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Robodebt was a policy fiasco with a human cost we have yet to fully appreciate

Peter Whiteford writes in The Conversation (16.11.20) about the federal Coalition’s bungled automated welfare debt recovery system, suggesting that a combination of community activism, journalistic investigation, political scrutiny and the legal aid system has ultimately provided a remedy to the system’s victims.

‘The Robodebt class action bought by Gordon Legal has been settled at a cost to the government of around $1.2 billion. According to federal Labor frontbencher Bill Shorten, this is the biggest class action in Australian legal history.

‘This comprised refunds of $721 million to 373,000 people, $112 million in compensation and $398 million in cancelled debts.

‘As is well-known, “Robodebt” is the label commonly applied to the initiative starting in 2016 designed to increase recoveries by government of “overpayments” made to social security recipients, retrospectively dating back to 2010.

‘… Essentially, the Robodebt fiasco arises from the very formulation of the policy. From the beginning, a central feature of the program was unlawful.

‘The unlawfulness does not relate to a legal technicality or a mistake in drafting. In brief, the “overpayments” the government recovered using income averaging were not overpayments. No one who understood the social security system and its governing legislation could have realistically thought they were.’


The Robodebt royal commission will tell us who’s to blame, but that’s just the start

Peter Whiteford writes in The Conversation (7.7.23) about the release of the report from the ‘Robodebt’ royal commission, noting that the scheme affected hundreds of thousands of people and has ‘undercut trust in our political and social welfare systems’.

‘Today will be a moment of truth for hundreds of thousands of Australians and for what the federal court has condemned as a “shameful chapter” in Australian public administration.

‘This morning, the Governor-General will be presented with the final report of the royal commission into the automated debt-recovery system known as Robodebt.

‘Announced in the lead-up to the 2016 federal election by the then treasurer, Scott Morrison, and then social security minister Christian Porter, the scheme promised to save the budget $2 billion with smarter use of technology to “better manage our social welfare system and ensure that every dollar goes to those who need it most”.

‘Instead, the court found the Commonwealth simply asserted that some 433,000 Australian benefit recipients owed it back money – calculations it later admitted “did not have a proper legal basis”.

‘… Identifying the reforms to public administration and political practice that are needed will be the most important things to look for in the report. We have to make sure Robodebt can’t happen again.’

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