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Calls mount for royal commission into failed Centrelink robodebt scheme

Waiting at Centrelink branch
Thousands of Centrelink recipients have been paid back through the robodebt settlement. (Source: Getty)

A senate inquiry has called for a royal commission into the robodebt scandal that saw thousands of Centrelink recipients issued with debt notices.

The majority Greens and Labor committee, chaired by Greens senator Janet Rice, pointed to the Government’s “resistance to changing its approach” despite mounting evidence the system was causing harm.

While issues emerged not long after the scheme was introduced in 2016, it took three years and a federal court case before the scheme was paused in 2019 and then cancelled in 2020.

Under the scheme, Centrelink recipients were found to be automatically issued debt notices to people based on a flawed income averaging metric.

In a submission to the committee, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) stated that “people have reported their life being ruined as a result of robodebt.”

“People have experienced breakdown, anxiety, depression requiring medication, sleeplessness, stress causing physical illness, and fear,” ACOSS stated in its submission.

Around 433,000 people across Australia were affected by robodebt.

The court eventually approved an overall settlement of $1.2 billion between the Federal Government and robodebt victims.

Service Australia has also improved its approach to income compliance, with debts are no longer calculated solely using averaged income data.

According to the inquiry, questions remained unanswered that would ensure the same mistakes were not made again.

The Government failed to release information about the scheme, according to the inquiry, including legal costs relating to the robodebt program.

The inquiry suggested the Government was deliberately withholding information.

“Throughout this inquiry, the committee has repeatedly requested crucial information from the Government, which has been refused on the basis that the release of information would harm the public interest,” the inquiry stated.

Labor has committed to a Royal Commission into robodebt

If elected, Labor would establish a Royal Commission into robodebt by the end of the year.

“We do not know whether poor legal advice was given or whether legal advice was simply never sought,” said Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten in April.

“We do not know if public servants were inappropriately heavied and politicised,” Shorten added.

When asked if the Coalition would hold further inquiries into the system, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said "the problem has been addressed".

Liberal senators Wendy Askew and Hollie Hughes, who were also on the committee, disagreed that further review of the scheme was required.

"In view of the significant changes that have been implemented, including as a result of substantial external scrutiny, government senators see no compelling reason why any further review is required," they said.

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