A royal commission is set to examine Robodebt. His legacy still hangs over Centrelink beneficiaries today

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It’s been almost six years, but Emma Warren still vividly remembers being told she owed the government $8,000.

“I felt like I couldn’t breathe anymore,” she said.

“I was so shocked… I had always been someone who had always done the right thing with the government.”

Ms Warren, now 46, lives with multiple disabilities, including Crohn’s disease and epilepsy, and has received the Disability Support Pension since she was in her twenties.

The Newcastle resident was a researcher and tutor at Newcastle University until 2015 when she became too ill to continue working.

“To be saddled with $8,000 debt when you can’t work was just overwhelming,” Ms Warren said.

It was around this time that an automated debt collection program known as Robodebt, which was later found to be illegal, began.

The scheme was set up by the then Coalition Government, which issued debt notices to hundreds of thousands of Australians such as Ms Warren.

The current federal government announced a royal commission this week.

To this day, Ms Warren has ‘visceral responses’ which she says exacerbate her disabilities whenever she receives a message about her payment or encounters the words ‘myGov’, ‘Centrelink’ or ‘Robodebt’.

Emma Warren says being hit with her $8,000 Robodebt was “crushing”.(ABC News: Andrew Lobb)

She said she and people she knows who have received Robodebt notices feel “marked”.

“I really fear that there is always an air of suspicion around people like me who have these debts owed to them,” she said.

What is Robodebt?

The Robodebt system was created when an existing process comparing Centrelink recipients’ reported income to their tax records was automated, allowing for faster identification of when they had been overpaid.

But there were serious problems.

Chief among them, the automated system couldn’t capture the nuances as well as the previous person-led approach.

The lack of human oversight meant there were few safeguards in place to protect against any flaws in the algorithm.

Robodebt also reversed the burden of proof – those who received notices of debt had to prove that they did not owe the debt, rather than Centrelink had to prove that it existed and had been calculated correctly.

Center link sign.
Robodebt was created to attempt to identify overpayment of social security benefits.(ABC News: Chris Gillette)

Between 2015 and 2019, the scheme illegally claimed nearly $2 billion from more than 400,000 Australians. Some $750 million was wrongfully recovered from 381,000 people.

Ms Warren was never told explicitly how her debt was calculated, but believes the algorithms incorrectly counted a doctoral scholarship as taxable income. Scholarships are generally exempt from income tax.

She said her anxiety skyrocketed over Christmas 2015 when she was contacted by a debt collector but was unable to reach anyone at Centrelink before the holiday was over.

When she spoke with someone from Centrelink, she said they told her the debt collector‘s call shouldn’t have happened because her debt had in fact been put on hold.

“Because there weren’t actually any humans involved in checking and searching, the errors…went undetected,” she said.

People queue outside next to a Centrelink sign.
The automated debt collection system was used from July 2015 to November 2019. (ABC News: Andrew O’Connor)

Ms Warren said her notice of debt did not include many details, basically that she owed money and had to pay it back.

She also remembers being in a Centrelink office and seeing a middle-aged man “on his knees, crying and begging to be told… where precisely his debt came from”.

“I felt the same despair as this person – what do you do when your last resort for food, rent and medicine is taken away from you?

“It’s overwhelming.”

Last year, the Federal Court approved a $1.8 billion settlement between the victims and the federal government, including $112 million in compensation.

Although Ms Warren has recovered the money she was told she had to repay to Centrelink, she, like many other victims, is still awaiting compensation.

“The impact still lasts today”

Robodebt’s pain for Nicole Hibberd-Smith also lasted a long time.

“My body still remembers the stress and the trauma,” she said.

In 2015, Ms Hibberd-Smith’s husband died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving her and their three young children behind.

The Sydneysider was only able to return to work on a part-time basis, so she applied for the only income support she could get at the time, Parenting Payment. She said the payment was an insufficient amount for her and her children.

A woman with long brown hair and glasses holding a cup, standing in front of a vine
Nicole Hibberd-Smith says her body “still remembers the stress and trauma” of Robodebt.(Provided)

In 2018, when she moved from receiving parental payment to Newstart – now known as JobSeeker – she was hit with a Robodebt of thousands of dollars. She does not remember the exact amount because she no longer has the original letter.

She rushed to pay off the debt by borrowing money, fearing her Newstart would be cut off and she could no longer feed her family.

Ms Hibberd-Smith, now 50, said when this week’s royal commission was announced her children also became stressed and “went into a spin”.

“They all remember the day I got the letter from Robodebt,” she said.

Leanne Ho of Economic Justice Australia, a community legal organization that has helped thousands of Robodebt victims, said the debacle had helped create a culture of fear around Centrelink.

A woman wearing a navy blue blouse sitting in a chair and looking at the camera
Leanne Ho says the impact of Robodebt is still being felt today. (ABC News: Evan Young)

“People couldn’t believe they would be treated with fairness or compassion,” Ms Ho said.

“The struggles people went through trying to figure out how the debt was calculated and why they got it, the impact still lives on today.”

“I want to speak for those who can’t”

The royal commission is fulfilling an election promise from the new Labor government, which has said the full toll of the scheme has yet to be revealed, including numerous allegations of suicides.

“People have lost their lives,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said this week.

Scott Morrison, who was Minister of Social Services when Robodebt was created, said his government handled the program properly when it was scrapped.

In 2020 he apologized for the “injury or harm” caused by Robodebt, but argued that a royal commission was unnecessary.

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‘Shameful Chapter’: Feds Announce Royal Commission on Robodebt

While the revenue averaging used by the Robodebt program was key to it eventually being deemed illegal, advocates say other automated systems still cause problems today.

Ms Ho said before Robodebt that if a Centrelink beneficiary received a notice of debt, they could speak to a member of staff to find out more about how it was calculated.

Today, even lawyers and social workers struggle to get information about debt notices, she said.

Ms Ho would like to see more human control over data matching algorithms and more transparency for Centrelink recipients.

“[Automation] is not always a problem. It can be a legitimate tool to identify where there might be an issue that needs investigation,” she said.

“But what we’re seeing now is that automation is being used without any vetting and we’re still seeing instances where it goes wrong and harms people.

“That’s why the royal commission is so important – not just to hold those responsible to account, but to ensure that current and future use of automation is transparent, fair and legal.”

Ms Warren and Ms Hibberd Smith are both happy with the royal commission and plan to submit their own evidence.

“I want to speak for all those people who can’t, [those who] are still lying under their doona, terrified every time they see a myGov notice coming to their phone,” Ms Hibberd-Smith said.

“Hopefully this will shed light on many systemic issues in Centrelink.”

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