussion – not just at the summit, but in the lead-up there’s been more than 65 events and there’s more taking place over the next couple of days. What we want is to work towards our common interests. And I think that unions and employers do have common interests. The way that you can get a boost in wages and a boost in profits without putting pressure on inflation is to get productivity growth, and that is one of the focuses that I want to happen at the Summit.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, Premier Perrottet says he’s spoken to you about a joint buyback scheme for people in Lismore. What timeline can you give to people who are desperate for clarity on whether they should rebuild their homes or not six months on from the disaster?

PRIME MINISTER: I’ve had a very brief discussion with Premier Perrottet about that. I haven’t as yet had concrete proposals from the Premier. We will work constructively. I had another discussion with the New South Wales Premier just yesterday. I have a good working relationship with all Premiers and Chief Ministers. State governments are responsible for planning. And one of the things that needs to happen is that state governments have to get better at planning, and that includes bearing in mind natural disasters: the impact that they’ve had and the likelihood that with climate change these events are occurring more frequently and with greater intensity.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, it’s six months on, is it not good enough that the New South Wales Government hasn’t been giving clarity to those people who live in the flood zone whether their homes are going to be be bought back or not?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m not a commentator. All I can say is that in the last 48 hours I have had discussions with Premier Perrottet. We want to be constructive here. I’m not looking to make a political point.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, with the latest revelations of the cosmetic surgery industry, are you look at the failures of the regulator and a potential Royal Commission?

PRIME MINISTER: We’re not considering the latter at this point. But I think that Australians will be shocked at some of the revelations which are there. That people who, in good faith, have undertaken procedures that have had lasting consequences for them, I think that is of real concern. Certainly, that is something that the Health Department and the Health Minister will need to examine. But I, like other Australians, have had a look at some of those reports and are very sympathetic with the victims of what clearly is completely unacceptable in terms of the difference of what people expected and what the outcomes were.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, your Resources Minister announced yesterday the exploration of about 50,000 square kilometres of ocean real estate for new petroleum resources. Some think that goes against your commitments for greater action on climate change Can you explore for more petroleum and also cut down on Australia’s carbon emissions?

PRIME MINISTER: People still put petrol in their cars at the moment. I don’t know how you got to the press conference, but chances are it was in a car. Am I right?

JOURNALIST: Yes, more or less.

PRIME MINISTER: But you got there. We need to be sensible about this. We need to change the way that our economy functions, our energy mix across the board. But these lights that are on in this press conference are powered with – and this building is a pretty good building, there’s solar panels, all of that – but chances are if you’re in New South Wales at the moment and you flick a switch, then that will not be powered not renewables. We have a plan to change that energy mix, to lower our emissions. And that plan includes 82% of renewables being part of the energy mix by 2030. But what that doesn’t mean is that immediately you can stop using fossil fuel sources today. We have a plan to get there. It’s outlined very clearly. We had that endorsed by the House of Representatives by a huge majority just a couple of weeks ago.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, regarding the inquiry into the former Prime Minister’s portfolios, do we know what the timeline is going to look like on that and when the Australian people can start getting some answers?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s a pity that the people who knew about it for years didn’t give the Australian people some answers and some transparency.

JOURNALIST: Do you want to be a bit more specific on who you’re talking about there?

PRIME MINISTER: We know a range of people knew about this. There’s a book about it. And when excerpts of the book were published is when I found out about it, and I assume that’s when most people found out about it. Former Prime Minister Morrison has said that that was a contemporaneous interview. We have found out some things from Scott Morrison’s press conferences, but what we haven’t found out is any reasonable explanation for how this came about, who knew about it at the time, how it occurred, why it was kept secret. And it goes to, as the Solicitor-General’s advice very clearly indicates, it goes to the very functioning of our parliamentary democracy and our Westminster system that provides for accountability. We’ve waited a long time for this information to come out. We are examining the details of exactly what form of inquiry it should take, who should be responsible for that inquiry and we’ll be making an announcement pretty soon about that. We want to make sure that we get it right. Various people in the former government, in the bureaucracy, knew about this for a long period of time. We’ve waited years for that information. I thought Barnaby Joyce’s interview on Insiders was very enlightening last Sunday, where he said that when he was made aware of the decision around PEP-11 and the overriding of the National Party Minister for Resources by the Liberal Party Minister for Resources, Mr Morrison, he was concerned – not about any policy outcome, not about any national interest – he was concerned that the National Party would lose staffers and would lose a ministerial position. That said everything about the way that the Morrison-Joyce Government functioned. They governed for their own interest, not the national interest. They took their eye completely off the ball of what good governance looked like. The government that replaced them has put in place proper structures, proper processes, proper cabinet government, and that’s the process that we’re going through to make sure that we get this right. And when we make a decision by the Cabinet, it will then be announced at an appropriate time, but with the support of the government and in a transparent way. Thanks very much.

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