Robo-debt inquiry wants Reynolds to face Senate if she continues to refuse to cooperate

A Senate Committee inquiring into robo-debt has labelled Reynold's refusal to unveil the legal advice Services Australia received when implementing the scheme as an erosion of public trust.
Written by Campbell Kwan, Contributor
Image: APH

The Senate Committee inquiring into the federal government's bungled robo-debt system has called for a Senate resolution to compel Minister for Government Services Linda Reynolds into providing documents about the legal advice Services Australia received in implementing robo-debt.

Since the end of 2019, the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs has been seeking for Services Australia and Reynolds to provide information regarding the legal advice it received in implementing the robo-debt system. Both have refused to provide that information under claims of public interest immunity. 

This is despite Services Australia's claim of public interest immunity being rejected in February last year as the Senate committee said the reasons provided for that claim to exist were insufficient. The committee then similarly rejected Reynolds' claim of public interest immunity in August. 

In the proposed resolution, the committee wants Reynolds to provide those documents immediately, otherwise, she will have to face the Senate to explain why she does not want to provide those documents.

The call is part of the committee's fifth interim report [PDF], which was released in response to Reynold's refusal to cooperate.

"A common theme that has emerged throughout the course of this inquiry is the erosion of public trust that has occurred as a result of the Income Compliance Program," the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs wrote in the report.

"Many of those affected by the program still do not know how or why they received a debt. The government's lack of transparency about the legal advice it received in the implementation of the debt recovery program has compounded these concerns." 

Last month, Labor Senator Deborah O'Neill criticised Reynold's conduct, labelling the Minister's refusal to provide the documents as "obstructive to the work of the Senate on behalf of the Australian people".

In addition to calling for Reynolds to reveal the legal advice, the report also said over 9,000 individuals are still yet to be refunded and eligible applicants of the robo-debt class action settlement still need to wait another 10 months before receiving their owed monies.

Due to the outstanding refunds and settlement, the report has recommended that Services Australia distribute the damages owed in the settlement as a matter of priority.

It has also recommended that, once the settlement is finalised, Services Australia publicly release data on the number of class action group members that were owed money; the total value of the debts of people in the class action, broken down by category; and the average share of the settlement sum eligible group members received.

The inquiry initially commenced in 2019 after the federal government admitted to wrongly issuing around 470,000 debts worth over AU$721 million. Around that time, the federal government also came to a class settlement action to pay AU$112 million in damages to around 648,000 people that were affected by the robo-debt scheme.

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