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The Robodebt royal commission will tell us who's to blame, but that's just the start

  • Written by Peter Whiteford, Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

Today will be a moment of truth for hundreds of thousands of Australians and for what the federal court has condemned as a “shameful chapter[1]” in Australian public administration.

This morning, the Governor-General will be presented with the final report of the royal commission[2] into the automated debt-recovery system known as Robodebt.

Announced in the lead-up to the 2016 federal election by the then treasurer, Scott Morrison, and then social security minister Christian Porter, the scheme promised to save the budget $2 billion with smarter use of technology[3] to “better manage our social welfare system and ensure that every dollar goes to those who need it most”.

Instead, the court found the Commonwealth simply asserted that some 433,000[4] Australian benefit recipients owed it back money – calculations it later admitted “did not have a proper legal basis”.

Unlawful, yet it happened

What Robodebt did was assume that people receiving benefits while earning income received stable income over a whole year, allowing it to average an entire year’s income to estimate how much they earned per fortnight.

A report I prepared for the royal commission, using data provided by the department of social services, found that in reality very few[5] benefit recipients who received income did so at a steady rate.

More than 93% of those with earnings while on youth payments did so unevenly, as did 95% of those receiving income while on Newstart or Austudy, and 90% of those receiving income while getting parenting payments.

Robodebt was unlawful both because the Social Security Act requires payments to be calculated on the basis of the income received[6] in the fortnight for which the payment was made, and because it reversed the onus of proof[7], effectively requiring people to prove they didn’t owe what it said they owed.

Looking beyond who’s to blame

Today’s report will rightly prompt lots of discussion about who was to blame, as well as the impact of the scheme on people made to repay money[8] they did not owe and those who administered it[9].

But we must also look at how we repair the systems that allowed it to happen.

I have argued elsewhere that while the decisions leading to Robodebt were made by individuals, they were also made within a layered context of precedents, established processes, and social, economic, and political environments.

The most important aspects of this deeper political environment included

  • the strong commitment of political parties to reduce budget deficits

  • the formal and informal budgetary rules about spending and savings

  • the size of social security and welfare (around 35% of Commonwealth spending)

  • the highly targeted nature of the social security system

  • and political and popular judgements about social security recipients and their “deservingness”.

This encouraged the government to present a scheme intended to cut the budget deficit as one that would ensure integrity in the social security system, using – as it turned out - very imperfect methods of matching data.

Read more: Why robodebt's use of 'income averaging' lacked basic common sense[10]

What was pushed aside was that the Social Security Act is intended to be beneficial legislation[11]. It’s supposed to ensure support is provided to people during periods of reduced income due to job loss, family breakdown, illness or disability, or when caring for others or retired from work or when studying[12].

Providing that support when needed made it a powerful instrument for stabilising the economy and society and reducing inequality.

Robodebt undermined trust in that system. It will need to be rebuilt.

Identifying the reforms to public administration and political practice that are needed will be the most important things to look for in the report.

We have to make sure Robodebt can’t happen again.

Read more: ‘The culmination of years of suffering’: what can we expect from the robodebt royal commission’s final report?[13]

Authors: Peter Whiteford, Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

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