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Legal Aid’s robodebt concerns shut out by government

Community groups like Victoria Legal Aid knew there was something unlawful about the sham robodebt scheme from the very beginning – but its efforts to communicate this with the Coalition government to save countless vulnerable Australians were made in vain.

user iconNaomi Neilson 17 July 2023 Big Law
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Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) executive director Rowan McRae said the first seven days of January 2017 had seen as many people requesting assistance with social security as the organisation had in the entire month of January 2016. At the same time, its web page on social security saw a 500 per cent increase in traffic.

The demand was a response from then-minister for social services Christian Porter’s announcement of the automated debt recovery system that would end up costing the commonwealth $1.8 billion in compensation for the vulnerable Australians who were victims of it.

Despite this astounding increase, VLA was not given any support.


Organisations like #NotMyDebt, made in response to the robodebt scheme, tried to direct people to legal services, but funding and the sheer number of people needing help was a major issue.

VLA “quickly formed the view that the scheme was unlawful and determined the best way to challenge the lawfulness of the scheme was to identify a test case” it could take to the Federal Court.

In the final robodebt commission report, commissioner Catherine Holmes said not only was VLA’s work to bring down the scheme in the interest of its clients, but it was also in the “public good”.

While it worked to create a case against the government, VLA tried to communicate with the government for assistance and for documents that would help it better understand the scheme.

Despite the letter being sent to former human services minister Alan Tudge in mid-January 2017, it took him over three months to respond with what was essentially a denial of VLA’s request for documents. He said they were not publicly available.

Meanwhile, the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) wrote to Mr Tudge on 19 January 2017 with the same concerns and requested the government engage with a “diverse representation” of non-government stakeholders to design a “fairer” system.

While Mr Tudge’s return letter in February mentioned it would “continue to make refinements based on the ongoing feedback”, he did not respond to the request for stakeholder engagement.

ACOSS program director of social security Charmaine Crowe told the robodebt inquiry Mr Tudge’s letter also did not make any mention of the “income averaging, the raising of a debt against the process and the reversing of the onus of proof”.

Around 30 groups, including VLA, met with ACOSS anyway to discuss how they could “collectively” put an end to the scheme.

They even turned to then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, whose response suggested there was “no preparedness … to engage with the serious issues that we had raised … which was affecting hundreds of thousands of people on the lowest incomes in the country”.

Ultimately, ACOSS chief executive Dr Cassandra Goldie said that “in the face of repeated pleas, bringing through the stories and experiences of people on low incomes, including suicidal ideations … the government proceeded to want to extend robodebt, not to shut it down”.

Commissioner Holmes said the scheme undermined trust in government and confidence in the social security system.

“The universal experience of advocacy groups and legal centres was one of being overwhelmed. Large numbers of people sought assistance with debt notices, and groups did not have specific funding to enable them to effectively engage with the volume of inquiries.

“The lack of consultation with relevant advocacy groups, before and during the scheme, exemplifies one of many instances in which a possible safeguard against the catastrophic result of the scheme was rendered ineffective,” commissioner Holmes said.

After the report’s release, VLA’s managing lawyer, Miles Browne, said the need to take the government to court for the failed scheme “is a failure of administration and an indictment on all those who had the power to bring this scheme to a close”.

Executive director Rowan McRae said VLA “echoes the commissioner in calling for an end to anti-welfare rhetoric”.

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