After pushing hard for a royal commission into the punishing Robodebt scheme, federal Labor has refused to implement one critical recommendation that would enhance transparency and scrutiny.
Labor responded to the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme’s findings on November 13. It accepted “all 56 recommendations” and seven “in principle”, but one recommendation (57) was wholly ignored, alarming reformers.
Former Coalition Prime Minister Tony Abbott introduced the debt collection scheme in 2016 as part of an update from a manual system of calculating Centrelink overpayments to an automated one. An automated data-matching system was introduced to compare Centrelink records with averaged income data from the Australian Taxation Office.
But Robodebt sent erroneous letters to hundreds of thousands of people on welfare payments, demanding they pay back dollars they ostensibly “owed”.
Recipients were not provided with a support line, only a website through which they paid. It relied on people being so confused and scared, they simply did as they were told. The alternative was to trawl through years of pay slips and bank statements, which many would found hard to access, to disprove the debt notice.
Complaints were raised and pressure mounted. Robodebt was investigated by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, two Senate committees and, finally, a royal commission, which Labor had promised in opposition.
The royal commission’s findings did not come as a surprise to many, but the details about the extent of the belittling of welfare recipients were a revelation. It was revealed that behavioural experts shaped the scheme to make vulnerable people feel pressured to pay debts without having a sense of agency, or rights.
Sadly for some, taking their own lives seemed to be an alternative to paying the ludicrous amounts of money they “owed”.
The ABC’s Triple J Hack said in 2019 there were “663 [people from the 2000 whose lives were lost after receiving their debt letter] who were classified as ‘vulnerable’, which means they had complex needs like mental illness, drug use or were victims of domestic violence”.
The commission described Robodebt as a “costly failure of public administration, in both human and economic terms”. It specifically criticised Scott Morrison who, as Minister for Social Services, it said misled cabinet.
Cabinet secrecy to stay
Bill Shorten, Labor Minister for Government Services, has been criticised for pulling a swifty with the commission’s last recommendation. After initially confirming to parliament on July 31 that there were 57 recommendations, number 57 then became a “closing observation”.
The 57th recommendation was to repeal Section 34 of the Freedom of Information Act. This section exempts Cabinet documents from being disclosed.
The royal commission said that this section of the Act should be repealed to prevent unjustified confidentiality based solely on a document’s classification as a “Cabinet document”.
It was the misuse of secrecy provisions that kept key Robodebt documents hidden for years. It was only after these documents were released that the full nature of the scheme was revealed.
When the decision to disappear recommendation 57 was made is unclear. The last mention of it by Labor MPs in parliament was on October 18.
An anonymous Labor staffer told The Saturday Paper in November: “We knew there were 57 recommendations and we knew we weren’t going to touch that one … I don’t know who made the call but suddenly 57 became 56. We wanted a clean 56, a good news story.”
Along with it accepting seven other measures only “in principle”, this raises questions about its commitment to transparency and welfare recipients.
Among the seven measures it accepted only in principle were: more social workers; more “face-to-face” customer service support options; and setting up a customer experience reference group.
These would go a long way to helping vulnerable people access the welfare they need.
Debt recovery limit rejected
Another rejected recommendation was to reinstate, under the Social Security Act, a limit of six years on debt recovery. This was removed, with bipartisan support, in 2016.
The limit on collecting debts for Centrelink overpayments through the Robodebt scheme went back decades. The Antipoverty Centre (APC) has pointed out that the current period in which Centrelink has to back-pay recipients who are underpaid is just 13 weeks.
Another problem is the lack of a timeline to conclude investigations into breaches of the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct. The Australian Public Service Commission is currently conducting 16 investigations into senior public servants. Whether they will escape penalties, or be sacked if they quit their positions before the investigation concludes, remains unclear.
Whether there will be any civil litigation against these public servants from the families of those who lost their lives is unclear.
Also unclear is whether public servants who had to endure repercussions will initiate lawsuits. The royal commission found that many lower-level Centrelink workers were telling their bosses that the system was wrong and cruel. They were ignored.
The APC said the government’s response to the royal commission “is all words until serious action is taken”.
“All Centrelink ‘debt’ collection activity must be ceased immediately until safe processes can be implement[ed].”
The APC is also calling for mutual obligations to be suspended in Western Australia amid extreme heat waves and bushfires, a measure that has been implemented in NSW and Queensland.
Mutual obligations force people to leave their homes to gain enough points to receive a payment. If they don’t collect enough points they are forced to contact Workforce Australia — no easy feat — in the hope of receiving at least a reduced payment.
Receiving no income support in a climate crisis will only cause more people more harm, which Centrelink should want to avoid.