A Royal Commission into the robodebt scandal will be launched by the end of the year following Labor’s election win on the weekend.
Labor promised to launch the commission during the election campaign in an effort to “learn the truth” about the automated income compliance scheme and prevent it from happening again.
Labor has allocated $30 million over the forward estimates for the Royal Commission.
Consultations will soon begin on the terms of reference for the commission, which will be up and running by the end of the year under Labor’s election commitment.
Robodebt was launched in 2016 by the Coalition. The Online Compliance Intervention system used an algorithm to average out a welfare recipient’s yearly income using data from the tax office and cross-matched this with income reported to Centrelink.
If the system found a discrepancy, a “please explain” notice was sent to the individual automatically, with the onus placed on them to prove that the debt didn’t exist. If they didn’t do this, a debt notice was then issued.
The system was found to regularly incorrectly match data and issue inaccurate or false debts.
The Coalition backed away from the scheme in 2019 and announced plans the following year to refund debts raised through. A class action lawsuit against robodebt was settled by the Commonwealth in early 2021, with the government agreeing to refund $720 million in debts, to scrap $400 million and provide $112 million in compensation.
But the government has continually blocked the release of crucial documents relating to the early development of the scheme and the legal advice that was provided to it regarding robodebt.
This led a Greens and Labor-led Senate Committee in May to call for a Royal Commission, and Labor committed to this in the same month.
“Robodebt was a human tragedy, wrought by this government. Against all evidence, and all the outcry, the government insisted on using algorithms instead of people to pursue debt recovery against Australians who in many cases had no debt to pay. It caused untold misery. Only an Albanese Labor government will find out the truth,” new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said during the election campaign.
The Commission will uncover the truth about the “illegal robodebt scheme”, return integrity to the public service and “ensure a disaster like this never happens again”, then-shadow Government Services Minister Bill Shorten said.
“We still do not know how this reckless scheme was unleashed. We do not know whether poor legal advice was given or whether legal advice was simply never sought,” Mr Shorten said.
“We do not know if public servants were inappropriately heavied and politicised. And without knowing the true origins we do not know what safeguards could be put in place to prevent a repeat.”
The Senate has repeatedly attempted to get the government to hand over key documents relating to the development of the robodebt program, including any legal advice the government received on it and minutes from meetings about the scheme.
“The Committee was met with entrenched resistance and opacity to its request for information from government Ministers and departments, severely hindering its ability to produce this report for the Senate,” the Community Affairs References Committee said in its final report this year.
“These failures cannot be ignored or left in the past. The Australian public, and especially the people harmed by this program, deserve to know what advice was provided to government and how this advice informed decision-making.”