Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme - GRIEVANCE DEBATE

01 August 2023

I am here in the chamber now to speak about both a grievance and a hope for the future. I speak of a betrayal of many of the most vulnerable in our community through the Robodebt scheme and the erosion of trust in government.

The establishment of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme on 18 August 2022 was a key election commitment of the Albanese Labor government. The royal commission, led by commissioner Catherine Holmes, has delivered justice and answers for the more than 500,000 victims of the former Liberal government's unlawful, harmful and utterly flawed Robodebt scheme. Robodebt unlawfully raised debts of just under $1.8 billion against vulnerable Australians.

The Royal Commission found:

Robodebt was a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal, and it made many people feel like criminals. In essence, people were traumatised on the off-chance they might owe money. It was a costly failure of public administration, in both human and economic terms.

Frontline Services Australia staff were forced to carry out this unlawful scheme, many of whom attempted to ring the alarm bells on what was happening and were flatly ignored. The Prime Minister said on 7 July this year:

For more than four years, Liberal Ministers dismissed or ignored the significant concerns that were raised over and over again, including in the Parliament, but also by victims, by public servants, by community organisations and of course, legal experts.

It had a devastating impact across Australia.

I know that it had a detrimental impact on local families: 2,397 people were issued with an illegal debt notice just in my electorate of Aston. It was a very stressful time for them, and it marked a shameful chapter in the administration of our social security system and a massive failure of public administration.

Everyone remembers those words uttered by the former member for Aston and former Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge on an episode of A Current Affair:

"We will find you, we will track you down, you will have to repay those debts and you may end up in prison."

These were words that the former minister came up with specifically to frighten and intimidate those who we now know did not owe money to the government. The Robodebt royal commission report pointed out:

Mr Tudge knew that conflation of fraud and inadvertent overpayment occurred, most specifically from his experience with respect to the segment on A Current Affair. He knew that fraud represented a very small proportion of welfare compliance. Despite this, he took no action to issue a media release to clarify and emphasise the distinction between fraud and inadvertent overpayment, and he did nothing to draw attention to the fact that fraud represented a very small part of welfare compliance.

The scheme created catastrophic stress and anxiety for many of my constituents, and they knew that in going to the former member they might have had their personal information leaked to the media. Another point made in the commission's report was:

As a minister, Mr Tudge was invested with a significant amount of public power. Mr Tudge's use of information about social security recipients in the media to distract from and discourage commentary about the Scheme's problems represented an abuse of that power.

My heart goes out to the families across the country who were devastated and damaged by this unfair process and who in some cases lost loved ones—over 3,000 early deaths due to an illegal scheme that cannot be allowed to happen again, ever.

I would also like to thank the member for Maribyrnong and Minister for Government Services, the Hon. Bill Shorten, for his work in opposition to ensure that this royal commission happened, for his fight across those years from 2015 to November 2019 and for continuing to drive this whilst in government, sticking with a promise to Australians that we took to the last election. As Minister Shorten said on 7 July 2023:

The Royal Commission has highlighted a broken system under the previous government. And Commissioner Holmes certainly doesn't mince her words in terms of what she says. She's described Robodebt as an 'ill conceived, embryonic idea rushed to Cabinet'.

Evidence from the commission established that senior management and former government ministers ignored warnings that the scheme could be illegal. The commissioner said at the start of the report:

It is remarkable how little interest there seems to have been in ensuring the Scheme's legality, how rushed its implementation was, how little thought was given to how it would affect welfare recipients and the lengths to which public servants were prepared to go to oblige ministers on a quest for savings. Truly dismaying was the revelation of dishonesty and collusion to prevent the Scheme's lack of legal foundation coming to light.

Not surprisingly, not shockingly, there has been very little remorse expressed by those opposite or those involved. They're just protecting their reputations, thinking nothing of the agony they caused. They should hang their heads in shame. Then we hear yesterday from the member for Cook in the House of Representatives. Again, Scott Morrison took no responsibility. In the classic style of the member for Cook, he shifted the blame. He said the commission didn't listen to his evidence. Mr Morrison may as well have said, 'It's not my job.'

It's no wonder the Australian public has so little faith in government nowadays. To quote a victim of the scheme:

To this day, I still get anxiety when I think about my Robodebt. The government should care about people who are struggling; people who have depression or money troubles. They should not put pressure on them and make their lives worse.

Beyond the harm that Robodebt has caused to so many vulnerable people, we also need to consider its impact on democratic governance, government integrity and broader trust in our public institutions. Robodebt demonstrated not only a complete failure on public engagement but also a complete disregard for citizens. Citizens felt disempowered and under attack. If we do not restore public trust in our institutions, we risk losing people's cooperation with the public system. Our social contract is compromised and undermined. That's why it was critical that we restore integrity and confidence in our system from the royal commission report, in contrast to the previous government, which refused to take responsibility and still does. As Commissioner Holmes said in closing:

… I am confident that the Commission has served the purpose of bringing into the open an extraordinary saga, illustrating a myriad of ways that things can go wrong through venality, incompetence and cowardice.

The government thanks Commissioner Holmes and her team for their dedication, professionalism and forensic work throughout the royal commission process.

The government will now carefully consider the 57 recommendations presented in the final report. To those who shared their stories with the royal commission, and who campaigned tirelessly to raise the alarm about the gross betrayal that was the Robodebt scheme, I thank you. We all thank you. Throughout the royal commission process, we have seen courage, leadership and ethics on display from victims, their advocates and whistleblowers. Australians must have access to an effective social security support system and should be treated with respect and dignity. There must never be another Robodebt again.

Hansard - Federation Chamber 1/08/2023 Parliament of Australia (