Senate debates

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Matters of Public Importance

Pensions and Benefits

4:57 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

It is disorderly; I accept that. But when blatant untruths are told about what the Labor Party was doing—we used human beings. We had human beings to help people repay debts that they owed. We did not automate the system, and we certainly did not average the system. There's always a bit of spin on that side, trying to blame us. This is their third term in government, six years, but they still hark back to blaming us.

This government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to admit what all other Australians knew: this system was flawed, unfair and absolutely rotten to the core. Labor does support legitimate action to recover payments to which recipients are not entitled. We've pointed out for years, though, that this automated system is poorly designed, has very limited human oversight, is targeting innocent people and, as we said, is almost certainly illegal. It's beyond belief that this government ever thought it was fair, reasonable or even legal to raise a debt through averaged income from six or seven years ago.

It wasn't fair to demand the recipients of these debt notices pay up at the same time as they were trying to dig up their old receipts or their old records to prove that they don't owe the money. It's quite amazing that the government could expect people to possibly have known that they would have had to keep pay slips that were six or seven years old. The recipients couldn't have known this, because, up until 8 January 2017, the Department of Human Services website recommended keeping pay slips for only six months, and now they're asking people to come up with pay slips from seven years ago. What a joke! After 8 January, the department changed their website to remove the 'six months' reference, but that doesn't make it fair for people. Because the advice on the website changed, it doesn't mean a robodebt notice recipient can simply fish seven years worth of old pay slips out of the rubbish bin.

Adding to the stress of the robodebt victims trying to prove their innocence are the usual struggles, of course, of trying to deal with Centrelink. You can't appeal your debt via the ever-diminishing number of face-to-face staff, which leaves you with the option of lodging an appeal online—although the website has been frequently offline—or trying to get through on one of Centrelink's congested phone lines. Some customers have told us that they've spent up to a year to try to get illegitimate debts reversed while they were also being pursued for those payments.

While the minister has admitted to an error rate of one in five, let's remember that many, many of the victims have simply given up because the process of fighting the debt is too exhausting. A number of victims have gone to all our offices seeking help and advice, but every person who has been helped by my office, by one of my parliamentary colleagues' offices or by a community legal centre or other advocate has found out that they do not owe a debt.

The department's own data released in February reveals that 2,000 people had died after receiving a robodebt notice, including more than 400 aged under 35. The terrible toll robodebt is having on the mental health of its victims is exacerbated by the government's decision to sell robodebt to debt collectors, so people were being harassed and having onerous requirements put on them.

The legal basis for the robodebt system is questionable at best and at worst non-existent, as Senator Siewert said. News on ABC at 3.41 pm said:

The Federal Government has suffered a significant setback in its automated debt recovery system, known as robodebt, with the Federal Court finding that the debt of a plaintiff was unlawful.

There we go: acting in unlawful behaviour. The deep flaws in the system have led one former member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, Terry Carney, to describe robodebt as 'extortion'.

Minister Porter, the Attorney-General, has admitted that the robodebt changes were made in light of a class action brought about by Gordon Legal. Every time a court case comes up, they've decided the debt doesn't exist. So this is what's happened. This demonstrates that the government was never confident about the legal basis of the scheme—a fact that is also apparent from the department secretary's failure to outline the legal basis for the scheme in the most recent round of Senate estimates.

What happens to existing victims of robodebt who paid illegitimate debts? How does the government decision impact the budget bottom line? These are some of the questions we need answers to. The victims of robodebt deserve an answer to the first question, and taxpayers deserve an answer to the second. But, so far, the government has refused to answer either. In regard to the first question, Minister Robert has said that changes to income averaging would affect only a 'small cohort' of income support recipients who've already received a debt notice. But DHS staff have been told 600,000 robodebts used income averaging and more than 220,000 of these may require refunds or waivers. That's hardly a 'small cohort', as the minister described it. So what is the actual number? We would like to know. What is the actual number? Is every victim of this flawed and unfair process going to be compensated? Given the government were relying on this scheme to make $2.1 billion in savings, how much debt will they have to pay back, and how will it affect the budget bottom line?

Paying back debts that Centrelink customers do not owe is not the only cost that the government is going to incur in the process of fixing this flawed system. We're also waiting for the government to outline how much it will cost to review customer files to ensure that everyone who has been subject to this extortion racket is repaid. How much will it cost them to change their systems and hire new staff for improved human oversight of the system going forward, as there should have been? It is time for the government to come clean on what this deeply flawed system is going to cost the Australian taxpayer. We already know of the devastating human impact of robodebt. Now let's hear what the impact on the budget is going to be. Minister Robert needs to front the House of Representatives and provide a statement outlining how many robodebt victims will need to have their debts refunded or waived. And the Treasurer, Minister Frydenberg, should also front the House and provide a statement outlining the cost of the government's changes to robodebt and an updated budget forecast which takes into account how these costs will affect the forward estimates. I also call on Senator Ruston and Senator Cormann to do the same in this place. Let's find out once and for all what this colossal policy failure and dysfunctional, unfair and illegal system has cost Australian taxpayers.

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