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Politics Editorial

Porter, Tudge, Robert and Morrison's shameless Robodebt record

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Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons

Independent Australia has reported on the unconscionable Robodebt fiasco from the outset and its toll continues to mount, despite the recent class action.

The Robodebt debt recovery plan, which had already been found to be unlawful, has also cost the Federal Government (and the country) dearly.

As the Robodebt class action result announced yesterday by Gordon Legal indicated, pending court approval, the Morrison Government will:

  • pay $112 million in compensation to (approximately) 400,000 people;
  • repay $720 million in debts already collected; and
  • no longer pursue $398 million in further debts.

With an estimated total outlay of $1.23 billion, there is no doubt the class action achieved a landmark result. However, what is particularly shocking about the case is that there had to be a class action at all and that it had to get to the 11th hour before a settlement was reached.

As former Victorian Chief Crown Prosecutor Gavin Silbert wrote in IA, the government of the day is supposed to be a model litigant:

‘Given that robodebt was designed to threaten people into providing documents required to establish a debt, the process was clearly in breach of the Commonwealth’s obligations to act as a model litigant, which lies at the root of our democracy.'

Instead, this Coalition Government unlawfully forged ahead with a defective system, persisting with collection methods resembling the shonkiest of financeers.

Debt collection methods employed by this Government against some of its most vulnerable citizens included:

  • harassment of people at their places of work; 
  • passport confiscation; 
  • sheriffs appearing at homes of victims to repossess belongings; and
  • threats of gaol time for upaid debts.

The only thing missing from the recovery process, it appears, was a thug wielding an iron bar. 

And these bullying methods were employed even after it was revealed that hundreds of thousands of these so-called "debts" were grossly exaggerated, and in many cases, completely fictitious.

Indeed, far from being a model litigant, the Coalition Government – led in these witch hunts at different times by social services ministers Christian Porter, Alan Tudge and Stuart Robert – refused to take any responsibility, did not even admit the possibility of error and made no attempt to prove its case — instead, placing the onus of proof on the wrongly accused victims.

So much for "innocent until proven guilty".

It is fair to say this Government relished the demeaning recovery process it had set in place; despite being aware that many debts being chased were never owed.

It is also reasonable to assume that there would have been no settlement, no half-hearted expression of any mistake being made (such as it was) from Morrison and that Robodebt would still be pummelling along through innocent people’s lives, causing irreparable destruction, today.

Yet, there has been no real show of remorse from the PM or the three responsible ministers — only a settlement, which can best be described as an unavoidable retreat.

Former Social Servies Minister now Attorney-General Christian Porter has remained largely mute, throughout,  saying only he could not apologise

 '...because of ongoing litigation over the scheme'.

Former Social Services Minister Tudge, currently embroiled in several other scandals, back in 2017 when Robodebt was already found to be deeply flawed, happily offered the following "reassurance":

"We'll find you, we'll track you down and you will have to repay those debts and you may end up in prison."

Current minister for social services Stuart Robert, also already has a considerable rap sheet when it comes to questionable dealings and allegations of corruption.

As we reported earlier, Robert apologised back in July

'for trying to take $7,000 from a dead person (in one known instance). But instead of acknowledging there may be problems with Centrelink’s debt recovery system, he said only that he understood why people might be angry about receiving possibly fictitious debts.'

And his response to the class action outcome? Well, far from the shame and remorse that might be expected from a minister who discovered that the scheme he oversaw, which caused the destruction of countless lives, was unfounded, Robert has actually decided to take credit for its discontinuation.

No mention of his active part in its execution, so aptly described by Gavin Silbert QC here:

'Centrelink and its Minister, Stuart Robert, steadfastly continued to defend the indefensible, producing a tsunami of suffering and misery including suicides, depression and marriage breakdowns without a skerrick of compassion and made worse where those affected were current welfare recipients.’

Never mind that he ignored all warnings, refused to consider the plight of thousands of victims and continued on with the destruction, spruiking its merits at every opportunity and offering the following answer to angry victims who had received fictitious debts:

  “I certainly understand that and I always encourage people, if in doubt, contact the Department.”

Morrison – who, it needs to be remembered, established the scheme – was pleased with himself and Robodebt, calling it "a more targeted approach to managing people". He also fervently encouraged its methods, proudly announcing Robodebt's "faster and more targeted interventions... [through] streamlining existing compliance activities".

This is what passed as an "apology" from the PM:

"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...The business of raising and recovering debts on behalf of taxpayers is a difficult job. ... Of course I would deeply regret any hardship that has been caused to people in the conduct of that activity."

Even apart from the fact that as Prime Minister he is ultimately responsible, since he was also the Minister for Social Services when Robodebt was instigated, the blame lies squarely with Morrison.

There have been ample opportunities to discontinue the scheme. There have been hundreds of thousands of opportunities provided by victims' stories of anguish to survey the damaged caused. And there have been four years since its inception, in which this Government could have shown true responsibility and remorse, well before victims were forced into costly litigation.

If only the Government spent as much time investigating corruption within its own ministry as it did chasing down fictitious debts from innocent citizens. 

Only a royal commission could uncover the extent of damage caused by this scheme and ensure that it is not repeated.

Since the $1.2 billion it has cost so far, will need to be paid by taxpayers, we can only speculate as to the methods that may be employed to recover this cost by the Morrison Government, which has shown itself to be the archetypal non-model litigant.

This editorial was originally published as part of the Independent Australia weekly newsletter. These editorials are usually only available to subscribers and may be read online in the IA members-only area.

You can follow managing editor Michelle Pini ;on Twitter @VMP9. Follow Independent Australia on Twitter @independentaus and on Facebook HERE.

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