SPEECH: Robodebt impacts 4000 Novocastrians

04 September 2023


CLAYDON(Newcastle—Deputy Speaker) (11:11): I rise to speak on this private member's motion, put forward by my friend and colleague the member for Jagajaga, and I want to thank her for bringing this important motion to the House. This motion acknowledges the release of the report of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme. The robodebt scheme was found to be unlawful by the Federal Court in late 2019 and caused untold harm to vulnerable members of the Australian community. The royal commission into robodebt was an election commitment of the Albanese Labor government. Across 46 days of public hearings, the royal commission heard from more than 100 witnesses in what was utterly heartbreaking and disturbing evidence. Between July 2015, when the robodebt was ticked off by the then cabinet, and November 2019, when it was finally paused, approximately 435,000 Australians who relied on the social safety net were targeted by their very own government. In Newcastle, more than 4,000 customers were impacted by robodebt. They included registered nurse Paul Collins, who says his dealings with Centrelink during the robodebt scandal left him distrustful of government and mentally scarred.

Mr Collins was just one of the dozens and dozens of constituents who called my office for support, having been targeted by their own government in a cruel, unlawful scheme for money they did not owe and left powerless with no means of fighting back. Mr Collins was forced to go on sickness benefits for 16 weeks after breaking his wrist in 2012. He said he had told Centrelink as soon as he no longer needed the benefits, only to be hounded for weeks by the agency for a $5,500 debt he did not owe. Mr Collins said he was reduced to tears during one of the dozen or so phone calls he received from Centrelink demanding money and threatening to garnish his tax returns. He said:

"Even though I knew I'd done nothing wrong, it was just destroying me mentally.

"The way I was treated as a cheat and somebody who was trying to get money out of the government, for no valid reason, really hurt my core values and, you know, I do feel damaged by it still to this day."

Indeed, this scheme was counter to the core values of Australians and our belief in a fair and egalitarian society—a society that supports those when they require assistance and does so willingly, adequately and with respect. As the Prime Minister has stated, the robodebt scheme was a gross betrayal and a human tragedy. It was wrong. It was illegal. It should never have happened, and it should never happen again. The robodebt royal commissioner, Catherine Holmes, said:

Robodebt was a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal, and it made many people feel like criminals.

…   …   …

The ill-effects of the Scheme were varied, extensive, devastating and continuing.

The commissioner found former Minister for Social Services, the member for Cook, had failed to meet his ministerial responsibility and had allowed cabinet to be misled about whether legislation was required to raise debts through a method known as income averaging. Instead, the former coalition cabinet—of which the current Leader of the Opposition, the member for Dickson, was a member—ticked off on the major decisions in relation to the scheme. After we announced the royal commission, the Leader of the Opposition had the gall to call it 'nothing but a political witch-hunt'. This blatant disrespect for the victims of the scheme and the devastating impact it continues to have on their lives is truly appalling.

I commend the courage, leadership and bravery of victims, families, advocates and whistleblowers who continue to raise concerns about the robodebt scheme. I commend the people of Newcastle for telling their stories—they had done nothing wrong and were hounded by their own government. While the royal commission has gone some way to bringing a voice, visibility and some justice to those impacted, we know that for others it is too late. This should never have happened, and it should never happen again. That is now the work of the Albanese Labor government. That's the job left and tasked to us—to make sure the Australian people know we will do everything we can to ensure this massive betrayal of the public never happens again.