Robert defends robo-debt averaging as 'entirely appropriate'

Minister for Government Services dodges questioning on why his department folds before cases reach a court.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert continues to hold firm that the robo-debt data-matching project undertaken by the Department of Human Services cum Services Australia is proper, this time defending the method used to create debt notices.

"Using averaging as the basis to say to a citizen, 'There may be a debt, can you please engage with us?' is entirely appropriate," Robert said on Thursday at the National Press Club.

"And that process of using averaging -- using ATO tax receipts or end of the year assessments -- to say to Australians, 'There may be a problem, please engage with us' is absolutely appropriate and we have responsibility to do that."

Robert added that in almost 20% of cases, Australians are able to prove they do not owe the government money.

The Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) program, also known as robo-debt, compares the income declared to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) against income declared to Centrelink, resulting in debt notices, along with a 10% recovery fee.

One large error in the system was that it was incorrectly calculating 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.

Under questioning on Thursday from Guardian Australia, Robert dodged answering why his department settled complaints before they ever went to a court of law. 

In September, former Labor leader and now Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten said the government knows robo-debt is illegal, and hence the department wipes debts before court appearances.

"Clearly the government does not want the legality of their bureaucratic standover racket tested in court," Shorten said.

See also: Government to continue 'robo-debt' in the name of mutual responsibility

"Clearly they hope these last minute reprieves will help them convince the court that they have no case to answer and that the system corrects its errors."

Shorten said at the time that the legal foundations of robo-debt, such as its reverse onus of proof on those receiving a debt notice, was on shaky ground.

"Judged on their actions, the government feels the same way," he said.

"This strategy of deny, deny, deny -- and then fold at the last minute -- reveals that in their heart of hearts the government fears robo-debt is not just immoral but illegal."

Shorten has previously labelled robo-debt as having the same essential logic and ethics of a mob standover.

"Our social security legislation holds that something is a debt only if proven. But robo-debt victims are not given the courtesy of the detail. They are given the figure that an automated algorithm arrives at but not shown the 'working out'," Shorten said in September.

"Many are frightened into paying off debts that may be wrong or non-existent."

Last month, Services Australia claimed its robo-debt error rate was around 1%.

The claim was made by Service Australia general manager of integrity modernisation Jason McNamara during a Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee hearing.

"As a general rule, we find the error rate relates to data entry because when someone rings up, and they require assistance and they are essentially giving us the information over the phone, sometimes we will do a data entry [error] -- we will transpose numbers et cetera -- and that tends to be our major error," he said.

"But we still think that error rate is under 1% in this program."

See also: Human Services has now wiped over 31,000 'robo-debts'

When pushed by senators on whether the issuing of letters to welfare recipients and having it corrected by them was an error, McNamara was unmoved.

"We'd say that is the system doing its job," he said.

"We are essentially auditing somebody based on some third party information, and if we audit you and we find you have been paid the right amount -- that's a fantastic outcome. That's what we'd prefer -- it shows you have been paid the right amount and that you haven't been overpaid."

Similarly staunch on Thursday, Robert echoed prior comments that the government had a responsibility to run the program.

"We have an absolute responsibility including a legislative responsibility to collect debts, we have responsibility to ensure that people ... who receive a fortnightly payment, that payment is appropriate, and that the income that they are reporting to the Commonwealth is actually real and tangible," he said.

Robert in October last year was found to have spent 20 times more than other MPs on his home internet, clocking up more than AU$2,000 a month and blaming "connectivity issues" for the high costs.

Despite Services Australia having the power to seek out former employment records and bank statements to confirm debts, the department revealed in October it had done so only 1,000 times.

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