Robodebt Royal Commission to Investigate Unlawful Collection of Debts from Hundreds of Thousands of Australians

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The new federal government has officially called a royal commission into the former government’s illegal debt collection scheme known as “Robodebt”.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has unveiled the terms of reference and the commissioner who will oversee the investigation.

Former Queensland Supreme Court Justice Catherine Holmes will lead the commission, with the final report due April 18, 2023.

The 2015 Robodebt scheme used an algorithm to determine whether Centrelink recipients had been overpaid, but illegally claimed nearly $2 billion in payments from 433,000 people.

A total of $751 million was wrongfully recovered from 381,000 people.

A $1.8 billion settlement was ordered last year for those wrongfully sued and government ministers have been lambasted by Federal Court Judge Bernard Murphy for the “massive failure”.

Electoral commitment

Labor has pledged to establish the Royal Commission on the Public Debt during the federal election.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese called the project a “human tragedy”.

“The royal commission will examine the establishment of the scheme, who was responsible for it and why it was needed, how concerns were addressed, how the scheme affected individuals and the financial costs to government, and measures to prevent it won’t happen again,” he said.

“People have lost their lives [and] every MP can tell stories like this.”

Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth said there were questions about why there had been no action when complaints were made.

“We know that until 2016 there were concerns from members of the public that these debts weren’t right,” she said.

“These were real flags that the government should have listened to.”

Government Services Minister Bill Shorten says the assumption that the Federal Court dealt with all issues related to the scheme was wrong.(ABC News: Harriet Tatham)

Government Services Minister Bill Shorten said Australians had never heard how the scheme could be designed.

“The [former] the government has never satisfactorily explained how this monstrous scheme escaped the system and had a life of its own,” he said.

Scott Morrison, who was social services minister when the scheme was created, said the problem was solved by his government when it was scrapped in 2020.

Labor said there were still questions about who was responsible for the scheme’s failure and what they knew.

The federal government said the full toll of the scheme had not been considered, including numerous allegations of suicides linked to the illegal scheme.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton questioned the motivation for the inquiry.

“It’s nothing more than a ‘political deal with Scott Morrison,'” he said.

“[They’re] look in the rearview mirror rather than in front.

“He should focus on families and less on how he can come together.”

‘A long time to come’: Class action plaintiffs celebrate announcement

Felicity de Somerville was a plaintiff in the Robodebt class action after withdrawing $11,500 from her account to pay off a debt.

Ms de Somerville, who got the money back but did not clear her debt, said she was delighted with the announcement.

“It’s an incredible step forward for our country,” she said.

“The Australian public wants to know how this happened.

“Why did they stop thinking about people and start thinking about money.

“You sit on this debt for a long time which then affects your relationship, the other decisions you make financially and personally.”

A woman wearing a purple top, standing in her garden, smiles at the camera.
Felicity de Somerville was a plaintiff in the Robodebt class action.(ABC News: Simon Tucci)

Ms de Somerville said the royal commission would help restore her faith in the system.

“If I ever became unemployed I wouldn’t access Centrelink and would rather live in my car,” she said.

“The royal commission is going to bring about real change in our human services sector.”


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