14 March 2023

Royal commission's last day hears more harrowing victim testimony

| Chris Johnson
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Catherine Holmes AC SC

Robodebt royal commissioner Catherine Holmes AC SC. Image: Screenshot.

The Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme used part of its final day of witness testimony to hear from the mother of a young unemployed man who took his own life after receiving an automated debt recovery notice.

Jarrad Madgwick was just 22 with a lot going for him in 2019 when, while trying to obtain a Newstart allowance, received a Centrelink debt totalling just under $2000.

His mother, Kathleen Madgwick, told the royal commission on Friday that her son was visibly distressed over the notice and she couldn’t calm him.

Ms Madgwick said her son told her: “I’m not going to get paid because I owe them $2000.”
Jarrad then left the house and never returned.

“He was very distressed,” his mother told the inquiry.

“It was hard for me to settle him down and after that, things progressed.”
Jarrad took his own life later that night.

“The best thing about Jarrad was he was very unique in his closeness, we were very close …” Ms Madgwick said.

“People would always compliment me on his manners, and he would put his arm around me with no shame. He displayed his love for me quite openly.”

READ ALSO Legal opinion deliberately left out of ombudsman’s report into Robodebt, Royal Commission hears

After Jarrad’s death, his mother wrote to then prime minister Scott Morrison seeking answers and some clarity over the debt.

She also wrote to the government services minister at the time, Stuart Robert.

But there was no response from either.

“Not even a ‘sorry for your loss’,” Ms Madgwick said.

Clarity to some degree has come to Ms Madgwick because of the royal commission itself, she told the inquiry.

By following the hearings, she has been able to piece together how illegal the scheme was and how enthusiastically it was rolled out by the government to so many innocent and unsuspecting victims.

“I feel I’ll be able to finally get on and grieve for my son, without all this confusion in my mind,” she said.

The royal commission also heard from a former Centrelink social worker, Taren Preston, who said that in a single day she had dealt with 10 people who were openly contemplating suicide because of a Robodebt notice.

But she said there was little sympathy to be found for them in the Department of Human Service, with the comment “too bad, so sad” being bandied about a lot.

Robodebt was an automated debt assessment and recovery program employed by the DHS and its successor, Services Australia, for Centrelink compliance.

It was subsequently ruled unlawful by the Federal Court.

It claimed almost $2 billion from more than 470,000 illegally issued debt notices.

Following Labor’s election victory last year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese established the royal commission into the matter.

The royal commission has heard from more than 70 witnesses across 31 days of hearings, its last one being on Friday.

Witnesses have included Mr Morrison and Mr Robert, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and former ministers Christian Porter, Alan Tudge and Marise Payne, as well as senior bureaucrats responsible for the program, legal officers involved, staff tasked with administering the program, and some victims.

Commissioner Catherine Holmes must now report to the Federal Government by 30 June.

Lifeline Australia Crisis Support Line: 13 11 14

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Stephen Saunders11:35 am 13 Mar 23

This atrocity (don’t call it a tragedy) is a huge message for the Public Service Commission, and in particular, the way that executives with personality disorders can too easily promote their own kind. Which is why APSC will ignore it, unless the government directs them otherwise.

I think it also highlights the need for a clearer, more stringent, more independent “whistleblower” process.
How can you call out something you think is illegal that your boss is doing when your ONLY avenue is going to said boss?

Some years ago, I heard and saw a Secretary explain at a staff meeting how evil whistleblowing was and how people should follow the chain of command i.e. report to their supervisor(s). That culture is firmly embedded in the APs.

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