Today marks the end of what is surely one of the biggest cock ups in the history of Australian cock ups – and that’s a long list.
The Albanese government announced today that they would be wiping the outstanding ‘debts’ of nearly 200,000 people caught up in the Online Compliance Intervention scheme – commonly known as Robodebt.
The system was put in place in 2016 under the Coalition government as a means to scrap the manual calculation of overpayments and the sending of debt notices to people receiving Centrelink payments. Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison identified Centrelink repayments as an area for possible greater debt recovery when he was Minister for Social Services. He spearheaded the campaign for the programme to, in his words, “help crack down on welfare cheats.”
Basically, in order to fix many small cock ups, the government put an automated system in place to cock it up for them. That resulted in the wrongful issuing of nearly half a million debt notices to people who didn’t owe the government money. It’s cock ups all the way down.
The stress and anxiety this placed upon some of the least financially powerful people in the country was enormous, and the scheme has been linked to over 2,000 suicides. The government at the time vehemently denied this claim, although Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said in 2020 that “there were suicides as a result.”
It’s something that has become the focus of a Royal Commission into the scheme, which was deemed to be unlawful in 2017, which Albanese announced at the end of August.
The Commission will look into how the scheme was put together, who was responsible for overseeing it, and the outcomes of the scheme including the harm it caused to individuals. Morrison, alongside Coalition colleagues including Christian Porter, Marise Payne, Alan Tudge, and Stuart Roberts, could all be called to give testimony.
A final report on the scheme is due in April next year, and will advise on how similar errors can be prevented from happening again.
While the robotic oppression may be over, much of the damage cannot be fixed. Those who were targeted by the system report receiving daily phone calls asking for money they don’t have, with little human intervention into the misapplied debts.
The scheme itself required claimants to retain paperwork going back years, further than the ATO requires people to keep their own financial records. The onus of proof was put on these individuals to demonstrate that they did not owe the money being claimed, rather than the government to show that they did.
“It took roughly two months for me to ‘prove’ to Centrelink what was on face value an obvious error in data management,” one person affected by the scheme told VICE.
“Two months of stress, panic, anxiety, frustration, shame and a sense of deep injustice that I still feel.
“It’s ruined my trust in any government run by the people who put this obviously punitive and dangerously incompetent scheme together.”
Over five years, the programme illegally claimed almost $2 billion from 433,000 people, although some reports put the figure as high as 530,000. Of that, $751 million was paid back to the government wrongly by people on welfare.
Morrison apologised in 2020 for “any hurt or harm” the programme caused. This was after he had denied any responsibility for the programme, claiming “this is just the Labor party trying to throw some mud.”
Months prior to the apology, Kathryn Campbell, who oversaw the department responsible for Robodebt, said that she did “not accept that people have died over robodebt.”
“We have apologised for the hurt and harm but none of us can imagine what goes on in individuals’ lives,” she argued.
The government agreed to a settlement of $1.8 billion last year for people who were wrongly targeted, although around half of the repayments will be between $50 and $300 in compensation.
Before the announcement today, over 200,000 people were still being reviewed for unpaid debts. Those cases have now been closed and the debts wiped.
Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth said that it was unfair that people still had those debts looming over them and that the scheme was a “fiasco” and “something that should be of deep concern to all Australians”.
“It was meant to save money. However, we know it had a significant human cost,” she said.
The system however will linger long in the minds of those who have suffered under it, particularly those whose family members died by suicide because of it.
The scheme has been described as “Orwellian” by those who had first-hand experiences of it. David Digman, who was wrongly suspected of owing Centrelink $4,000 over four years, said that he is “not the same person” after the ordeal.
“I want the future to be better for people and I don’t want (a) big brother algorithm kicking people in the teeth anymore work, like robodebt did,” he said.