Shortcuts / 11 July 2023

The Robodebt Royal Commission

The Royal Commission’s report into Robodebt has been all over the news for the past week – but if you’re like us you might still be catching up and wondering what it all means… So in this Squiz Shortcut, we’ll give you a quick overview of the scheme and its fallout, the findings of the Royal Commission,
and what’s going to change as a result of this report.

Remind me what Robodebt is….
It was a scheme established by the Abbott Government in 2015 to boost the federal coffers. It used an automated system to get back money it said was either overpaid to people on welfare or acquired through welfare fraud.

But that system didn’t work out?
Nope… The system’s method of averaging income data turned out to be illegal and inaccurate, so in many cases, the government was hounding people for money they didn’t owe. By the time the whole thing was brought to a halt in 2020, more than 400,000 people had received false debt notices.

What did the Royal Commission find about the scheme?
Commissioner Catherine Holmes says it was an “extraordinary saga of venality, incompetence and cowardice”. She said some of its consequences were tragic – with cases of people dying by suicide over these debt notices – and many others were made to feel like criminals.

So what’s in the report?
Quite a lot… It’s made up of a total of 990 pages with 57 recommendations to ensure it doesn’t happen again. And on top of that, there’s a sealed section that isn’t available to the public that recommends individuals be considered for either civil or criminal prosecution.

Who gets to read that sealed section?
We know the Royal Commission has sent that to the Australian Federal Police, the new National Anti-Corruption Commission, the heads of agencies that employ public servants, the Australian Public Service Commission and professional conduct bodies for lawyers.

That’s quite a wide net…
And that’s because at least 7 public servants had adverse findings against them, including the 2 secretaries of the department who oversaw Robodebt – Kathryn Campbell and Renee Leon. The inquiry also made adverse findings against some federal pollies including Stuart Robert, Alan Tudge and Scott Morrison.

But we don’t know who could be prosecuted?
Nope – but the fact that so many public servants have been named in the publicly available report is extraordinary in itself.

What’s the PM had to say?
Anthony Albanese has said he won’t prejudice the work of any of those bodies that might be chewing over that sealed section – but he’s also confident current agency heads will take immediate action against some public servants.

And what about those mentioned in the report?
Robert – who is about to leave Parliament – welcomed the report, while Tudge has rejected the findings against him. Both said they weren’t named in the sealed section. As for our former PM Scott Morrison, he’s rejected the Commissioner’s scathing findings against him but hasn’t commented about whether he was named in the sealed section.

And what were some of the report’s recommendations?
There was a big theme about not treating welfare recipients like 2nd-class citizens – Holmes recommended that improvements are needed regarding the way Centrelink currently deals with people, which she says increases the stigma they are already feeling.

Does the government agree?
Government Services Minister Bill Shorten says he’s already onto this one – he says there are going to be big changes to the way letters are worded. And he’s already ended the agency’s use of external debt collectors – he reckons they don’t really have a place in a humane and empathetic public service.

Anything else to note?
The Commissioner also recommended the establishment of a national hotline that people can ring if they are having issues with Centrelink. And she also said the government should provide more funding to support legal aid for welfare recipients.

Any chance of that happening?
Well, legal aid is an issue for the Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus – but Shorten says a hotline makes “perfect sense”.

And is there talk of compensation for the victims?
Holmes says compensation would be too complex given the variety of Robodebt cases. She said a better use of that money would be to increase welfare payments to give recipients more security. But Shorten pointed out that Jobseeker and Youth Allowance have just been raised – so don’t hold your breath on that one…

Any other big themes to come out of the Royal Commission?
Something that’s right at the heart of the Commissioner’s recommendations is the need for a truly independent public service. Shorten reckons this whole episode exposed a culture of “kissing arse” on the way up and getting the “big bucks” but without taking responsibility.

That’s one way of putting it…
And he’s not the only one that thinks that… Dr Darren O’Donovan – the law expert who has been a chief advocate for Robodebt victims – says the Royal Commission exposed a “den of cowardice” within the bureaucracy. He reckons the public service needs a major overhaul.

What would that involve?
There are things like the need to change inductions, training and accountability – as well as getting senior execs to spend more time on the frontlines.

So what happens next?
The government says it’s going to take 2-3 months for it to come up with a complete response to the Royal Commission – and it might be even longer until we know about the consequences for some of the individuals named in that sealed part of the report.

Will we find out who they are?
Potentially – PM Albanese said he doesn’t think those names should stay secret forever.

Squiz recommends:

Robodebt: five years of lies, mistakes and failures that caused a $1.8bn scandalGuardian Australia

The Robodebt Royal Commission report – reckon just skip straight to the recommendations, rather than reading the entire 990-page document…

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