The minister overseeing the federal government’s unlawful ‘Robodebt’ program claimed he “stood in and stopped it”, despite previously having rebuffed complaints.
Government Services Minister Stuart Robert has been accused of “post-truth politics” after seeking to absolve the Coalition of responsibility for the unlawful scheme, which led to a mammoth $1.23 billion refund and compensation settlement on Monday.
Mr Robert denied the Coalition was solely at fault in the income-matching debacle, claiming it was “a long standing practice” that had been used by Labor governments back to the 1980s.
This is correct, but the framework was automated, with human beings taken out of it, under Coalition changes to the scheme in 2016.
Critics of Robodebt say this change meant less human discretion on debts, and put the onus on welfare recipients to prove they didn’t owe a money.
The government suspended the Robodebt program late in 2019, after legal advice it could be unlawful.
“This government stopped it and subsequent court cases have shown that we’re right to stop and say more proof points will now be used to ensure that debts are raised properly,” Mr Robert said on Sky News on Tuesday.
“This is why we stopped the scheme in November last year, because we had concerns about the sufficiency of using this long-standing practice.”
But in July 2019, even after three years of ferocious opposition to the program and questions about its possible illegality, the government had actually flagged plans to expand the data-matching program by adding Medicare to services it would cross reference.
At the same time, Mr Robert defended the program, even as it emerged that one in five raised debts was later found to be incorrect.
“I guess it’s a type of a mutual obligation, people need to keep their affairs or their income assessments up to date,” he said in July 2019.
“If citizens just keep their income up to date, if there’s any questions contact the department, I think we can avoid many of these issues.”
On Tuesday, the minister tried to take credit for acting to suspend Robodebt.
“I had only been in the portfolio for a few months before I stood in and stopped it. As soon as I came to the conclusion that I believed that there were issues with the sufficiency of how averaged data was being use from the ATO absolutely I stood in and stopped it,” Mr Robert said.
The day he said he took action, November 19, 2019, was nearly four whole months after he became Government Services Minister on July 29 of that year.
Mr Robert had previously been minister in the same portfolio between September 2015 and February 2016, before the Robodebt system was adopted.
Labor’s shadow government services minister, Bill Shorten, accused Mr Robert of “telling lies about Robodebt”.
— Bill Shorten (@billshortenmp) November 17, 2020
Asked several times by Sky host Laura Jayes if he apologised, Mr Roberts declined to actually say “sorry”, instead noting that “the Prime Minister has already apologised on behalf of the nation’s Parliament. And I certainly join him in that apology”.
Mr Robert is a close ally of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
“I would apologise for any hurt or harm in the way that the government has dealt with that issue and to anyone else who has found themselves in those situations,” Mr Morrison said in Parliament in June.
“I would deeply regret any hardship that has been caused”.
Mr Robert also rebuffed any suggestion that Robodebt had been linked to suicide. That is despite multiple families claiming loved ones had ended their lives amid the stress of being levied huge debts.
“Suicide is a very difficult topic, and we need to handle it sensitively. So we reject the premise, the connectivity between suicide and Robodebt because it is complex, in terms of how we deal with those matters,” he said.
Post truth politics. https://t.co/xPQp4cDbmy
— Laura Jayes (@ljayes) November 16, 2020
After the Sky News interview, Jayes referred to British political comedy Yes Minister, describing Mr Robert’s responses as “breathtaking”.
“Post truth politics,” she tweeted.
Greens senator Rachel Siewert, who has railed against Robodebt for years, said the program had been linked to suicide.
“This program has literally cost people’s lives, ruined many, many more and caused so much pain and anguish,” she said on Monday.
“We still don’t know what the government knew and when, and they are still desperate to cover it up. Now the community needs to know how this all happened.”
Senator Siewert and Mr Shorten have both called for a royal commission into the program.
Mr Robert shrugged off those calls on Sky, saying there had been multiple parliamentary inquiries and legal cases.
“We need a royal commission because it’s very clear that the government is going to continue to keep trying to hide what has happened,” Senator Siewert said.
“A royal commission is the only way to get to the bottom of how this happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”