Robodebt Proposals Conjured Under Heavy Pressure

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Despite tremendous pressure from their department, a senior government official has repudiated the contentious income averaging process underpinning previous proposals for the defunct robodebt recovery scheme.

The royal commission in Brisbane is investigating how the automated robodebt scheme was allowed to proceed even after federal government departments realised their calculation method was unlawful. This disastrous program, which ran from 2015-2020, wrongfully extorted more than $750 million from 381,000 innocent people, leading several victims to commit suicide while fighting against these false debts.

On Friday, Mark Withnell, the previous Services Australia general manager of business integrity, was questioned about documents in which counsel assisting Angus Scott KC suggested disclosed income averaging as one of the core elements in proposed policies.

“It’s certainly not my view,” he said.

That was always the proposal, and it never changed,” the barrister put to Mr Withnell at another point on the issue of so-called “income smoothing.”

“That’s not the case,” the witness said.

Mr Withnell noted that during the period of scrutiny and for 18 months following, job requirements escalated, there was intense oversight from supervisors, and pressure became more relentless.

One of the legacies of that is there are times when I have trouble focusing and concentrating for periods; I’m not trying to duck your questions or be difficult here,” Mr Withnell implored for a brief adjournment before the court could proceed.

During questioning, Catherine Halbert, a former Social Services employee, was probed about her communication with the ombudsman’s office in 2017. It is suggested that she “distorted reality” regarding their views of the scheme from 2015.

I was not trying to mislead the ombudsman’s office, and if I’ve miswritten it, that’s my responsibility,” Ms Halbert said.

I don’t believe we were endorsing income smoothing as a concept.”

In 2015, she acknowledged that the department had wrongly calculated debts about payroll data; despite that, she did not recant her stance. Consequently, when news broke out in 2017 about income smoothing being used to increase debts – which provoked astonishment and annoyance – She was adamant in affirming her “desire for accuracy.”

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