Robodebt royal commission hearings start in Brisbane today. Here's what to expect

| 27.09,22. 07:27 AM |

Robodebt royal commission hearings start in Brisbane today. Here's what to expect

A sign displaying the centrelink and medicare logos.
The Robodebt royal commission is due to report back in April next year.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

The royal commission into the unlawful debt recovery scheme known as Robodebt will begin in Brisbane today.

The first official hearings come a month after the government announced it was following through with its election promise to set up an inquiry into the creation, design and implementation of the scheme.

So, what does today hold? Before we dive into what to expect, a quick recap.

?Firstly, what was Robodebt

Robodebt was the informal name given to a 2015 debt recovery program that was later found to have unlawfully claimed almost $2 billion in payments from 433,000 people.

The program used a computer algorithm to match people's income support payments with data from the Australian Tax Office to work out if someone had received more welfare payments than they were entitled to.

If so, it sent them a debt notice. Previously, notices would only be sent after a Centrelink officer had checked the debt was right.

It also relied on averaging out people's income over a 12-month period to work out the debts — something the Federal Court of Australia found in 2019 couldn't be used on its own.

The scheme applied to people receiving Newstart, Youth Allowance, Austudy, parenting payments and the Disability Support Pension, but three out of four debts incurred were for people on Newstart or Youth Allowance.

?Why do we have a royal commission

During the election campaign, whether to have a royal commission into the scheme became one of the few policy differences between Labor and the Coalition.

Labor promised to set up a royal commission into the scheme, with Anthony Albanese describing Robodebt as a "human tragedy" that "caused untold misery".

He and Government Services Minister Bill Shorten pointed to the toll the scheme took on the mental health and wellbeing of people who were incorrectly sent debt notices.

By comparison, the Coalition said the matter had been addressed when the previous government reached a compensation deal with victims minutes before a class action trial was due to begin.

In August, after winning the May election, Labor announced the royal commission would go ahead.

?What's happening today

That brings us to today, which marks day one of the commission with its first hearings in Brisbane.

It'll kick off at 10am but unlike the rest of the public hearings, no witnesses will be called.

Instead this one is more ceremonial and will involve opening statements from the commissioner, Catherine Holmes AC SC, and the senior counsel assisting, Justin Greggery.

The hearing will also be live streamed through the royal commission's website.

A woman standing in an office full of legal books
Catherine Holmes is a former chief justice of the Queensland Supreme Court. (ABC News: Stephen Cavenagh)

Who will give evidence at future hearings?

That's still unclear, so is when and where the next hearings will be.

Mr Shorten said he anticipated that more of those details would be canvassed by the commissioner at the first hearing.

He said it would be up to the royal commission whether or not to call former government ministers who oversaw the scheme like Scott Morrison, Alan Tudge and Christian Porter.

"But let's never forget this scheme went for four and a half years, it cost $1.9 billion in unlawfully raised debts," he said.

"It was the government of Australia attacking its own citizens, some 400,000 of them, unlawfully.

"It really strains credulity to think that no Coalition minister knows the alarm sirens going for four and a half years, so we'll see what happens."

Some people who make submissions may be asked if they would like to appear before the commission too.

The commission will accept public submissions until February 3 next year, with a final report to be delivered by April 18.

(Votes: 0)

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