Forewarning: Whilst the contents of this blog post are naturally political, every attempt has been made to present the facts in an objective matter. The conclusions should be considered an indictment on individuals and the system of politics, rather than political ideologies.
With the election of the Abbott Government came the promise of fiscal responsibility and to get the budget ‘back in black’. A key component of the budget that was investigated by the Government was welfare fraud, with Robodebt introduced in the 2015-16 budget to recoup fraud from so-called ‘dole bludgers’. Questions about the program’s legality and callous nature were increasingly raised in the media until the scheme was shut down in 2020, with a royal commission established in 2022 to investigate the genesis and culture surrounding the policy.
Why was the scheme illegal?
Previously, the compliance system used annualised tax records and compared them with fortnightly income from social payments. If there was a significant discrepancy, a compliance officer would investigate, often obtaining fortnightly income records from the employer. To prove that fraud had occurred, there would often need to be a discrepancy between the amount of fortnightly income and fortnightly payments received from Centrelink.
Under the new scheme, these compliance officers were removed, and debts were automatically generated based on whether annual ATO data matched the welfare declared each fortnight. It was then up to the recipient to explain the difference in the figures.
The main problem is that using annual income data averaged across fortnights cannot be used as the basis of debt collection, due to the often-variable nature of an individual’s income. To quote the Commonwealth:
“Evidence has shown that income averaging – whether being used to establish a discrepancy or as evidence of a debt – is highly unlikely to reflect an income support recipient’s real fortnightly earnings in the period under review”
The oversight in averaging data led to debt claims by the Government that were incorrect and sometimes larger than the sum of payments given to individuals by Centrelink.
A List of Failures
Failure #1: On the 18th of December 2014, before the scheme was even implemented, Department of Social Services (DSS) lawyers provided internal legal advice that the scheme “may not be derived consistently with the legislative framework”. This advice would not make its way into Cabinet briefings before the scheme was implemented. A contributing factor was likely the culture within the Department of Human Services (DHS), where officials would later reveal in hearings that there was always pressure to find ways to increase savings and that assurances from senior figures meant the scheme’s legality wasn’t questioned at length.
Failure #2: On 27th February 2015, the wording in the policy proposal was changed to state: “The new approach will not change how income is assessed or overpayments calculated.” When questioned by some public servants, they were assured that income averaging would not be used. Multiple individuals at DSS would later admit that they were unaware that income averaging was used for the first 1.5 years of the program’s operation and believe they were deceived by their counterparts at DHS.
Failure #3: In 2017, the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman would launch an investigation into Robodebt but would have key internal documents that questioned the legality of the scheme withheld from their investigation. The Ombudsman would then send parts of the drafted report to DHS and allowed wording changes at their request. The final report did not mention that the scheme was illegal.
Failure #4: Individuals were allowed to challenge Government-issued debts at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), with the judiciary awarding a growing number of decisions to the victims of the policy after its implementation. DHS decided not to appeal the decision. To quote the commission: “DHS took the course instead of taking whatever steps were directed by the AAT to rectify the individual cases by obtaining other evidence, but otherwise ignoring the decisions. The fact that Tier 1 AAT decisions were not published made it easier for it to do so.”
Failure #5: Former liberal media advisor Rachelle Miller, would reveal at the commission that a deliberate media strategy was implemented with the blessing of then Human Services Minister Alan Tudge to alter the narrative, intimidating the victims of Robodebt:
“That media strategy that I developed in January to shut down the story and that involved placing stories with the more friendly media, the right-wing media, about how the Coalition was actually catching people who were cheating the welfare system… including the likes of A Current Affair or others.”
Tudge would further intimidate victims by stating in an interview with A Current Affair in 2016, “We’ll find you, we’ll track you down and you will have to repay those debts and you may end up in prison”.
Failure #6: In 2018, DSS sought advice from law firm Clayton Utz in relation to AAT cases, which concluded that Robodebt was illegal. However, because the advice was kept in draft form, and never finalised. The department was never legally obligated to act upon the findings. It would take a further year until the Solicitor General’s advice would finally see the scheme shut down.
While this list is not exhaustive, in a public sector whose foremost objective is to serve everyday Australians, those appear to be the last people considered in a system that failed to hold itself accountable.
A Black Mark
Targeting some of the most vulnerable groups within society, many would take their own lives due to the often large debts placed upon them by Robodebt, with 663 vulnerable people (people with complex needs like mental health and abuse victims) passing away soon after receiving notices. An estimated 2030 people in total passed away after receiving a Centrelink notice for income information relating to Robodebt.
It is clear that multiple individuals knew that the scheme should not have been implemented but failed to shut it down. An environment that pushed results, rather than heeding the warnings, is a damning indictment of an already besieged culture in Canberra and has been made clear in the findings of the royal commission.
Another learning should be that politically charged rhetoric often achieves the inverse of what those who champion it wish it to. Robodebt was introduced as a fiscally conservative measure, with the Abbott Government claiming that it solved supposed rorts that were occurring within welfare payments – Scott Morrison would famously claim there should be a ‘strong welfare cop on the beat’ in 2015. In June 2021, a federal court ordered a $1.8 Billion settlement, repaying $751 Million in debts and wiping all further debts due to the illegality of the scheme, adding $112 Million in interest for those affected by the scheme. Designed to get the Government back in black, the political masquerading increased Government spending.
On the 7th of July 2023, Commissioner Catherine Holmes handed down her findings on Robodebt after 45+ days of hearings and 100 witnesses.
In 1052 pages, the report is scathing of the scheme and the people involved, concluding:
“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.”
A separate volume, not released to the public due to future implications for legal proceedings, details the Commissioner’s recommendations for civil and criminal prosecution and likely includes several key architects of the scheme.
But the words on those pages will never make up for the hundreds of lives that were taken due to the illegal scheme, nor the hundreds of thousands that were affected. For a scheme that was designed to get the Government back in black, it will forever carry a black mark for the pain and suffering it has caused. A black mark that should remind us of the dangers of political masquerading and the need for a culture of accountability within the public service. A black mark that carries with it the countless lives forever changed.
Holmes, C. A. (2023, July 7). Report. Retrieved from Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme: https://robodebt.royalcommission.gov.au/
Henriques-Gomes, L. (2021, June 11). Robodebt: court approves $1.8bn settlement for victims of government’s ‘shameful’ failure. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jun/11/robodebt-court-approves-18bn-settlement-for-victims-of-governments-shameful-failure
Henriques-Gomes, L. (2023, January 31). Alan Tudge’s adviser placed stories in ‘friendly media’ to ‘shut down’ robodebt scandal, royal commission told. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/jan/31/alan-tudge-former-adviser-rachelle-miller-robodebt-royal-commission
Henriques-Gomes, L. (2023, March 11). Robodebt: five years of lies, mistakes and failures that caused a $1.8bn scandal. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/mar/11/robodebt-five-years-of-lies-mistakes-and-failures-that-caused-a-18bn-scandal
Siewert, R. (2020). Chapter 3 Legal concerns and issues for ongoing inquiry. Retrieved from Parliament of Australia: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Community_Affairs/Centrelinkcompliance/Second_Interim_Report/section?id=committees%2Freportsen%2F024338%2F27760#footnote6target
Thompson, A. (2023, January 31). Alan Tudge’s former adviser reveals ‘dole bludger’ robo-debt media strategy. Retrieved from The Sydney Morning Herald: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/alan-tudge-s-former-adviser-reveals-dole-bludger-robo-debt-media-strategy-20230131-p5cgu1.html
Utting, A. (2023, March 9). Robodebt royal commission hears former ombudsman who investigated the scheme allowed DHS to amend wording of report . Retrieved from ABC News: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-03-09/qld-robodebt-scheme-government-royal-commission-ombudsman-legal/102027836
Whyte, S. (2019, February 18). Minister denies robodebt caused more than 2000 deaths. Retrieved from The Sydney Morning Herald: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/minister-denies-robodebt-caused-more-than-2000-deaths-20190217-p50yep.html