Labor echoes Greens' call for a Royal Commission into robo-debt

Labor is parading the idea of launching a Royal Commission into the Centrelink automated compliance scheme, following the Australian Greens' call for one three weeks ago.

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Image: Labor leader Anthony Albanese/ALP

The federal opposition has on Tuesday called for a Royal Commission into the government's robo-debt disaster, following its admission in late May that it would return AU$721 million back to those in receipt of welfare due to an automation error.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese tweeted his support for a Royal Commission, saying "It was wrong. It was illegal. It can never be allowed to happen again", with an accompanying image saying "It's time for a Royal Commission into robo-debt".

Speaking on Tuesday morning, Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten said a Royal Commission would "uncover what really happened".

"In a sentence, robo-debt was a computer-generated letter of demand sent to over half a million Australians where the government said, 'you owe us money' -- only one problem with that, over the last four-and-a-half years, it was illegal, it was unlawful," the former Labor leader said.

"If a bank sent half a million letters of demands to consumers which were illegal, we'd be up in arms.

"The government doesn't get a leave pass and [if] we can't get to the bottom of it in Parliament, citizens shouldn't have to take their government to court just to get the money back, we need a Royal Commission to get to the bottom of what caused real harm to people."

See also: Services Australia accused of 'covering up' robo-debt's automation mess

The Australian Greens Party already called for a Royal Commission three weeks ago, saying the Centrelink Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) initiative caused enormous harm and trauma to a huge number of Australians and that a Royal Commission would "help bring justice to the victims of this illegal scheme and ensure that a program like this never sees the light of day again".

"I can see no other way forward than through a Royal Commission ensuring a full, independent review of this program and a forensic audit of this mess," Greens spokesperson and Family and Community Services Senator Rachel Siewert said in a statement earlier this month.

Siewert's call was shut down by the Coalition and the ALP.

"It took many years for Labor to join the Greens calls for a RC into the abuse of disabled people as well into the banking sector. I'm sure eventually they will join in this pathway to justice too," the Senator tweeted earlier this month.

The call from the Greens came a few days after the government admitted it got around 470,000 "debts" issued under the OCI initiative wrong, and that it expected an estimated AU$721 million would be refunded back to Australians who had paid money to government that they didn't owe.

In 2016, the department kicked off the data-matching program of work that saw the automatic issuing of debt notices to those in receipt of welfare payments through the Centrelink scheme. The OCI program automatically compared the income declared to the Australian Taxation Office against income declared to Centrelink, which resulted in debt notices, along with a 10% recovery fee, being issued whenever a disparity in government data was detected.

One large error in the system was that it incorrectly calculated a recipient's income, basing fortnightly pay on their annual salary rather than taking a cumulative 26-week snapshot of what an individual was paid.

Centrelink's OCI program, from 1 July 2016 through 31 August 2019, saw 1,159,662 assessments be initiated using the automated data-matching technique.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison somewhat apologised for robo-debt in response to a story on a specific case shared by Shorten during question time a few weeks ago.

"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," Morrison said.

Labor had demanded the government extend a proper apology to those affected by the scheme.

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