Rewinding Robodebt: From Words to Action

Yesterday saw the Prime Minister finally express regret in Parliament for the government’s unlawful robodebt programme. This moment must not be seen as bringing closure, but as highlighting the urgent need to help those harmed by the programme. In politics, as in our personal lives, saying sorry does not mean you stay the same. You change. Here are four ways the Prime Minister can turn words into practical action.

  1. Find and remedy every incorrect debt

Firstly, even in executing a $721million refund, we are facing an outreach problem of enormous scale. Over 190,000 people possibly affected do not have current contact details. The government must ensure interest and compensation are accorded to those who suffered such hardship, whether through the class action or the Commonwealth Scheme for Detriment Caused by Defective Administration.

If a debt is not being refunded, it may still be challenged. Many of the remaining debts have been produced using bank statements, which only provide the net received amounts. The social security law requires a complex reconciliation back to fortnightly gross earnings.  The government should resource independent legal support for these people given the complexities involved. These bank statement debts threaten to be the next liability for the government: they must front up on any legal advice they have received about them. Anyone who believes their debt is inaccurate should not be cast back, unsupported, into the kafkaesque world of reassessment.

Smaller numbers of averaged debts were produced prior to 2015. Human staff would, as a last resort after seeking payslips, elect to average individual cases. The government has used this residual averaging as a flawed political defence of its actions. Incredibly, however, it refuses to take any practical action to remedy the cases it instrumentalises. A full forensic audit must be carried out and these debts refunded and ex gratia compensation explored.

2. Do not retraumatise those affected

The government needs to embody its regrets by abandoning any proposed process of reissuing debts or rebooting the system. Reissuing debts would require a ludicrious repurposing of a discredited system whose false ‘efficiency’ was delivered by crude and unlawful averaging. The Guardian has reported that Services Australia itself is calling any reboot of the system ‘unviable’. It would retraumatise people by placing a treadmill of difficult, unlawyered interactions shaped by uncertainty and imbalance of power. It would underline that the government has not accepted the full case taken against it by the community sector. Robodebt was not just unlawful, it was unfair, socially and economically counterproductive.

3. Address the failed governance

What has been done to people, to the federal budget, to public discourse for five years cannot be met with silence and inaction. How could Service Australia not appeal tribunal rulings which directly found against its legal interpretation? What dynamics led to legal advice only issuing in September 2019? We need to account for the 1000 days where legal academics, tribunal members and legal professionals were directly warning the government. We need to ensure proper governance of legislation and technology in a Department that touches the lives of every Australian.

We also need to look at the rushed development of the new compliance approach in 2015. This stripped out existing safeguards, by no longer gathering pay information from employers. On the 12th February 2015, an Executive Minute proposing the system was sent to the Minister of Social Services. By June 2015 $1.5 billion in estimated savings was placed into the Federal Budget. The programme eventually grew to a projected $3.7 billion. We need to know just how structural feature of the federal budget ended up being designed around an unlawful assumption.

The Government should embody its contrition by instituting a full independent inquiry into the governance failures that produced these unprecedented failures. The government should abandon its ongoing appeals against the disclosure of key documents from that time.

4. Start by listening

Robodebt, and any inquiry into it, should trigger broader reflection on the quality of public debate about our social security system. It is an important reminder for academics, the media and the public, that where we put our eyes is a form of power. For four years, people who carried the truth were not listened to, still have not been fully listened to. But the word ‘robodebt’ became cultural and political marker with specific social meaning that countered that indifference and invisibility. The work of the founders of Notmydebt, joined by brave organisations like Victoria Legal Aid, ACOSS and Economic Justice Australia gave voiceto those only ever talked over and about by politicians.  The campaign stood for a better way of doing things. Australians carry as many ideas and often hold more truths about their government as consultants or politicians. Centrelink’s future needs to be centred on hearing and learning from those affected.

Darren O’Donovan