07 August 2023

For more than 2,000 people in the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury, getting a letter telling them that they'd been overpaid a social security benefit was the start of a long-running nightmare. Before it had a name, it was a threatening letter, often from a debt collector, with a payment due date and a series of instructions but no explanation as to how the debt was calculated. I saw those letters. They were cold, impersonal and, as we now know, largely automated. We now know that it was robodebt. For the pensioners, students, disability pension holders and many others who were sent these letters, the royal commission findings brought down  last month show that they were among 435,000 people who were targeted by their own government in a cruel and unlawful scheme from July 2015 to November 2019. The scheme was finally paused but not before it unlawfully raised $1.8 billion of debt against approximately 435,000 Australian. The royal commission into robodebt was our election commitment to get to the bottom of what happened, why and how, and to make sure it can never be repeated. We established the royal commission on 20 August last year, and the final report was delivered within 12 months.

It's worth remembering how robodebt was designed. Under the scheme, some Centrelink debts were calculated using averaged Australian tax office income information. Averaging was applied where there was no explanation of discrepancies between income that recipients had reported to Services Australia and income data from the ATO. It was a blunt instrument with little but mostly no human oversight. In November 2019, on the day that ministers and senior public servants would have given evidence in the trial of the class action on this matter, the Commonwealth finally admitted it had no legal basis to raise these debts. The use of averaging ATO data as the sole basis for raising debts stopped. Justice Murphy, the judge presiding over the case, approved the largest class action settlement in Australian history, describing the scheme as a 'shameful chapter' and a 'massive failure in public administration'. Fast-forward 3½ years, and Commissioner Holmes has delivered her final report of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme. What we saw in the 46 days of public hearings and what we heard from more than 100 witnesses was distressing and heartbreaking, with stories of how people who relied on the safety net were in fact hounded by their government with no means of fighting back. It was action where the major decisions were signed off by the former coalition cabinet, of which the current Leader of the Opposition was a member. After we announced a royal commission, the opposition leader called it nothing more than a political 'witch-hunt'.

Much has been reported about the findings of the royal commission on various ministers involved and comments made about them. But I want to highlight comments about the former self-styled senator for Western Sydney, Senator Marise Payne, who was the minister for human services. I note that more than 4,700 people in the Penrith area, the seat of Lindsay, received debts on top of those in Macquarie and across Western Sydney. We would have tens of thousands of people who received debts under this scheme.

The former Minister for Human Services is talked about by the commissioner, who says:

The Minister for Human Services, Ms Payne, could not remember whether the need for legislation in relation to the income averaging proposal was raised with her; she could not recall what happened to the advice that legislative change was needed and she did not have a record. Ms Payne did not remember anybody coming up with a proposal other than income averaging as a means of using ATO data. She did not have any specific recall how the question of legislative change for the proposal had disappeared and there was no material to  inform her. This series of disparate and unsatisfactory answers would have the makings of a child's nursery rhyme if it were not so serious.

The commissioner made note:

The evidence before the Commission was that fraud in the welfare system was miniscule, but that is not the
impression one would get from what ministers responsible for social security payments have said over the years. Anti-welfare rhetoric is easy populism, useful for campaign purposes.

Those are the comments from the commissioner.

This royal commission has gone some way to bringing a voice, visibility and some justice to those who were
hounded. We want to make sure that we never see it again.