The tide appears to be turning against the federal government’s punitive robodebt scheme which, for years, has robbed hundreds of thousands of people and caused much distress.
The Guardian reported on March 27 that Attorney General Christian Porter “privately admitted” that over the next 12 months the government will have to refund more than 400,000 people who were robbed by the scheme to the tune of about $550 million in total.
The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) said the government must wipe “all controversial welfare robodebts” and pay people back.
ACOSS spokesperson Dr Cassandra Goldie said on March 27: “It appears that government must repay about 70% of what it has collected, having received $785 million as at August 2019”.
She said the robodebt scheme should “never have seen the light of day” and that, given the unprecedented demand for Centrelink, its staff “should not be tasked with administering robodebt, especially when people cannot get through to someone on the phone to access essential income support”.
ACOSS senior adviser Charmaine Crowe described the robodebt scheme as a “monumental failure in public administration”.
She said ACOSS has heard reports that “the government is continuing to chase people about robodebt at a time of mass job loss, and unprecedented demand for Centrelink”.
“Robodebt has caused so much distress and heartache in our community. The least the government can do now is ensure people are repaid as soon as possible,” Crowe said.
ACOSS is calling for Centrelink staff numbers to be boosted by 15,000. The government has promised 5000.
It also wants the government to: fund a hotline for those trying to access income support; run a campaign to advise people on what they need to do to access income support; and to suspend “mutual obligation” requirements during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gordon Legal is planning to launch a class action, arguing the scheme is unlawful and demanding compensation. Peter Gordon has previously acted successfully for asbestos victims.
Gordon told the ABC on September 19 the robodebt case would allege that it is wrong to collect money from hundreds of thousands of people by “the simplistic application of an imperfect computer algorithm”.
“We think that before the government docked the pensions or took the tax refunds of widows and carers, and aged pensioners it needed to have better evidence; it needed to consider each case individually,” Gordon said.
Gordon Legal will ask the courts to determine whether the more than 700,000 debts raised by Centrelink after July 1, 2015, entitles it to recover the amounts claimed.
The courts will also be asked to rule on whether the so-called collection fees, levied by Centrelink, should be refunded and whether those who have repaid all, or part, of those amounts should be paid interest. The case will also seek compensation for any distress or inconvenience caused to those who have been unfairly targeted.