‘No apologies’ for robodebt, no admission of ‘mistakes’ despite major retroactive change

By Stephen Easton

November 19, 2019

Picture: Getty Images

Minister for Human Services Stuart Robert says there will be “no apologies” from the federal government over how its much-maligned robodebt program has operated in the past, as his department scrambles to reverse a key element of the system that is widely seen as unfair and unreasonable.

Robert fronted the media on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the startling news that Centrelink would no longer calculate debts solely by comparing a person’s welfare payments to their total annual employment income, based on the unproven assumption that it was earned at a steady rate all year. The Department of Human Services will also go back and review past cases where it has done this.

The minister says this is nothing more than the latest “refinement” in a series of them, but it is widely seen as a back-down in the face of persistent legal challenges, including a class action launched earlier this year. He seemed more interested in playing down the significance of the change than explaining it.

Robert implied the retroactive nature of the change was all about “fairness and consistency” and not an admission of any past fault with the scheme. He repeatedly avoided the question of how much money the government would forgo, even on a rough estimate, and claimed it was only a “small cohort” of people who had been slapped with debts based on the income averaging assumption.

Read more: Robodebt ‘refinement’ or strategic back-down? Human Services reads the writing on the wall

“The Government makes no apologies for fulfilling our legal obligations to collect debts with income compliance and of course with wider debt collection.”

All along, one of the key legal challenges to robodebt has been that the onus of proof has been unjustly reversed, because DHS has taken the result of its income averaging process as fact and used it as the sole basis for debts, simply because the alleged debtor did not prove otherwise, by finding details of the exact weeks they were in paid employment.

“There is no change to the construct of the onus of proof,” said Robert.

“We will still reach out to Australians to say that income averaging indicates they may possibly have a debt, and we’ll use other proof points as well, and we will ask them to engage with the department to identify through bank statements or through pay slips or other means, that indeed, they don’t have a debt. So there will be no change in that regard.”

However, this is clearly a major change related directly to the onus of proof. The Community and Public Sector Union says DHS staff were informed that “even in cases where people do not respond to requests to explain discrepancies” the department will need the additional proof to raise a debt.

The government has spent years staunchly defending the system, including the income averaging element, against a long line of political opponents, lawyers, academics and advocates for robodebt recipients.

The minister said the automated aspects of the system would remain in place, while arguing it had never been fully robotic during his time as minister (which includes a brief period between September 2015 and February 2016).

“It’s always been humans. There’s no point at which I’ve been the minister that departmental staff have not been involved in the process of raising a debt.”

He did not accept “mistakes” had been made.

“It’s the most highly targeted welfare approach, literally, in the world, so we make no apologies and we do not stand back from ensuring the legal obligations, that the right people get the right money, and ipso facto, ensuring that people who have been overpaid, repay that debt.

“The key message for Australians is keep your income up to date online. Keep the department informed as to what income you earn, and that will completely and utterly minimise or nullify the chance of actually having a debt raised.”

Read more: Opposition-backed robodebt lawsuit must ‘break new ground’ in High Court to succeed

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