The Australian Greens Party is calling for a Royal Commission into the federal government’s robo-debt disaster, following the admission it would be returning AU$721 million back to those in receipt of welfare due to an automation error.
The Greens said the Centrelink Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) initiative has caused enormous harm and trauma to a huge number of Australians and that it would “help bring justice to the victims of this illegal scheme and ensure that a program like this never sees the light of day again”.
“I can see no other way forward than through a Royal Commission ensuring a full, independent review of this program and a forensic audit of this mess,” Greens spokesperson and Family and Community Services Senator Rachel Siewert said in a statement on Tuesday.
She said a Royal Commission would ensure that every single debt, regardless of age, could be audited.
The government on Friday admitted it got around 470,000 “debts” issued under the OCI initiative wrong, and expects to refund an estimated AU$721 million back to Australians who paid the government money that they didn’t owe.
Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert did not apologise for the error when he made the announcement late Friday afternoon, and instead said the government has always taken its responsibility for income compliance and the welfare system “sensibly and appropriately and seriously”.
He said the government moved quickly to pause the program once it became aware that raising a debt wholly or partly on the basis of ATO average income was not sufficient under law. The government paused the automated data-matching element of robo-debt in November, nearly two years after testimony from individuals that the OCI system caused them feelings of anxiety, fear, and humiliation, and reportedly even resulted in suicide.
In 2016, the department kicked off the data-matching program of work that saw the automatic issuing of debt notices to those in receipt of welfare payments through the Centrelink scheme. The OCI program automatically compared the income declared to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) against income declared to Centrelink, which resulted in debt notices, along with a 10% recovery fee, being issued whenever a disparity in government data was detected.
One large error in the system was that it incorrectly calculated a recipient’s income, basing fortnightly pay on their annual salary rather than taking a cumulative 26-week snapshot of what an individual was paid.
Centrelink’s OCI program from 1 July 2016 through 31 August 2019 saw 1,159,662 assessments be initiated using the automated data-matching technique.
Speaking over the weekend, Australia’s Attorney-General Christian Porter — who was Social Services minister and in early 2017 said robo-debt was “actually working incredibly well” — explained the refunds would be issued only to debts from the official start of the OCI program, saying there’s a statute of limitation on pre-2015 debts.
“That system was also not a sufficient basis for raising debts, even before the automation,” he said.
“Well, we’re refunding everyone who has been part of the compliance system using income averaging, whether the debt was wholly raised or partly raised, even for those people who acknowledged the debt — we’re refunding — so it’s a clear and simple solution to a problem but we’re not going back that far.”
Siewert expects people who received debt notices pre-2015 will come forward.
“The government thinks they can get away with only refunding victims served notices after 2015,” she said. “This scheme traumatised many already vulnerable people in our community.
“The government has been heartless and cruel throughout this entire process and their failure to even consider apologising means we cannot trust them not to do it again.”
The ABC reported on Monday that the lawyers acting in a robo-debt class action said if the government apologised, it would not use that apology in its litigation.