Robo-debt class action to continue despite Morrison's lacklustre apology

Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten is keeping pressure on the federal government, asking for a proper apology and the promise that it won't launch 'robo-debt 2.0'.

After the Australian government admitted last month that its bungled robo-debt scheme incorrectly issued 470,000 debts to those in receipt of welfare, Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday apologised, kind of, in response to a story on a specific case shared by former Opposition Leader Bill Shorten during Question Time.

"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.

The automation error due to the Centrelink Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) program, also known as robo-debt, will see the government hand back at least AU$721 million.

When the announcement was first made by Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert, he did not apologise for the error. Instead, Robert said the government has always taken its responsibility for income compliance and the welfare system "sensibly and appropriately and seriously".

Shorten and his party at the time demanded the government extend a proper apology to those affected by the scheme.

On Friday, Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus labelled Morrison's words as a "qualified and partial apology for what was a shocking abuse of government power".

"Morrison has never taken responsibility for it and yet, he started this when he was Social Services Minister, went on with it, and expanded it when he was Treasurer, and owned it as Prime Minister. I find it extraordinary that the best he can do is express, in this partial way, regret for a particular case," Dreyfus said.

"That's the kind of apology you give when you're saying, 'I'm sorry, IF I caused hurt'."

On a handful of occasions, Robert said the government moved quickly to pause the program once it became aware that raising a debt wholly or partly on the basis of ATO average income was not sufficient under law.

But the government only paused the automated data-matching element of robo-debt in November, nearly two years after testimony from individuals that the OCI system caused them feelings of anxiety, fear, and humiliation, and reportedly even resulted in suicide.  

Dreyfus said the "scandalous scheme" caused immense harm to hundreds of thousands of Australians and that it quite probably caused some Australians to take their lives.

"It caused misery," he said.

"It disrupted people's lives. All of that is clear. Why can't this Prime Minister simply say, 'I am sorry, we got this wrong'? Because it is absolutely clear that they got this message wrong."

Dreyfus accused the government of trying to hide and pretend it didn't know it was illegal.

"They knew it was illegal because the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, a government agency, told them that it was illegal as long ago as March 2017. There's a suggestion that there were dozens and dozens of decisions of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to exactly that effect. We know of about five at the moment, because they've become public," Dreyfus added.

"So in 2017, the government knows it's illegal, but it goes on and on and on. It's going to cost Australians more than a billion dollars to fix this up."

Also speaking on Friday, Shorten said if Morrison was truly sorry, he'd make a proper apology.

"If he was truly sorry, Mr Morrison will pledge not to reboot robo-debt, not to try and revive robo-debt 2.0," he added. "Repay the money, don't reboot robo-debt.

"As important as the apology was yesterday, if it's a fair dinkum apology, if it's a walk-the-walk apology, Mr Morrison will not reboot robo-debt another way and Mr Morrison will repay the money which his government has unlawfully robbed from Australian people, vulnerable people, and pay it back straight away, not next year, not some point in the future … pay it back now."

Addressing if his party would use income averaging if it were to assume power, Shorten said there was "no way" Labor would be asking people to pay debts to the Commonwealth without obeying the law.

"We will use the law as our guide, we won't use some made up concocted illegal scheme like the government has done," he said. "The way they've done it is clearly unlawful.

"This is a massive scandal."

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said if Labor were to win the next election, he would dump robo-debt.

"Completely. It's completely unacceptable," he said.

"One of the things that we'll do is we'll put humans back into Human Services. This has happened because of automation, because people press a button and forget about the fact that there are real human beings.

"The way it used to happen was that it would be examined by an actual human being based upon the actual circumstances and dealt with properly, not just sending out the bills and scaring literally the life out of some people. There are tragedies arising from this plan that was brought in by Scott Morrison when he was the Treasurer."

Shorten said the class action would still continue, despite the lacklustre apology.

On Thursday, reports emerged on Twitter from customers of Centrelink saying they were up against an error message on the government's myGov online portal and Express Plus mobile app when attempting to report their income.

In response to many tweets, Services Australia said it was "aware of the issue and are urgently investigating" and asked people to try again online a bit later.

Shorten used the opportunity to highlight the shortcomings of the federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, Robert held a press conference after thousands were unable to access the government's myGov online portal to sign up for income assistance due to businesses being forced to close in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

Rather than admitting to a capacity problem, either on the networking side or on the human side since its shopfronts are staffed at lower levels due to social separation edicts, or saying there was an underestimation of how many people would be seeking to interact with Centrelink, Robert decided instead to head straight into the realm of cyber incidents.

During the press conference, Robert said the portal suffered a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack while simultaneously blaming the outage on legitimate traffic that pushed past the 55,000 concurrent users limit the government had set.

Those words were barely two hours old when Robert stood up in Parliament and said it was merely 95,000 people trying to connect to myGov that triggered a DDoS alert, and not an attack at all.

After previously calling it a "cock up", Shorten on Thursday said Robert failed to bolster Services Australia to support Australians through the crisis and respond to a foreseeable surge in use.

"Mr Robert initially blamed the myGov website crash on the phantom menace of invisible hackers. He later recanted saying 'my bad' and that it was his own lack of preparedness that was the cause," Shorten said. "New Services Australia figures obtained by Labor in the Senate reveal just how bad that 'my bad' was."
 
In the fortnight from 23 March 2020, Shorten said there were 6.5 million busy signals, 2 million congestion messages, 1.5 million unanswered calls, and an average call wait time of over 40 minutes. 

"Capacity in this area was not sufficiently ramped up to meet the needs of Australians until four weeks after the initial hit to unemployment," he said. "Desperate Australians who did not know where their next pay was coming from deserved better."

ZDNet has reached out to Services Australia for comment on Thursday's outage.

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