Robodebt repeat? Not on my watch, says Dreyfus

For many who were affected by the misapplication of Robodebt, the scars run deep. Those incorrectly saddled with debt, or who were close to someone who was, have endured great stress. In some cases the consequences were tragic.

The mistakes of the past cannot be undone, but according to attorney-general Mark Dreyfus, a newly instituted tribunal will prevent a repeat by helping Australians challenge government decisions quickly and easily.

Towards the end of 2023, the federal government introduced legislation that advocated the formation of the Administrative Review Tribunal. It will replace the Administrative Affairs Tribunal, whose faults were highlighted in the Robodebt royal commission.

The royal commission said in its final report that warnings the scheme’s debt calculation methods were unlawful were ignored in 2014. What followed was an alleged $1.76 billion in debts being raised unlawfully.

After Robodebt was suspended in 2019, the Commonwealth settled a class action totalling $1.8 billion.

Will the new tribunal prevent a Robodebt redux?

Mr Dreyfus believes the Administrative Review Tribunal (ART) will have the checks and balances required to greatly reduce the risk of a repeat of the Robodebt tragedy. He said the ART would provide Australians with several new processes. As a result, challenging government decisions will become easier.

Mr Dreyfus outlined his aims for the ART in an essay he wrote for The Monthly. “A key objective … will be to improve the quality and transparency of decision-making across government,” he wrote.

The ART will provide Australians with a quick, informal and simple means of challenging government decisions that affect their rights and interests, he continued.

“A key objective of the new tribunal will be to improve the quality and transparency of decision-making across government.”

The remit of the ART will encompass a wide range of government agencies, including aspects of Robodebt and other factors. First, taxation, child support and social security will be incorporated. Additionally, NDIS, freedom of information and visas will be included.

Within the ART’s scope will be the following:

  • enhanced powers and procedures
  • a transparent and merit-based selection process for all members
  • simplified membership structure
  • greater powers for the resident to manage ART members
  • simpler application processes and emphasis on a non-adversarial approach
  • mechanisms for the ART to identify, escalate and report on systemic issues in administrative decision making.

Those sound like positive reforms, but the ART has yet to commence operations. It will do so this year, as a non-corporate Commonwealth entity accountable to the Parliament, provided legislation is passed.

Never again

Mr Dreyfus opens his essay in The Monthly with the words of Kathleen Madgwick: “He was meant to be here.” Those words refer to Ms Madgwick’s son Jarrad, and she uttered them when appearing at the royal commission last year. After receiving a Robodebt notice from Centrelink of an alleged $2000 debt, without evidence or explanation, Jarrad took his own life. He was 22.

The story of Kathleen and Jarrad was not an isolated case. Mr Dreyfus outlined a similar case involving a mother and her 28-year-old son. Then there was the case of a single mother saddled with a debt notice of $6000. The woman was forced to start repaying the debt in instalments even as she was going through a challenge process.

The process took months, during which time the woman continued with full-time work while looking after her children.

Mr Dreyfus has challenged Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, a senior cabinet minister during Robodebt’s existence, to embrace the reforms.

Time will tell if he does.

Were you or someone close to you affected by Robodebt? What action did you take? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Calls for private debt collectors to return Robodebt profits

Written by Andrew Gigacz

Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.

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