A Royal Commission Into Robodebt, the Coalition’s Worst Ever Idea, Has Been Announced

A Royal Commission Into Robodebt, the Coalition’s Worst Ever Idea, Has Been Announced

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has announced a Royal Commission into Centrelink’s automated income compliance program, colloquially 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 of the scheme.

It will also look at how the former government handled concerns raised about the scheme, including adverse decisions made by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, as well as the harm it caused to vulnerable individuals and the total financial cost to the government.

The Royal Commission will look to implement safeguards to ensure a similar thing doesn’t happen again.

Robodebt was a colossal shitshow to say the least.

It’s something I personally have been following, and covering, as a journalist since December 2016. This included reporting on the former government’s constant defending of the scheme, the testimonial of family members who lost loved ones at the hands of an algorithm used incorrectly, numerous Parliamentary inquiries (which saw ministers and department officials claim public interest immunity and ‘legal professional privilege), reports from the committee holding the inquiries saying Robodebt should be binned, calls from the Greens (echoed by the then-shadow government) for a Royal Commission into the scheme, a class action, and, of course, the admission that was music to everyone’s ears: that the Coalition should never, ever have let this system out into the wild and cause harm to so many Australians.

So, let’s summarise.

What is Robodebt?

The Department of Human Services, now known as Services Australia, in 2016 kicked off the data-matching program of work that saw the automatic issuing of debt notices to those in receipt of welfare payments through Centrelink.

The Centrelink Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) program automatically compared the income declared to the ATO against income declared to Centrelink, which resulted in debt notices, along with a 10 per cent recovery fee, being issued whenever a disparity in government data was detected.

One large error in the system was that it incorrectly calculated a recipient’s income, basing fortnightly pay on their annual salary rather than taking a cumulative 26-week snapshot of what an individual was paid.

Centrelink’s OCI program from 1 July 2016 through 31 August 2019 saw over 1.1 million assessments be initiated using the automated data-matching technique. “Assessments initiated” was a term used by the department in lieu of calling it a “fine”, “debt” or a “payment demand”. Although they would argue at length that it wasn’t a debt, rather it was an opportunity to provide Centrelink with information to prove no payment needed to be made. We need no reminder that it wasn’t overly easy to confirm you were entitled to payments.

As we touched on above, the now former government in November 2019 paused the automated data-matching element of Robodebt and in May 2020, it admitted it got around 470,000 debts wrong, agreeing to pay around $112 million to 400,000 welfare recipients who were incorrectly charged under the Robodebt scheme.

To fully encapsulate the harm Robodebt caused could not be summarised in one article, but a Royal Commission, and a government that is taking the concerns of those more vulnerable seriously, is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, the measures announced at the end of the saga can future-proof the government from ever unleashing technology that wasn’t fit for use on real people with real lives.

If you or someone you care about needs support, please call LifeLine Australia on 13 11 14. If life is in danger, call 000.

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