The Guardian • Issue #2061



  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2061

Photo: Ben Alexander – (CC BY-SA 2.0).]

“Robodebt was a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal, and it made many people feel like criminals. In essence, people were traumatised on the off-chance they might owe money. It was a costly failure of public administration, in both human and economic terms,” the Royal Commission into Robodebt says in its lengthy and thorough report handed down on 7th July.

Robodebt commenced with a pilot in 2015 and ran until 2020.

The Royal Commission was initiated by Labor in August 2022 and headed by former Queensland Chief Justice Catherine Holmes. The report is a damning indictment of the inhumane and stigmatising approach taken towards welfare recipients by Coalition government ministers and senior public servants. It is a tragic story of needless human suffering.

Robodebt targeted some of the most vulnerable people in society resulting in not only trauma but stigmatisation, shame, anxiety, mental ill-health, and even suicide.

“It affected members of the community who were or had been reliant on social security payments, imposing tight timelines for responses, requiring technological literacy to engage with the process and employing the services of debt collectors if no response was received, even in circumstances where the recipient did not receive the original letter from Centrelink advising them of the debt,” the report says.

“Many people against whom debts were raised under the Scheme were vulnerable members of society, ill-equipped to engage with a system that had not been designed with its users in mind.”

The Commission notes that fraud in the welfare system is “miniscule,” “but that is not the impression one would get from what ministers responsible for social security payments have said over the years.”

The Commission continues: “Anti-welfare rhetoric is easy populism, useful for campaign purposes. It is not recent, nor is it confined to one side of politics, as some of the quoted material in this report demonstrates … largely, those attitudes are set by politicians, who need to abandon for good (in every sense) the narrative of taxpayer versus welfare recipient.”

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) and other advocacy groups had informed government ministers and the government departments involved that debts were being issued that were incorrect.

The report is scathing of Kathryn Campbell, then Department of Human Services Secretary:

“Ms Campbell had been responsible for a department that had established, implemented and maintained an unlawful program. When exposed to information that brought to light the illegality of income averaging, she did nothing of substance. When presented with opportunities to obtain advice on the lawfulness of that practice, she failed to act.”

There were other adverse findings against former government ministers including Scott Morrison and senior public servants. In classic Trumpian style, Morrison has rejected the findings and is considering legal advice.

In January 2017 Christian Porter, when Minister for Social Services, told ABC Radio National that the debt recovery program was “working exceptionally well.” He also said, “I think this [the Scheme] is about as reasonable a process as you could possibly derive … .” Later that year he became Attorney General.


“It is remarkable how little interest there seems to have been in ensuring the Scheme’s legality, how rushed its implementation was, how little thought was given to how it would affect welfare recipients and the lengths to which public servants were prepared to go to oblige ministers on a quest for savings. Truly dismaying was the revelation of dishonesty and collusion to prevent the Scheme’s lack of legal foundation coming to light.

“Equally disheartening was the ineffectiveness of what one might consider institutional checks and balances – the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s Office,the Office of Legal Services Coordination, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal – in presenting any hindrance to the Scheme’s continuance.”

It is hard to imagine more damning findings of a government program.

Robodebt involved automated fines based on annual income. Under the Social Services Act, welfare benefits are not based on an annual income but on each separate fortnight, taking into consideration when someone is working or not working. As a result, hundreds of thousands of debt notices were incorrectly sent out to existing and former welfare recipients.

There was no human oversight.

From the very outset senior public servants and then-Social Services Minister Scott Morrison were informed that the scheme was not legal and would require amendments to the Act. Morrison was responsible for pushing the scheme through Cabinet.

In January 2015, Morrison described himself as planning to be a “strong welfare cop on the beat” because Australians were “not going to cop people who are going to rort [the social security] system.”

Adding to the fear the Scheme created, it also involved the secondment of Australian Federal Police officers, with the AFP’s logo appearing on some debt notices.

At the time of Joe Hockey’s 2015 budget, it was estimated that Robodebt would “save $1.7 billion over five years”. The net cost of the scheme was $930 million.

That was the cost to the budget’s bottom line. The human cost was enormous.

In reference to government ministers and senior public servants involved the Commission said: “One of the consequences of the Scheme was a loss of trust in the social security system, and in government more broadly. Some recipients resolved not to seek access to social security payments in the future, in reaction to their experiences under the Scheme.”


The number of robodebts referred to external debt collectors was 305,973. (Calculated from figures in Commission’s report)

The victims of the scheme covered people who were or had been on NewStart (now JobSearch), the age pension, Youth Allowance and other welfare payments.

ACOSS CEO Cassandra Goldie told the Commission:

“… you had a government that was using language about being a welfare cop, using language about, ‘We will come after you,’ using language about, ‘We will find you and track you down. And if you don’t pay, you might end up in jail.’ And so this notion of the Department of Human Services or Centrelink being there to help people was the complete opposite of what the government was actually communicating. For people on very low incomes relying on income support, what they heard was, ‘This is a dangerous place to come. You won’t be safe.’ ”

“Recipients were made to feel like second-class citizens, criminals and dole cheats. Witnesses gave evidence about how the term ‘cheat’, often used in the context of debt recovery measures, insinuated that there was an illegitimacy in their reliance on the welfare system. This accusation of dishonesty affected their sense of self-worth” the Commission says.

Goldie said: “We heard from people who had health conditions that were aggravated by the mere receipt of a Robodebt and dealing with the issue. People had to take time off work to deal with it. It caused stress within families because of the fact that people had received the debt. People hid it from their partners because they experienced shame … (I)t caused the mental health issues for a lot of people just because … people felt very powerless to try and clear their name because they couldn’t get the information that they needed, and they felt helpless.”


Following the release of the report, CPSU National Secretary Melissa Donnelly said, “The Robodebt scheme had far-reaching and devastating consequences, for members of the public who were affected but also for Centrelink employees who were forced to implement a scheme they knew to be unethical and illegal.

“Frontline workers tried to stop this scheme in its tracks – they stood up and spoke out time and time again, but were ignored, silenced and even threatened.”

“All of us were staff of long-standing and knew how to read the Act and that this new process was illegal,” Centrelink senior complaints officer Judith Stolz said of the Robodebt’s rollout. However, no discussion could move anyone from their view that Robodebt was perfectly legal.”

Numerous attempts by the CPSU and advocacy groups to address the illegality of the scheme and inform ministers and senior public servants that debts were being pursued when they did not exist were unsuccessful.


The report makes 57 recommendations. Some are directed at strengthening the public service more broadly, some at improving the processes of the Department of Social Services and Services Australia. Others are concerned with reinforcing the capability of oversight agencies.

In particular, when it comes to the design of policies and processes by Services Australia the primary emphasis should be on the recipients it is meant to serve. There should be more “face-to-face” customer service support options for vulnerable recipients needing support.

Peak advocacy bodies should be consulted prior to the implementation of projects involving the modification of the social security system.

“When it next conducts a review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership, the Commonwealth should have regard, in considering funding for legal aid commissions and community legal centres, to the importance of the public interest role played by those services as exemplified in their work during the Scheme,” the Commission says.

“Services Australia should put in place processes for genuine and receptive consultation with frontline staff when new programs are being designed and implemented.”

All welfare recipients should be treated fairly and with dignity, taking each person’s circumstances into account before commencing recovery action.

The Commission does not recommend compensation because it would be “unworkable.”

A sealed chapter contains referrals of information concerning some persons for further investigation by other bodies. Parts of this chapter are being referred to the Australian Public Service Commissioner, the National Anti-Corruption Commissioner, the President of the Law Society of the Australian Capital Territory, and the Australian Federal Police.

As Labor Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten said, Robodebt was “a war on people on welfare.” It was also a war on public servants and the public service and the abdication by the government of its responsibility to provide for the welfare of society.

It must never be allowed to happen again.

See Robodebt: War on welfare recipients   War on public servants

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More