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‘Crude and cruel’: the Robodebt Royal Commission’s final report

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The head of the Robodebt Royal Commission has declared the scheme a "startling" failure, accusing officials of "dishonesty and collusion".
robodebt royal commission

The head of the Robodebt Royal Commission has declared the scheme a “startling” failure and accused officials of “dishonesty and collusion” to hide its illegality.

In her final report released today, Commissioner Catherine Holmes was scathing of the “cruel” scheme, which illegally collected over a billion dollars from welfare recipients.

Holmes recommended some individuals be investigated for criminal offences, but did not
reveal their names.

What was Robodebt?

Robodebt was a government debt collection system used for welfare recipients from 2015 until 2019.

The system checked recipients’ reported fortnightly income against the annual income they declared on their tax returns.

If this comparison suggested they had been overpaid, a debt notice was issued without human oversight.

This method was error-prone and illegal, resulting in over $1.7 billion in unlawful debt notices.

The Royal Commission:

The Royal Commission into Robodebt was announced by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese last year. A Royal Commission can interview witnesses, access official information and make recommendations.

The Commission heard the Department of Social Services received advice before Robodebt was set up that it was illegal.

It sought to understand why, despite this advice, Robodebt was used for several years. It interviewed dozens of public servants, consultants and politicians about their actions, including former prime ministers Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull.

Public service failure:

Commissioner Holmes identified numerous failures from senior public servants in the Department of Social Services and Services Australia (the body that runs Centrelink).

Public servants advise governments and help to implement policies, but are required to be politically neutral. Holmes concluded public servants involved in Robodebt went to “dismaying” lengths to help the Government, including by covering up suggestions that Robodebt was illegal.

She accused the public service of giving “little thought” to the impact of the scheme on welfare recipients, and recommended senior public servants be required to spend time delivering front-line services.

Political failure:

The Robodebt scheme was devised and suggested by public servants, not politicians.

However, Holmes blamed the Government for creating a “culture” where public servants felt pressured to come up with ways to save money and to “crack down” on welfare recipients.

She criticised politicians of all political persuasions for framing welfare recipients as “a burden” on taxpayers and called for an end to “anti-welfare rhetoric”.

Government ministers:

Holmes also criticised the actions of several Coalition ministers involved in overseeing the scheme, including Scott Morrison, Alan Tudge, Stuart Robert, Christian Porter and Michael Keenan. All five were either Minister for Human Services or Social Services, both portfolios with oversight of Robodebt.

Morrison was the Minister for Social Services when Robodebt began. Holmes said his persona as a “welfare cop” made public servants feel pressured to cut costs. She also found Morrison “failed to meet his ministerial responsibility” by not asking “obvious” questions about the scheme’s legality.

Tudge held both the Human Services and Social Services portfolios. Holmes accused him of a “reprehensible” media strategy to “counter-attack” against criticisms of the scheme, even after Holmes determined he knew of its failures and human consequences.

Holmes accused Porter and Robert of making misleading statements to the media about the scheme, and Keenan of failing to satisfy himself that Robodebt was legal. She concluded a sixth minister, Marise Payne, could not reasonably have been expected to know about the scheme’s legal concerns.

Human cost:

The report emphasised the human toll of the Robodebt scheme on the welfare recipients it targeted.

Holmes said the Robodebt Royal Commission had identified at least three deaths by suicide which appeared to result from debt notices but added she was “confident that these were not the only tragedies of the kind… What is certain is that the Scheme was responsible for heartbreak and harm”.

“It made many people feel like criminals,” Holmes said. “People were traumatised on the off-chance they might owe money.”

Criminal referrals:

Holmes also recommended the government refer several individuals to law enforcement to consider whether they should face criminal and civil charges.

These recommendations were contained in a ‘sealed’ chapter of the report. The Commission won’t publish it to avoid prejudicing any legal proceedings.

At a press conference today, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the Government didn’t know which individuals were the subject of referrals.

Listen to TDA’s podcast on the Robodebt Royal Commission here.

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