‘Nothing to apologise for’: Minister backs Stuart Robert over failed robodebt scheme

A federal government minister believes there is nothing to apologise for over the failed robodebt scheme, which will now see thousands of Australians refunded for wrongly being forced to pay back benefits.

The government announced on Friday that $720 million will be refunded for around 470,000 welfare debts thrown up by the scheme because of faulty income assessments made by the Australian Taxation Office.

Labor believes the government should be apologising for the distress it caused these people.

“There was suicides as a result of people who received these debt notices for debts that they didn’t owe, that were illegal, and that the government now concedes were illegal,” Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese told reporters in Sydney on Saturday.

“The government, in order to avoid ministers having to front up to a court case, has sent a 700-plus million dollar bill to taxpayers as a result of this..”

But cabinet minister Keith Pitt believes there is nothing to apologise for when conducting oversight of a large government program.

“The biggest issue that gets raised with me and my office on a regular basis is from Australians who are concerned about taxpayer support that perhaps has been provided inappropriately or for people who are making a claim that is not quite correct,” he told Sky News.

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Liberal backbencher Fiona Martin also defended the actions of Government Services Minister Stuart Robert, saying he was first aware of the problem in November 2019 and immediately paused the scheme.

“The issue has now been addressed. So he has acknowledged that the ATO data was not sufficient and he is making steps to rectify it,” she told ABC television.

But Mr Albanese is far less forgiving, saying this issue is not over.

“What should be over is Stuart Robert’s career, because this gaffe-prone minister has mishandled everything he’s ever touched, any time he’s been a minister,” he said.

NSW Labor senator Tim Ayres is also unhappy about the timing of Mr Robert’s announcement, coming shortly after Prime Minister Scott Morrison had finished a major press conference where he had made no reference to it, avoiding the scrutiny of assembled journalists.

“Last Friday was an announcement late on Friday afternoon about a $60 billion error in the government’s JobKeeper scheme,” Senator Ayres told ABC television.

“This Friday afternoon it is a $720 million bungled robodebt scheme. I really worry about what next Friday afternoon is going to bring.”

But Mr Pitt disagreed with the accusation that the government is “taking out the trash” on a Friday afternoon.

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“Every day that ends with ‘y’ gets news coverage. In modern media it’s a 24-hour news cycle, I don’t think there are quiet periods,” he said.

Meanwhile Greens Senator Rachel Siewert told SBS News the robodebt debacle was indicative of what happens when those on welfare were demonised.

“This is the consequences of a long-term approach by government to demonise people, when you are treating people as a number and not thinking their deserving, this is what happens,” she said.

“When the government isn’t listening about the impact it is having but also trying to take blood out of the stone, trying to recoup money from people who don’t have it.”

She said while it was welcome news the government would be repaying the money it had taken, for those traumatised by the scheme it was far from over.

“It is something people have just been traumatised by. There has been outrageously awful consequences from this debacle of a program,” she said.

Additional reporting: AAP

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