Federal parliament has vowed to never again allow a scheme like Robodebt to be repeated and has offered a formal apology to the victims of the illegal debt recovery scheme.
Government Services Minister Bill Shorten moved an apology motion in the House of Representatives on Thursday (11 August) that parliament accept the findings of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme and express its deep regret to victims.
“We believe the nation and the parliament cannot move on without accepting a genuine account of what went on,” Mr Shorten said.
“I say sorry to the victims and we want the parliament to say sorry to the victims and I say sorry to the frontline staff and we want the parliament to say sorry to them.”
The Minister said Australians wanted to hear parliamentarians take responsibility for the wrongs of Robodebt and the harm caused by the issuing of so many automated but false debts to vulnerable people.
“The nation and the parliament cannot move on without accepting a genuine account of what went wrong,” he said.
“Ceasing the scheme after four-and-a-half years is not enough. The royal commission is not enough.
“What Australians want to hear from the political class and from the people privileged to represent them is they want to hear a promise that it was wrong, not just unintended.”
While the motion passed 88 votes to 51, the Coalition did not support it because of its pointed criticism towards the former government.
The Opposition tried to amend the motion but failed along party lines.
Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer, however, crossed the floor to vote with the government in favour of the motion.
“The previous government was a government of law-breakers,” Mr Shorten said when speaking on his motion.
“Time to apologise to the victims. Time to apologise to the staff. Time to show real repentance for the illegality of your actions.”
Shadow Minister for Government Services Paul Fletcher said Mr Shorten was politicising the issue and the government was trying to score points with its motion.
He also suggested that parliament passing the motion might compromise the rights of anyone named in the sealed section of the Royal Commission’s report, who could be subject to future civil and criminal prosecutions.
Mr Fletcher apologised on behalf of the Coalition but said the Opposition could not support the motion as it stood.
“To those Australians, I simply say ‘we are sorry’,” he said.
“When the previous Coalition government became aware of the problems with the program, we cancelled the program.
“[Mr Shorten] is very interested in a political witch hunt targeting Coalition ministers.
“He is not at all interested in a measured consideration of the lessons for good public administration.
“It is, at its core, simply an exercise in political point scoring.”
On Tuesday (8 August), Greens MP Stephen Bates introduced a motion seeking to refer former prime minister Scott Morrison to the powerful Privileges Committee for ‘misleading the House’.
Mr Bates said Mr Morrison’s statement on indulgence last week defending himself and rejecting findings of the Royal Commission was a clear example of misleading parliament.
“Even after the full release of the report into the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme, the member for Cook has deliberately made assertions that are clearly false,” Mr Bates said.
“Given the evidence before the royal commission and the timing of the member for Cook’s statements after the release of the report, it appears clear that he not only deliberately made false statements but did so in order to mislead the House.”
Speaker of the House Milton Dick is considering the matter.
The Robodebt scheme was piloted in 2015 and fully rolled out between 2016 and 2019 by the Department of Human Services and its successor Services Australia, with more than 470,000 false debts issued.
It caused extensive grief and trauma and some recipients are reported to have taken their own lives over the debts.
It was officially scrapped in 2020, with the promise of paid debts being refunded in full.
It cost the Commonwealth $1.8 billion in settlement after the Federal Court ruled it a “massive failure in public administration”.
Following Labor’s federal election win last year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese wiped any debts still under review and established the Royal Commission.