Senate debates

Tuesday, 1 December 2020


Pensions and Benefits

7:25 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Who is going to be held accountable for robodebt? Who is going to be held accountable for the harassment, for the hounding, for the stress, for the anxiety, for the lives derailed and for the lives destroyed? Because this is robodebt's legacy. It was a scheme that caused hurt and despair. It was a scheme that caused so much misery; some people even took their own lives. Despite this record of destruction and despair, no-one has been held responsible. And you just have to ask yourself exactly what you have to do in this government to get the sack?

The impact of robodebt is all too real for some Australians. Miranda from Melbourne was in hospital receiving treatment for advanced spinal cancer when she received a $4,000 robodebt. She was unemployed and applying for disability, but Centrelink took $40 a week from her payments. Nathan from Brisbane says he lost over two years of his life to the scheme. He was served with two robodebts, totalling more than $6,000. He had to move back home and work 50 hours a week to pay it back. He says:

"I feel like I got put back a couple of years in life because of this … I would be closer to where I want to be at 31 years old if it hadn't been for robodebt."

Dimity from Adelaide was handed a $4,500 robodebt, and she knew it was wrong, but Centrelink made her prove it. They wanted pay slips from years back, which she no longer had. She was bluntly told to either pay the debt or the debt collectors would come. Nathan sums up this scheme well when he says:

"I wanted to know why those ministers felt that it was appropriate to use this illegal system and to target the most vulnerable people …

He says he wants someone to ask them:

… 'Why did you think that it was OK to take money from the poorest people without giving them a chance to argue their case?'

Nathan's question is a good one. Just how on earth did this government think it was okay? And just how on earth did the government let it go on for so long?

In 2015, there was a risk assessment that raised alarm about unleashing this program without manual oversight, but no action was taken, because nothing was going to stop Scott Morrison from unleashing this revenue-raising scheme. By the end of 2016, they were handing out 20,000 debts a week. Shortly after, the complaints started flooding in—complaint after complaint of Australians being wrongly targeted by their own government. Between 2017 and 2019, the government continued with robodebt, even though they lost hundreds of appeals and received 76 warnings from the AAT. From their first warning that the scheme was illegal, it took 1,198 days to finally suspend the scheme. They then waited a further six months to announce refunds to victims. And now they continue to dodge responsibility and accountability, despite a record-breaking settlement of $1.2 billion. So why has no-one been held accountable for robodebt and the damage that it has caused? Could it be because the Prime Minister himself is responsible? He set it up. He bragged about it. He ignored the advice. He ignored the warnings. He ignored the pain, the distress, the anxiety. And he repaid over a billion dollars to victims. But he will never accept responsibility.

This government will never voluntarily give us the truth or give victims the truth about how this illegal scheme was allowed to go on for so long. The public want answers. They want a royal commission to uncover the truth—the truth that this government is trying to hide, the truth that Scott Morrison is trying to hide—that it was his program, that he is responsible and that the buck should stop with him.


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