Lawyers warned federal government robodebt scheme was ‘unlawful’


The email did not say when this advice was received by the department.

The robodebt system matched tax office and Centrelink data to claw back overpaid welfare payments, with recipients contacted by the automatic system and told they had to prove they did not owe the flagged debt.

The debts were not due to the Commonwealth and therefore not legal, the emails said. The Federal Court later found the scheme to be unlawful.

Mr Robert defended the government’s handling of the matter when asked by Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison regretted “administering an illegal robodebt scheme”.

The minister said the changes announced in November were designed “to strengthen and improve” the income compliance program “by requiring additional evidence when using income information to identify potential overpayments”.

“This means we’ll no longer raise a debt where the only information we’re relying on is the averaging of ATO,” he said in Parliament on Thursday.

Services Australia was still working to identify all customers affected, Mr Robert said.

“It’s complex to do that, it’s a highly manual process,” he said.

Opposition government services spokesman Bill Shorten said the emails released in response to Labor’s probing were the “smoking gun” proving that the government continued to defend the robodebt scheme despite knowing it was “illegal”.

He said the emails revealed “the government put the emergency brakes on its pet scheme because it knows it is unlawful”.

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Mr Shorten said questions remained about how long the government knew or “strongly suspected” robodebt was illegal, including what if any legal advice it obtained before rolling out the scheme.

“Given the stress, anxiety, financial hardship and even suicides that resulted from this cruel abuse of government power, the public are entitled to an explanation as to robodebt’s origins.”

He said Mr Robert had “failed to level with the public”, characterising his “junking” the robodebt scheme as a “refinement”.

Greens senator Rachel Siewert said the government must reveal how long it knew the scheme was illegal.

“People in our community have been traumatised and harassed for years and years, many have large debts they don’t owe and are being forced to pay with interest and they want and deserve answers,” she said.

It comes as the government plans changes to how welfare recipients report their income to Centrelink.

Federal minister Alan Tudge introduced the underpinning legislation to Parliament on Thursday, which would make welfare recipients report income when it’s paid rather than earned.

The government believes this will prevent people from being paid the wrong amount of welfare, saving $2.1 billion over four years.

People reporting income to Centrelink currently have to estimate a figure based on how many hours worked in a fortnight and rate of pay.

With AAP

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