Australia

Calls heard again for royal commission into ‘horrific’ and unlawful robodebt scheme

A royal commission is needed to get to the bottom of the “horrific” robodebt scheme, the Australian Council of Social Service has told a parliamentary inquiry.

Although some restitution has been delivered to victims of robodebt, they have not received justice, ACOSS spokeswoman Charmaine Crowe said on Thursday.

“Social security truly is a lifeline and yet robodebt revealed a deep disrespect for people who receive welfare,” Ms Crowe told a committee examining the controversial Centrelink debt recovery program.

“A royal commission or some form of independent inquiry at arms length from government is needed,” she said.

A $1.2 billion settlement between robodebt victims and the federal government was reached last year.

But the government has not come forward with the information that victims are demanding about who was accountable for the four-year scheme, and which ministers knew about the problems.

Ms Crowe said many welfare recipients felt shame and hurt at being wrongly branded cheats, with some driven to take their own lives after receiving a debt notice.

“There has been no compensation for the harm that robodebt caused,” she said.

“Some suicided, it’s been absolutely tragic.”

Labor and the Greens have similarly called for a royal commission.

The automated matching of tax and Centrelink data to raise debts against welfare recipients for money the government claimed to have overpaid was ruled unlawful in 2019.

Welfare Rights and Advocacy Service principal solicitor Catherine Eagle said some people still don’t know they are owed money.

Witnesses were also concerned there is still no guarantee the federal government won’t try again with another debt recovery program.

Legal advocate Leanne Ho said data matching and averaging should only ever be used as a starting point that triggers an investigation by a person.

She is most concerned the lessons from robodebt have not been learned.

People are still struggling over demands to repay parenting and other payments, and more Australians than ever before are receiving money from the government because of the pandemic.

“Robodebt isn’t over,” Labor committee member Deb O’Neill said.

Readers seeking crisis support can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged up to 25). More information and support with mental health is available at Beyond Blue.org.au and on 1300 22 4636. 

Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. 

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