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Robo-debt Royal Commission, eSafety capabilities and anti-trolling laws on the Australian election agenda

The Opposition has come out vowing that it will establish a Royal Commission into robo-debt by the end of the year, while the government is offering boosted eSafety capabilities and legislating the lapsed anti-trolling Bill.
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Investing over AU$33 million to enhance eSafety capabilities and legislating the proposed anti-trolling laws are just some of the policies the Coalition government has pledged to follow up if it is re-elected at the upcoming federal election on May 21.

Specifically, the policy includes AU$23 million to raise awareness of the eSafety Commissioner's support for Australian schools, provide training programs for teachers, improve online safety resources for schools, and enhance support for schools with external online safety providers.

It also includes an additional AU$10 million for the eSafety Commission to further expand coordination with other regulatory and law enforcement agencies, ensuring victims "tell-us-once" and are supported with the right service.

Additionally, the Morrison government said it will continue to stick with legislating proposed anti-trolling laws, touting that it will ensure social media companies are held accountable, while Australians are given more power to deal with harmful defamatory comments from anonymous trolls.

Read: Inman Grant's reappointment as eSafety commissioner comes with new powers

The proposed laws, however, have been blasted by senators, online abuse victims, and organisations including the eSafety Commission for being too hard to access and unclear, and would require more work if it is to become law.

The government said it also wants to introduce a binding industry code under the Online Safety Act to ensure smartphones and tablet devices have "strong" parental controls installed that are easier to find and activate -- and harder for kids to bypass -- if industry does not act within 12 months.

An additional AU$2 million has also been earmarked under the Online Safety Grants to benefit online safety projects that support women and girls in culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

"Our kids should be able to learn, be entertained, or connect with their friends and family without facing abuse, humiliation or online predators. The online world cannot be a cowards' cavern where the rules of the real world do not exist," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

"Big tech and social media giants must be held to account. Our plan will force them to do more – they cannot create it, and wash their hands of all consequences of it.

"Our plan will also ensure parents can protect their kids online with strong parental controls, help to prevent harm by raising awareness in every school, and improve our support for those harmed online."

See also: Musk's Twitter goal of authenticating all users is good for ending bots but bad for humans

At the same time, the government said a new AU$3.8 million funding, delivered through the 2022-23 Budget, would be handed to youth mental health organisation Batyr to expand its OurHerd digital platform, which endeavours to provide young people with a safe digital space to view and learn from positive mental health stories shared by peers. The funding would build on the government's previous investment of AU$2.8 million through the 2019-20 Budget to develop OurHerd.

Minister for Health and Aged Care Greg Hunt said the additional funding for OurHerd will support approximately 60,000 young people aged 14-30 years with mild to moderate mental health needs, their families, carers and communities.

"Through peer-to-peer education and the sharing of stories of lived experience, Batyr is helping more young people to get help before they reach a crisis point," Minister Hunt said.

"This early support reduces the lifelong impacts of mental illness and saves lives."

Meanwhile, the Opposition, as part of its election campaign, has vowed to establish a Royal Commission into robo-debt by the end of this year, with consultation to begin after the election.

It envisions the Royal Commission will identify who was responsible for the robot-debt scheme; establish what advice, and what processes informed the design and implementation; investigate the handling of complaints for the scheme; determine how much the implementation, suspension, and wind-back of the scheme cost taxpayers; investigate the harm caused to Australians; and investigate the use of third-party debt collectors under the scheme.

Labor has been advocating for a Royal Commission into the government's robo-debt disaster since June 2020.

"We still do not know how this reckless scheme was unleashed. We do not know whether poor legal advice was given or whether legal advice was simply never sought," Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten said. 

"We do not know if public servants were inappropriately heavied and politicised. And without knowing the true origins we do not know what safeguards could be put in place to prevent a repeat." 

In May 2020, the federal government conceded its data-matching Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) initiative, dubbed robo-debt, got around 470,000 "debts" wrong

Read also: Federal Court approves AU$112m compensation in settlement for robo-debt failure

The OCI program automatically compared the income declared to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) 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.

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

Separately, the Opposition also said it will launch a user audit of the myGov government services digital portal to "take a fresh look" at how well it is performing and help identify what changes and improvements can be made.  

"Millions of Australians interact with myGov everyday and rely on it to provide essential services. It's not up to scratch, and Australians deserve better. That's why we will review myGov, and make improvements where necessary," Opposition leader Anthony Albanese stated.

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