Victoria Legal Aid

Lessons to be learned from failed robodebt scheme

A royal commission is an opportunity for policymakers to learn from past mistakes and ensure the harms committed are never repeated.

Thursday 25 August 2022 8:54am

We welcome further scrutiny of the failed robodebt scheme, with the Australian Government today announcing a royal commission into the automated debt collection system.

We consider this an opportunity for policymakers to learn from past mistakes and make sure that the harm done to some of the most marginalised members of our community isn't repeated.

The royal commission, led by former Chief Justice of the Queensland Supreme Court Catherine Holmes, will examine how robodebt was established, how concerns were handled, the use of third-party debt collectors and its impact on individuals.

The final report is due to the governor-general by 18 April 2023.

Rowan McRae, Executive Director, Civil Justice, Access and Equity, said questions remain unanswered around the scheme, which unlawfully claimed around $1 billion from almost 400,000 people.

‘We’re pleased to see additional scrutiny of the failed robodebt scheme, which caused such an incredible amount of harm to some of the most marginalised people in our community,’ said Rowan.

‘We would welcome an acknowledgement of that harm and distress, as well an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past.’

‘Important questions need to be answered about how this scheme was introduced in the first place and how it was able to continue for so long despite numerous warnings from social security users, community organisations and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.’

From 2016, we received thousands of calls from people who received robodebt letters and we ran two important legal challenges that contributed to the broader national campaign that led to the dismantling of the scheme.

Our client, Madeleine Masterton, was the first person in Australia to challenge her robodebt in the Federal Court, and it was the case of our second client, Deanna Amato, that established for the first time that the robodebt scheme was in fact, unlawful.

We worked closely with individuals, advocates and community organisations who drew attention to a system that was inaccurate, unfair and unlawful.

We look forward to contributing to the royal commission, sharing the experiences of our clients and ideas on how people can be provided effective rights to help build a stronger and fairer social security system.

We told the Senate inquiry into robodebt last year that there were three essential elements to reform.

  1. Future changes to the social security system should be designed and discussed with service users and stakeholders. The complexity and confusion of the robodebt processes and the lack of respect afforded to recipients could and should have been avoided. Embedding practices of consultation and co-design is important for rebuilding trust and confidence in how Centrelink engages with and treats people who rely on its services.
  2. When people exercise their rights to have Centrelink’s decisions reviewed, the subsequent decisions of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal should be heeded and necessary changes flowing from these decisions should be implemented. As early as 2017, the Tribunal found that robodebt was unlawful, but no changes were made to policies and procedures in response to these decisions. If the government had responded to Tribunal decisions earlier and implemented changes, it could have prevented significant hardship for hundreds of thousands of people who were affected by robodebt after 2017.
  3. A renewed commitment to transparency and effective oversight in government policy design and implementation. This includes requirements for clear, publicly available policies that guide decisions, engagement with stakeholders and the legal assistance sector around implementation, accessible communication explaining debt calculations and decisions, prompt responses to freedom of information requests, and effective mechanisms for reviewing government programs and processes. These safeguards would have helped avoid the extent and duration of the failures of robodebt.

The royal commission presents an opportunity to make sure the Australian government and policymakers learn from the mistakes of robodebt and commit to real and lasting change in the way our social safety net works.

Media enquiries

For media enquiries, please contact Senior Communications Advisor Crys Ja on 0457 483 780, or (03) 9280 3858.

More information

An in-depth look at our robodebt test case

Deanna Amato's case - an explainer

Reviewed 25 August 2022