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16 June 2021

It took years of incredibly hard work and heartbreak, but this past Friday the Federal Court of Australia handed down its final decision on the worst social security scandal in Australia's history - Robodebt.

Justice Bernard Murphy approved the almost $1.9 billion class action settlement to victims of Prime Minister Scott Morrison's Robodebt, saying it was both a "shameful chapter" in Australia's public administration and a "massive failure" for the Government.

For the hundreds of thousands of our fellow Australians who were living on the edge in the margins and were unlawfully sued by the Government, this court result is the second best option because I think what they really wanted is that the Government never behaved unlawfully to begin with.

Not a single Liberal minister or public servant involved in this abomination has been rebuked, punished or demoted for their role in what Justice Murphy said was ultimately "a huge waste of public money", resulting in "heart-wrenching" financial strain for the victims and their families.

Now it's time for a royal commission to be held so that we can get to the bottom of how and why successive Liberal governments used an illegal automated debt-raising method to force almost half a million Australians to pay debts they never owed.

The Liberals launched Robodebt in 2015 and despite a huge amount of evidence that the scheme was illegitimate, it ran until November 2019 when the Government consented to Federal Court orders for a case run by Victoria Legal Aid, which found it was unlawful.

When last week's Federal Court ruling was delivered, the Government should have profusely apologised and showed real contrition to the 443,000 people it extorted, but they failed to grasp the significance of the moment.

Instead Josh Frydenberg was trotted out to say nothing of who would be held to account for the scandal.

The fact of the matter is Robodebt was Scott Morrison's baby when he was treasurer in 2015. Aided and abetted by fellow ministers Christian Porter, Alan Tudge and Stuart Robert, his devious plan to raise funds from working people who also periodically relied on Centrelink benefits people like students, farmers or single parents - was quite simply shocking from the get-go. My role in this sad saga began in earnest in July 2019, when as the new shadow minister for government services I was disturbed to discover what I regarded as the vast inaccuracy and unfairness of the Robodebt scheme.

The stories that were emerging from the victims of this Governmental theft were deeply distressing. Working people were being stigmatised and shamed, slugged with fake government debts. For some victims the humiliation of being seen as a dole bludger or welfare cheat saw them depressed, anxious or contemplating suicide, while for other families this became a reality, with the mothers of Jarrad Madgwick, 22, and Rhys Cauzzo, 28, saying their sons took their own lives in the wake of the distressing - and illegal - debt notices.

In early August 2019, I met in Sydney with Professor Terry Carney, a 40-year veteran Administrative Appeals Tribunal member who was sacked after handing down five judgments that found the Government's Robodebt system was legally unenforceable.

Professor Carney knew Robodebt was unlawful and I was convinced - faced with Government spin and denial we had to go big or go home to help the Australians who were innocent victims of a Government cash grab.

In September 2019, I approached Peter Gordon from Melbourne law firm Gordon Legal about launching a class action. The Morrison Government spent years avoiding questions about the scheme and it was time to up the ante and get some justice for the people whose lives were being destroyed by their own Government.

It took the threat of a class action from hard-working Australian people, but in May 2020 the Commonwealth was finally called to account for its illegal scheme. In a cynical strategy to deter people from joining the class action, the Morrison Government agreed to pay back $751 million to wipe all debts of at least 381,000 victims. Last week's decision will see the Government adding a billion dollars to that figure.

Justice Murphy said he did not have evidence at hand to say whether Robodebt was a conspiracy or a stuff up but "given a choice. one would usually choose a stuff up". This does not exonerate the Government. That is why we want a royal commission. For 41/2 years, the Government said that what they were doing was legal. They said it was legal after at least 72 different Administrative Appeals Tribunal decisions said it wasn't.

They kept saying it and rubbished me and others who said it was illegal. The Westminster system of ministerial responsibility is on the critical list. No one knows anything, apparently, within Government.

There is no business where if you were part of a compliance fail this large - where you have to repay almost $1.9 billion - you could get away with no one being responsible. It is not good enough.

In Holland, the government resigned in January after thousands of families were wrongly accused of owing welfare money to it. In Australia, the Government can raise $2 billion illegally and apparently no one saw a thing.

Questions remain that will only be answered by a royal commission.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday, 16 June 2021.