Royal Commission into Robodebt: Too Little, Too Late for Many Australians

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Blame shifting, vague responses and unreliable memories have characterised the Royal Commission into the Federal Government’s Robodebt scheme which operated between 2015 and 2019, illegally extorting $750 million from 380,000 social security recipients, leading several to take their own lives in desperation and despair.

Originally touted as a scheme that would crackdown on ‘welfare cheats’ at minimal cost to the taxpayer, problems with the scheme were evident to insiders from the very start. 

The issues came to the attention of the wider public between late December 2016 and early January 2017 – the period when families are meant to be celebrating their time together – when Centrelink began tweeting the contact number for a lifeline. 

Distress for hundreds of thousands of Australians 

By then, a number of concerns had been raised – and ignored – by the Federal Government over the scheme’s aggressive and unlawful debt collection tactics, as well as the way the system itself functioned, including the fact many people were essentially being accused of Centrelink fraud in relation to debts they didn’t even owe. 

By 2019, the Government could no longer ignore the issue and the broad acceptance that the scheme was illegal.   

For the families and loved ones of those who were impacted by the scheme’s relentless pursuit of debt notices, the Royal Commission is perhaps ‘too little too late’. 

Some might even argue that it’s an expensive way to put on the record the fact that no one so far wants to actually admit any wrongdoing, despite the fact that in November 2019 the Federal Court of Australia found the system to be unlawful. The Federal Government subsequently agreed to a $1.8 billion settlement claim in June 2020. 

Vague memories and vague responses 

Paul Menzies-McVey, who was acting chief counsel in the department of human services, became deputy – and then chief – counsel in the department of social services in 2019, gave evidence to the Royal Commission this week that despite knowing concerns about the potential  illegality of the system, he “didn’t turn his mind” to the significant consequences the scheme was having for recipients.

Earlier this month, former Attorney General Christian Porter told the Royal Commission that someone had assured him the Robodebt scheme was legal, and yet he could not recall exactly whom.

And this week, Alan Tudge – one of the Liberal Ministers who oversaw the Robodebt scheme resigned from politics altogether. He had earlier told the commission that he didn’t check the legality of the scheme, only days after his senior media adviser, Rachelle Miller, gave evidence to the Commission that he asked her to investigate and, where possible, devise a media strategy to discredit about 50 individuals who had gone to the media with complaints about debts. 

To say Robodebt is a blight on Australia’s history is aa gross understatement. Around 400,000 Australians were significantly impacted by Robodebt. 

The Government’s ignorance of it’s duty of public administration meant that many people were plunged into financial distress and depression – many committed suicide. Some figures suggest as many as 200 people committed suicide – although this is not a number that has ever been confirmed. 

Political spin

The question is, will the current Albanese Government actually implement reforms once the Royal Commission is over, or will the findings be shelved to the archives as something terrible that previous governments were responsible for, never to be looked at again?  

Because the thing is, Australian politicians – no matter which side of the divide they sit on – have a dangerous habit for doing just that. 

Alan Tudge delivered an emotional resignation speech, citing family and health reasons for quitting politics. He highlighted his love for social policy and his passion for education. 

Notably absent though, was any kind of apology for the Robodebt scheme and the pain it caused so many Australians during his watch. 

For many Australians this was just another example of a political culture that seems intent on ‘side-stepping’ important issues when there is an opportune moment to acknowledge them. 

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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