The Robodebt Report Absolutely Skewered Our Politicians So Here’s Yr Explainer On Its Findings

robodebt royal commission findings explainer
CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses suicide.

The Robodebt scheme is probably one of the most messed up things to have gone on under Scott Morrison‘s leadership (which is truly saying something), but don’t worry if you’re not across exactly what’s happened or why it’s imploded over the last few days — that’s what we’re here for.

You’ve probably seen headline after headline calling for heads to roll over the Robodebt scandal (to put it lightly), but why was there a Royal Commission into Robodebt in the first place, and what has Scott Morrison got to do with it?

Buckle up kids, this entire saga is crook from the very beginning. Keep reading for your Robodebt explainer.

What is Robodebt?

Robodebt, or automated debt recovery, refers to a scheme employed by government agency the Department of Human Services (DHS) where a bunch of algorithms were created to calculate the income of Centrelink applicants by averaging their Australian Tax Office data.

Those averages were then compared to the Centrelink applicants’ self-reported incomes, and people found to have a discrepancy in the numbers were told they owed Centrelink debts — without anyone checking to see if those numbers were actually correct.

This resulted in thousands of Aussies being told they owed Centrelink money when they didn’t, and because Centrelink tends to presume people are guilty until proven innocent by months of hurdle-jumping, welfare earners had to prove they didn’t owe these Robodebts.

The scheme was suspended in 2019 when a class action was brought against the Commonwealth.

The government refunded any incorrect debts that were paid — about $720 million — and agreed to a $1.2 billion settlement in November 2020.

However, Robodebt has still been called out for unfairly targeting vulnerable people. Tragic findings released in 2019 found more than 2000 Australians died after receiving a Robodebt notice from the government, 429 of which were aged under 35 years old.

Even more distressing, around 663 of the people who died after receiving the notice were officially classified by the system as “vulnerable,” meaning the DHS had recorded a history of issues like mental illness, drug use, or domestic violence.

Mind you, that’s only people who Centrelink had ruled were vulnerable — it’s notoriously stingy with this label and as we all know, mental health issues are often underreported.

To put these 2000 deaths into perspective, that’s almost four times as many Australian soldiers that died in the Vietnam war. It’s a big fkn number.

What was the Royal Commision investigating?

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he would launch a Royal Commission into the classist cluster-fuck that was the the Robodebt scheme if he was elected, and followed through with that promise after he was sworn in.

Catherine Holmes SC was asked to investigate:

  • Why the scheme was created
  • Why and how it was designed the way it was
  • Who was actually responsible for Robodebt the scheme
  • How the creators of the scheme handled risks and concerns
  • How the government responded to and managed complaints
  • The use of third-party debt collectors
  • The impacts of the scheme on both people and the economy

There were 3,030 hours of hearings held with 115 witnesses, with more than 5,050 pages of transcripts, according to Guardian Australia.

Which brings us to the present day: the Royal Commission into Robodebt released its findings on Friday, and the results are scathing to say the least.

What did the Royal Commission into Robodebt find?

The Royal Commission into Robodebt found the scheme was”crude and cruel”, and “neither fair nor legal”, and called for those responsible to be referred to criminal and civil prosecutions. It also slammed the scandal as stemming from “incompetence and cowardice”. Fkn ooft.

Catherine Holmes SC pointed out in her almost 1,000-page report that in the past, if DHS noticed a discrepancy between ATO data and income declared by Centrelink recipients, it would trigger a manual review where an actual human would look over files, contact the recipient and get to the bottom of it with them. They would then try to reconcile the numbers with the person’s employer, and only if that failed would they look into debt recovery.

So basically, triggering a debt notice should not be the first fkn step when numbers don’t add up.

The report said that in 2014, in response to DHS’ initial look into Robodebt as a concept, the Department of Social Services’ “in-house” lawyers advised that “averaging” Centrelink recipients fortnightly payments might “not be consistent with the legislative framework” around how welfare payments are meant to work.

This is some key info because Scott Morrison, who was Coalition minister at the time, said he was told income averaging at the time required no legislative changes, and other implicated ministers are claiming the same.

Holmes accused Morrison of allowing the cabinet to be “misled” by not making proper inquiries, and rejected his claims as “untrue” — though Morrison has categorically denied all accusations against him and maintained he acted “in good faith and on clear and deliberate Department advice”, per Guardian Australia.

Who else was named in the report?

Holmes found Former Government Services Minister Stuart Robert tried to “salvage” the Robodebt scheme despite the issues raised, and accused him of using figures “which he knew could not be right” to defend the scheme to the public. Of course, Roberts also denies this and maintains that he followed all legal advice to have the scheme shut down.

Holmes absolutely dragged Former Department of Human Services Secretary Kathyrn Campbell in the report, and said she “had been responsible for a department that had established, implemented and maintained an unlawful program”. It accused her of knowing that legislation would need to change if the policy was going to introduce income averaging and not doing anything about it, and also noted that a Centrelink staffer had tried to warn her of the issues being raised.

“She contended that her failure to eliminate its misleading effect was an ‘oversight’,” Holmes wrote.

“That would be an extraordinary oversight for someone of Ms Campbell’s seniority and experience. The weight of the evidence instead leads to the conclusion that Ms Campbell knew of the misleading effect of the NPP [New Policy Proposal] but chose to stay silent.”

Campbell was actually promoted during the Robodebt scandal, and now earns a salary of nearly $900,000 in a role at the Defence Department. She is yet to release a statement.

Former Human Services Minister Alan Tudge was accused of not being “open to considering any significant alteration, or cessation, of processes underlying those fundamental features” despite complaints against and national scruinity of Robodebt.

“It was all the more reprehensible in view of the power imbalance between the minister and the cohort of people upon whom it would reasonably be expected to have the most impact, many of whom were vulnerable and dependent on the department, and its minister, for their livelihood,” Holmes wrote in the report.

She also added that Tudge was aware of two people who died by suicide and whose deaths their families had linked to the scheme, but said he still didn’t review it.

“Nonetheless, Mr Tudge failed to undertake a comprehensive review into the scheme, including its fundamental features, or to consider whether its impacts were so harmful to vulnerable recipients that it should cease,” she said.

Tudge has denied he abused his power and maintains that “at no stage did I seem to engage in media strategy that would discourage legitimate criticism of the scheme.”

He said it was “part of a minister’s role to publicly defend government policy” when it is criticised. You’d think it’s also part of a minister’s role to not defend literally unlawful programs, but sure.

Well, you’re basically caught up on the Robodebt commission findings now, though I’m sure there are a lot more developments coming. Watch this space and stay tuned.

Image: Getty Images / Lisa Maree Williams, Quinn Rooney