This government has no idea when it comes to the harm to individuals caused by this public policy failure.
During the last few months of pandemic and bushfires, we've seen more than a few failures—the failures in the childcare package, the failures in the JobKeeper program, the failure to support our university sector, and the list goes on and on. Today we stand here talking about the doozy of them all, the mother of all stuff-ups—robodebt. Robodebt wasn't a mistake. It wasn't the result of something being imposed on the government by an emergency or a pandemic. Believe it or not, it was actually planned over a long time and it was something they had a pretty good idea was illegal. They issued debt notices at the rate of 20,000 a week, but every one without human oversight.
Robodebt is in a league of its own. If it were the Olympics it would be the performance scoring the perfect 10; it would be the Nadia Comaneci of illegal administrative blunders. But, unlike Nadia, our government has come crashing through the floor—to the tune of $721 million to be paid to 370,000 clients. The actual debt levied is about $2.1 billion since 2015, and up to $1.5 billion may need to be paid back. This saga has caused misery and stress for thousands of Australians who feel like they're being bullied and treated like criminals. I'm not surprised they're continuing with the class action against the government. They have my whole-hearted support. And how coincidental it was that, in the last sitting week in May, this government moved to refer the class action industry to a parliamentary inquiry despite the fact that law reform bodies have all examined it and found there is little wrong.
Talking about misery and stress, Department of Human Services data shows that 2,030 people have died after receiving robodebt demands. Nearly one-third of these people were classified as vulnerable. At least some of those deaths were caused directly because of those demands. People were tipped over the edge by robodebt letters—people like the 19-year-old single mother who took her life after receiving a $9,000 debt; Rhys Cauzzo, a 28-year-old florist and musician who took his own life on Australia Day 2018 after receiving an $18,000 debt notice; and 22-year-old Jarrad Madgwick, who told his mum he received a $2,000 debt letter and two days later his body was found. They each left clear evidence that the debt demands were instrumental in their actions. These are the human faces of a government-made disaster.
This government was warned about the illegality of robodebt as early as March 2017. They received advice from the Solicitor-General in September, according to documents filed in the class action, and the ATO was certainly advised in November, by the bureaucracy, that the scheme was unlawful. But it took the brave Deanna Amato, with the support of legal aid, to win a Federal Court decision late last year to make the government stop raising debts using averaged ATO income data. But between then and now the government didn't pay back the money to victims. Victims are still waiting. The government didn't apologise for the hurt and stress robodebt has caused, despite the head of Gordon Legal saying that no apology would be used against the government in future legal proceedings. Remember, the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General, both former ministers for social services, were key architects of robodebt. Minister Robert isn't the only villain in this tragedy. They should all apologise fully, and publicly, to all robodebt victims.
But what has the government learned? Nothing. Firstly, according to the minister, the millions of dollars in refund administration costs is going to come from existing department resources. That means literally that, in using internal resources to repay some welfare recipients, they are going to punish many other recipients—with worse response times and worse services over the months to come. Secondly, according to media reports, the government has failed to rule out legislation to legalise the averaging of tax office income data for future debt recovery. There should be an independent inquiry, a royal commission into this disgraceful saga. May it never, never be allowed to happen again.Share Tweet