A bigger picture of the fallout from the 2016-implemented ‘Robodebt’ scheme continues to emerge and the royal commission has invited further submissions by Friday, 3 February 2023.
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The collated overview thus far has included a variety of personal case studies, including mortgage holder — Ricky Aik from rural Victoria — who outlined the stress and struggles experienced before his Robodebt was overturned.
To date, the commission has received 641 submissions and “every submission assists [it] in fully understanding the impacts of Robodebt,” it confirmed.
“We can also receive submissions via video or audio recording,” it added.
The commission’s most recent ‘Hearing Block 3’ held in Brisbane further investigated the “fairness, legality and policy considerations” of the Robodebt scheme in the face of “increasing criticism and scrutiny” including in the media, by the AAT, the online forum #NotMyDebt, and the Ombudsman, it explained.
The hearing block considered the enforcement measures where alleged debts were not paid, the government’s continuing defence of the scheme, and the impact on individuals, it highlighted.
It also covered the “growing criticism” of the scheme after its implementation, both internally within government agencies and from external groups and individuals and the range of responses from the Department of Human Services and relevant ministers to criticism of the scheme.
Decisions of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) on matters pertaining to Robodebt, plus the “ongoing defence” of the legality of the scheme in the face of such criticism, adverse AAT decisions, and a contrary external legal advice in 2019 were investigated.
Focus continued on the use of media by ministers and government departments; attempts by the legal profession to bring proceedings in the Federal Court (challenging the legality of the scheme); and measures taken or considered where alleged debts were not paid including attempts at criminal prosecutions, departure prohibition orders, and garnishee notices.
‘Reverse onus’ on giving evidence
One case study participant giving evidence was mortgage holder Mr Aik, who is from rural Victoria and received a Newstart allowance. In 2018, he was issued with a Robodebt notice in the amount of $5,254.53 relating to the period 2014–16.
Ultimately, his debt was reduced to nil as it was based on income averaging.
The commission heard how he was on “very minimal income” at the time he didn’t have work.
“I had a mortgage at the time. I had medical expenses, as I had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis,” Mr Aik explained.
“Council rates, fuel for the generator, gas bottles ... so I was pretty much struggling just to stay afloat.”
Mr Aik then delineated his experience of: long periods on the phone to Centrelink; being chased for payslips as evidence to match his declared earnings; bank statements costing $2 per page for 50 pages or more; stress from dealing with debt collectors; and ultimately following advice from social media website #NotMyDebt when fraught - which advised him to seek a hold on repayments until supporting evidence of his debt could be shown to him.
Asked about his reaction to the debt collection letters, Mr Aik replied: “I was angry, upset. More to the fact … what would be done if I didn’t pay them the money.
“I thought that I would probably have money taken out of my account or my tax return taken, which I relied on. Possibly my wages garnished."
Mr Aik said he was very worried that they would “come around and start taking stuff” or “start proceedings to take my house away or something like that.”
The #NotMyDebt Facebook page “administrator” had “explained that Centrelink were putting ‘reverse onus’ on people to supply information to prove there was a debt rather than Centrelink proving the debt to us,” he stated.
Blame for Robodebt shame
Last November, Bill Shorten MP highlighted the controversial Robodebt scheme’s “true extent” of shame.
At the end of the first session of the royal commission (RC) into the shortcomings of the online compliance intervention scheme, Mr Shorten described it as having been “illegal” and “unethical”.
In a written statement issued on 9 November, the federal member explained: “Lives were ruined, some families are adamant they lost loved ones in the aftermath.
“It was a tragic moment in Australian government public service history.
“Menacing debt demands from the government can create massive pressure on vulnerable people.”
[Related: Royal commission announced into Robodebt]