Federal Labor is attempting to shift the election focus back to integrity and a chapter that began during Scott Morrison's time as minister for social services, pledging, if elected, to establish a royal commission into the unlawful Robodebt program by the end of the year.
The system, which ran from 2016 to 2019, lead to "financial hardship, anxiety and distress, including suicidal ideation and in some cases suicide", according to Federal Court Justice Bernard Murphy. It failed nearly half a million Australians by using data-matching algorithms to identify social security overpayments, with little regard to human oversight.
The Commonwealth unlawfully raised $1.73 billion in debts against 433,000 people through the program, leading to a Robodebt class action and a Federal Court settlement worth at least $1.8 billion for wrongly pursued Centrelink clients. The Commonwealth has not admitted liability.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese, who is in Perth ahead of the official ALP campaign launch on Sunday, has accused the government of refusing to take responsibility for the Robodebt scandal. He expects a Robodebt royal commission would look at how it was established as well as how it was handled by the public service.
"Robodebt was a human tragedy, wrought by this government," Mr Albanese said in a statement.
"Against all evidence, and all the outcry, the government insisted on using algorithms instead of people to pursue debt recovery against Australians who in many cases had no debt to pay. It caused untold misery. Only an Albanese Labor government will find out the truth."
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It comes as the ALP also considers a royal commission into the Morrison government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic response. The Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 chaired by Labor's Katy Gallagher recommended a royal commission earlier this month, but it is not yet ALP policy.
The opposition has been calling for a royal commission into Robodebt since 2020, but this pledge commits Labor in government to begin consultations after the May 21 election and to start hearings before the end of 2022.
The Prime Minister was the minister for social service when Robodebt was formally announced in the 2015 federal budget.
Among the starting points for the terms of reference under Labor's plan is to establish "what advice, and what process or processes, informed the design and implementation of the Robodebt scheme" as well as investigate the handling of all aspects of Robodebt complaints by Services Australia, the Department of Human Services, other relevant Commonwealth agencies and ministers.
Labor's government services spokesman Bill Shorten said the Robodebt disaster must never happen again.
"We still do not know how this reckless scheme was unleashed," he said. "We do not know whether poor legal advice was given or whether legal advice was simply never sought.
"We do not know if public servants were inappropriately heavied and politicised. And without knowing the true origins we do not know what safeguards could be put in place to prevent a repeat."
Labor said it would also charge a Robodebt royal commission investigating the harm to people with unlawful debts, look into the use of third-party debt collectors and determine how much the scheme cost taxpayers.