The Greens have called for a royal commission into the botched robodebt scheme, amid growing demands for a judicial inquiry and an apology from the Morrison government.
Rachel Siewert, a Greens senator and chair of a Senate inquiry into the scheme, said on Tuesday she saw no other way forward than a “royal commission ensuring a full, independent review of this program and a forensic audit of this mess”.
“This scheme traumatised many already vulnerable people in our community,” she said.
“The government has been heartless and cruel throughout this entire process and their failure to even consider apologising means we cannot trust them to not do it again.”
On Monday, Labor’s government services spokesman, Bill Shorten, appeared open to a judicial inquiry, though he said this would need to be discussed within the opposition.
“Yes, I think there should be some form of inquiry,” he said. “There has been a human toll.”
(December 12, 2016)
- Growing complaints of faulty Centrelink debts, amplified by social media campaigning
- Guardian reports first call to halt “automated” debt recovery scheme
- Centrelink whistleblower breaks ranks and tells Guardian only a fraction of debts were genuine
(January 1, 2017)
- Commonwealth ombudsman launches investigation
- Leaked Centrelink staff logs show fundamental failings of debt recovery process
(February 2, 2017)
- Government makes minor adjustments after backlash
- Guardian reports that robodebt victims may be able to sue
(March 3, 2017)
- Department of Human Services accused of doxing robodebt victim
- DHS blames debt recipients as Senate inquiry begins
(April 4, 2017)
- Commonwealth Ombudsman criticises scheme in report
- Government warned scheme is illegal after losing AAT cases
(July 7, 2017)
- Senate inquiry calls for robodebt suspension
(February 2, 2018)
- Data shows one in six robodebts later wiped or changed
(April 4, 2018)
(February 2, 2019)
- Victoria Legal Aid launches federal court challenge
(May 5, 2019)
- Centrelink wipes debt in court challenge, argues case cannot proceed
(June 6, 2019)
- Victoria Legal adds second plaintiff to court action
(July 7, 2019)
- Flood-hit Townsville caught up in robodebt scheme
- After fresh scandals, Labor calls for robodebt to be scrapped
(August 8, 2019)
- Guardian reveals scheme in shambles, secret plan to target vulnerable
(September 9, 2019)
- Gordon Legal launches a class action with support of Labor’s Bill Shorten
(November 11, 2019)
- Government abandons “reverse onus of proof”, promises to only raise debts once it can substantiate them with pay records
- Government settles Victoria Legal Aid action
(February 2, 2020)
- Emails show government was warned scheme was unlawful
- In class action defence, government claims no duty of care on welfare
(March 3, 2020)
- Guardian reveals leaked documents showing size and scale of the scandal
The comments from Labor and the Greens followed a call from the law academic and robodebt expert Darren O’Donovan, who also called for a judicial inquiry and full audit of all Centrelink debt files.
Both parties have also noted the families of some robodebt victims say receiving letters was a contributing factor in their loved ones committing suicide.
The government last Friday promised to refund $720m to 330,000 people who paid back unlawful debts raised by Services Australia between July 2015 and November 2019.
However, it is expected the overall costs will exceed $1bn, with a class action brought by Gordon Legal also seeking interest and damages.
Also on Tuesday, the firm called on the government to apologise and pledged not to use any mea culpa offered in upcoming court hearings.
“We are prepared as the lawyers acting for the applicants and the group members to not use the fact of an apology in court if the government is willing to give a proper and genuine apology,” Peter Gordon said.
Gordon, whose decision to launch the class action with Shorten in September was mocked by the Coalition, said it would show the government was not just offering refunds due to the court action.
Guardian Australia also reported on Tuesday the Coalition was yet to rule out using legislation to reboot the robodebt scheme in the future.
The option was first raised by the solicitor general in September, suggesting the government was aware of serious legal doubts about the scheme many months before it finally agreed to issue refunds.
Siewert said: “It’s absolutely beyond the pale that after all this unnecessary pain and suffering the government still hasn’t ruled out introducing new laws to allow a future reboot of a robodebt type scheme.”
The government has defended itself by claiming the income-averaging method used under the robodebt scheme was a longstanding policy also used under Labor.
Siewert also claimed such a royal commission would ensure “every single debt regardless of age could be audited”, including those raised unlawfully before the robodebt scheme.
“The government thinks they can get away with only refunding victims served notices after 2015,” she said.
Asked about the scandal on Monday the prime minister, Scott Morrison, expressed regret but stopped short of apologising, citing the class action.
In 2016, the Coalition ramped up the discredited use of averaged tax office data to allege Centrelink recipients had misreported their fortnightly earnings in a move critics said reversed the onus of proof on to welfare recipients.
The process had been been used as a “last resort” by the Department of Human Services as far back as the early 1980s.
Despite claiming the process was used under both parties, an acknowledgement that an unknown number of unlawful debts exist before 2015, the government has refused to audit pre-2015 debts.