The federal government’s debt recovery program, known as robodebt, has been described as a “shameful chapter” and a “massive failure in public administration”.
Robodebt ran for four-and-a-half years – from July 2015 to November 2019 – and saw $1.73 billion in unlawful debts raised against more than 400,000 people.
Announcing the details of the $30 million royal commission probe in August, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said robodebt was “a human tragedy with very real consequences for its victims”.
He also laid blame on the former government who implemented the scheme, calling it the “Coalition’s brainchild”.
If you’re not familiar with the robodebt scheme, here’s a quick rundown on what went down.
When robodebt was rolled out in 2015, it was hailed by the government as a key tool to be used in tracking down welfare fraudsters.
The automated scheme made use of data matching algorithms.
It assessed annual income data from the Australian Tax Office against fortnightly Centrelink welfare payments.
But robodebt’s averaging system used to calculate debts was problematic and in some cases inaccurate.
It also put the onus of proof on the recipients of the debt.
Robodebt was first challenged in the Federal Court in a case brought by Victoria Legal Aid in 2019.
The case led to a landmark ruling, with the court finding a robodebt given to Victorian woman Deanna Amato was unlawful.
Around the same time, Gordon Legal’s enormous class action had been announced and the legal pressure led to the government agreeing to repay the $751 million that was wrongly recovered from 381,000 people.
The royal commission’s first hearing is set to begin at 10am.
No witnesses will be called today.
Instead, the commissioner, Catherine Holmes AC SC, and the senior counsel assisting, Justin Greggery, will make their opening statements.
The hearing will be held in Pullman Hotel and also streamed live through the royal commission’s website.
A transcript will be available on the website shortly after the hearing.
What will the royal commission cover?
The inquiry will probe the implementation of the disastrous scheme by the former Coalition government and how it was allowed to continue for more than four years.
A key line of inquiry will be what legal advice the coalition government received over the scheme and when.
Former prime minister Scott Morrison, who was social services minister at the time robodebt was introduced, is likely to be called to give evidence.
Other former government ministers expected to be drawn into the investigation are Alan Tudge and Stuart Robert, who both acted as social services minister during various iterations the scheme, and former attorney-general Christian Porter.
Some members of the public affected by robodebt may also be asked to give evidence.
The royal commission is accepting public submissions until February 3 next year.
Whether robodebt victims should be given compensation for their pain and suffering is also expected to be up for discussion at the hearings.
Government Services Minister Bill Shorten said several questions remained unanswered about robodebt.
“We never got to hear how the scheme got to be conceived, designed,” Shorten said.
“It was unlawful, there was no legal power to do what they were doing, to take the humans out of the system, to rehearse the onus of proof.
“We never got to hear why did the government continue it for 4.5 years?
“The government has never satisfactorily explained how this monster scheme got away from the system and just had a life of its own.”
These are the key terms of reference for the inquiry:
The establishment, design and implementation of the scheme; who was responsible for it; why they considered Robodebt necessary; and, any concerns raised regarding the legality and fairness