“My message to Australians is that my department will work through this sensibly and practically and will be in contact with Australians from this limited group who may have been impacted,” he told Parliament.
Mr Robert also did not respond to questions about whether the government will need to include its robo-debt liability in next month’s mid-year budget update.
Labor’s government services spokesperson, Bill Shorten told Parliament “every day the government doesn’t fix the matter, you’re probably costing interest payments to the taxpayer another $100,000 a day”.
He also told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, “legal actions afoot could see the government forced to repay hundreds of millions of dollars”.
Welfare and legal experts note the precise figure will depend on how many people need to have their debts repaid, what those original debts were and what the interest is. It will also depend on whether a pending class action finds they are eligible for compensation.
Government data previously provided to the Senate shows the government has already recovered, or is in the process of recovering more than $1.5 billion as part of its income compliance program.
On Thursday the government also refused to release the confidential legal advice it sought before it made its announcement last week to stop relying solely on income averaging to recover debts. After the Senate ordered the government to produce any legal advice it received on the matter, Mr Robert denied the request, claiming “public interest immunity”.
Greens senator Rachel Siewert said Mr Robert’s excuses for not providing the legal advice were “not legitimate”.
Amid the court cases and government announcements, Victorian Legal Aid reported an increase in calls from welfare recipients, confused about what would happen to their debts.
“A big question is what is the government actually doing in response to this?” Victorian Legal Aid spokesperson Joel Townsend said.
Judith Ireland is a political reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House