Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has announced a royal commission into the failed Robodebt scheme, calling it a “human tragedy with very real consequences for its victims”.
The scheme was an automated debt recovery program that wrongly accused thousands of people on social security benefits of owing the Federal Government money after being set up in 2015.
Last year, the Federal Court approved a $1.8 billion settlement between victims and the Morrison Government, after more than $720 million was taken unlawfully from nearly 400,000 people.
Mr Albanese said the commission — expected to cost $30 million — would examine how the scheme started, who was responsible for it, why it was necessary, how concerns were handled, and how to stop a similar scheme from happening again.
“Robodebt was, of course, the Coalition’s brainchild — a computer program to find out if someone owed the government money rather than involving a real person,” Mr Albanese said on Thursday.
“One of the commitments that I made (during the election) was to put the humans back into (the Department of) Human Services to make sure that this can never happen again.
“We know that almost 400,000 Australians fell victim to this cruel system — a human tragedy with very real consequences for its victims.”
Former Queensland Supreme Court chief judge Catherine Holmes will head the probe into the previous government’s Robodebt debacle and will report back to Governor-General David Hurley by April 18 next year.
It comes as Labor demanded a commission after the court approval last year, which also made the Morison Government pay $8.4 million in complainants’ legal costs.
A commission was opposed by the Coalition, which argued the problem had been dealt with through its $1.8 billion settlement to affected people.
The Prime Minister defended his government’s decision to establish the commission, given the Federal Court had approved the settlement and with the scheme ending in 2019.
“People lost their lives. Every single one of my local constituents and every member of Parliament can tell stories like this. People who came through to my electorate office with one of these alleged debts had it either wiped in full or wiped in almost-full,” he said.
“What that told us was that those people who were more capable of going to their local member and making representations got their debts squashed because they didn’t owe any money.
“But what we also know is that those people who were most vulnerable were the least likely to go to their local member, to have the confidence to do that. And that’s why we need to get to the heart of why this occurred. This is such a serious issue.”
NDIS Minister Bill Shorten said Robodebt was a “shameful chapter in the history of public administration”.
“The last government gave us robo-victims. The last government gave us robo-denial. Today, Labor will give the victims some robo-justice,” Mr Shorten said.
“We still don’t know who conceived of this. The Federal Court judge, Justice Murphy, said that the senior public servants and responsible ministers should have known, should have known, but didn’t know.”
“At one level, it was certainly the conduct of irresponsible ministers and senior public servants. At another level, no one ever asked the question — ‘maybe the machine was wrong and the people complaining were right’.”