Robodebt minister claims win ending scheme

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert is deflecting criticism over the failed robodebt scheme.
Government Services Minister Stuart Robert is deflecting criticism over the failed robodebt scheme.

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert has sensationally claimed credit for ending the catastrophic robodebt scheme.

More than 400,000 Australians will receive compensation after the government agreed to settle a $1.2 billion class action over the widely criticised welfare debt recovery program.

It is the largest class action payout in Australian history.

Mr Robert compared the unlawful program, which used computer algorithms to raise debts, to practices under the Hawke and Keating governments.

"The use of ATO average income data to determine eligibility for benefits goes back decades and decades," he told Sky News on Tuesday.

"It is simply this government that has finally turned that off and decided further proof points will be sufficient to raise debts. So unfortunately, it's been a longstanding practice."

Nationals MP Matt Canavan was far more contrite.

"Clearly mistakes have been made here through the robodebt program. When you make a mistake you've got to fess up to it and move on," he told Sky News.

Various governments have used data matching but in 2015 the coalition automated systems, removed safeguards, reversed the onus of proof and began relying on flawed income averaging tools.

The number of reviews then soared through the roof and one in five debt letters were found to be based on false information.

Labor frontbencher Bill Shorten accused the minister of "swallowing the Trump playbook".

"This is like the person who burns down the house taking credit for calling the fire brigade," he told Sky News.

"The only thing that fixed the record-breaking settlement yesterday was the class action."

Mr Shorten said the class action was directly linked to changes made in 2015, when online compliance was introduced and human oversight was taken away.

The minister also denied the link between robodebt and suicides, despite several victims publicly stating they contemplated or attempted suicide as a result of the program.

"We reject the premise, the connectivity between suicide and robodebt, because it is complex," Mr Robert said.

However, the mothers of two young men have alleged the Centrelink-issued debts received by their sons were a factor in their suicides.

Both acknowledge their sons had existing difficulties with their mental health.

Robodebt victims will receive $112 million in compensation, be repaid $720 million and have $400 million in unlawful debts wiped.

Labor is pushing for a royal commission into the illegal program.

Cassandra Goldie from the Australian Council of Social Service says concrete steps need to be taken to ensure such a system won't be implemented again.

Dr Goldie described the program as "an extraordinary abuse of government power" that caused damage and distress to vulnerable people.

"Social security is meant to be there to keep people safe and look after people and this scheme did exactly the opposite," she told the ABC.

"This now needs to be the beginning of the next stage of getting to the bottom of what happened, how this happened, the price that's been paid, and to make sure that we never let this happen to people again."

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Australian Associated Press