Prime Minister Scott Morrison has offered his “deep regret” to anyone harmed through the government’s use of the controversial and unlawful robo-debt program.
In a parliamentary address on Thursday, the PM admitted that “the business of raising and recovering debts on behalf of taxpayers is a difficult job”.
“I would apologise for anyone hurt or harmed in the way that the government has dealt with that issue and to anyone else who has found themselves in those situations,” he said.
“I would deeply regret any hardship that has been caused to people in the conduct of that activity,” he added, referring to an example raised by Bill Shorten of a cancer patient “ripped to shreds” while being pursued for a robo-debt generated while in hospital.
Mr Morrison said such a situation is “very distressing”.
“It is our instruction that we would hope that all agents of the government, when pursuing the debt recovery option, that they would be sensitive to people’s circumstances,” he said.
The man was one of hundreds of thousands of people issued with potentially incorrect computer-generated debt notices.
The scheme matched Australian Taxation Office and Centrelink data to claw back overpaid welfare payments. It has now been scrapped and is the subject of a class action challenge.
The apology comes after the government announced last month it would scrap the scheme and pay back $721 million to 373,000 people and 470,000 debt notices chased through the unlawful program.
Despite acknowledging the illegality of the scheme, the government initially shied away from issuing an apology for any harm it may have caused.
Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter said at the time he could not apologise because of ongoing litigation over the scheme.
“The system was flawed. I’m not going to use that word because … as Attorney-General I can’t use the sort of language in the context of the litigation,” he told ABC’s Insiders on Sunday.
The minister for government services, Stuart Robert, also skirted an apology at that time, saying that “the Morrison government takes its responsibility for upholding the integrity of Australia’s welfare system seriously”.
Mr Robert said Thursday that any hardship cases should now be referred to his office.
“It is incumbent on all of us if we have constituents who are hurting or suffering, bring them through to me, all colleagues know where I am,” he said.
“Give me a buzz and we will seek quickly to help you out with that.”
The government’s leader in the Senate, Senator Mathias Cormann, backed the PM’s apology.
“That is appropriate for the Prime Minister to do,” he said.
However, the opposition were not convinced the PM’s apology was genuine, with Mr Shorten saying “I listened to the Prime Minister today cry what I have to say were crocodile tears”.
“Saying ‘well I’m sorry, ‘course we only ever want to do what’s lawful’,” said Mr Shorten in question time on Thursday.
“This government has known for three years … that this was unlawful.”
Do you think the apology is too little too late? Or do you applaud the PM for making this apology?
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