Withheld information sees Senate committee push for robo-debt Royal Commission

The committee believes a Royal Commission will be the only way to fully understand how the robo-debt scheme went so wrong.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

The Senate Committee inquiring into the federal government's bungled robo-debt system has put forward a single recommendation for the Commonwealth to establish a Royal Commission into the income compliance program as part of the release of its accountability and justice report [PDF] on Friday. 

According to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs, a Royal Commission into the income compliance program, dubbed robo-debt, is necessary as it continued to be met with "entrenched resistance and opacity" when it requested information from government ministers and departments, which it believes "severely hinders" its ability to produce a report for Senate.

"Despite numerous reports and inquiries, significant questions remain … in the absence of immediate production of the information being withheld, the committee considers that a Royal Commission is required to completely understand how the failures of the Income Compliance Program came to pass and why they were allowed to continue for so long despite the dire impacts on people issued with these debts," the committee said.

"These failures cannot be ignored or left in the past. The Australian public, and especially the people harmed by this program, deserve to know what advice was provided to government and how this advice informed decision-making."

Over the course of its inquiry, the committee has been seeking for Services Australia and Minister for Government Services Linda 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 previously rejected as the Senate committee said the reasons provided for that claim to exist were insufficient. The committee also similarly rejected Reynold's claim of public interest immunity in August.

In November, the committee released its fifth interim report in response to Reynold's refusal to cooperate calling for a Senate resolution to compel her to provide the requested documents.

Earlier this month, the Opposition vowed, as part of its election campaign, 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 and the Greens Party have been advocating for a Royal Commission into the government's robo-debt disaster since June 2020.

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