Australian politicians have called for an apology after Government Services Minister Stuart Robert revealed 470,000 Australians would receive a refund after being charged robodebts.
The refunds come to $721 million altogether, and come after the government’s decision to rein in the controversial robodebt scheme in November last year.
Australians have shared stories of receiving debt notices for deceased relatives, while others have claimed the wrongfully-issued debts played a part in family members’ suicides.
Now, Labor senators are arguing Australian taxpayers deserve an apology for distress caused.
"There were suicides as a result of people who received these debt notices for debts that they didn't owe, that were illegal, and that the government now concedes were illegal," Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said on Saturday.
"The government, in order to avoid ministers having to front up to a court case, has sent a 700-plus million dollar bill to taxpayers as a result of this."
He said Robert’s career should be over as he “gaffe prone minister has mishandled everything he’s ever touched”.
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert described the announcement as “historic”
“I am overwhelmed thinking of the untold suffering that this illegal scheme has caused.
“It will be almost impossible to account for the social and economic costs of the Government's illegal #robodebt scheme.”
Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten also called for an apology.
“470,000 Australians to be refunded $721 million of robodebt. This doesn't help families who lost victims to suicide, or heal other harms, stresses & inconveniences caused. An apology? Not this government,” Shorten said.
And, added NSW Labor senator Tim Ayres, this was the second Friday afternoon in a row where the Federal Government has revealed a major bungle. Last Friday, the ATO and Treasury flagged a $60 billion accounting error related to the JobKeeper scheme.
"This Friday afternoon it is a $720 million bungled robodebt scheme. I really worry about what next Friday afternoon is going to bring,” Ayres said.
However cabinet minister Keith Pitt said the government has nothing to apologise for.
He said more of the people he talks to are more concerned about taxpayers paying for welfare that is being “provided inappropriately” or for people who are making incorrect claims.
Pitt also defended the government’s timing.
"Every day that ends with 'y' gets news coverage. In modern media it's a 24-hour news cycle, I don't think there are quiet periods," he said.
Gordon Legal, which initiated a class action against the government over the robodebt scandal, has said it will continue with legal action.
“Our clients do not consider that it is reasonable for the government, having now conceded that it acted unlawfully should unilaterally decide that it can take its time to pay it back and not be responsible to those affected for the loss and damage its unlawful conduct has caused,” Gordon Legal partner James Naughton said.
“Our clients will also want the government to explain to the Court why it made this announcement without any consultation with them or the Court and has chosen not to address their claims for damages for the distress and inconvenience or the interest they are entitled to receive because the government has had the benefit of their money unlawfully.”