Editor's note

Often, government agencies are keen to have the full extent of their powers tested in court. Not Centrelink. Announcing a class action against the government over its practice of issuing so-called Centrelink robo-debts, legal veteran Peter Gordon said his suspicions were aroused when he noticed that in two years of asserting that it was owed robo-debts, Centrelink has always wiped them just before its rights to them get tested in open court.

Standing with him in parliament house on Tuesday was Labor’s new government services spokesman Bill Shorten, the former opposition leader. Shorten said he consulted Gordon shortly after taking on the portfolio in May and immediately saw the potential for a class action.

This morning, former Administrative Appeals Tribunal member Terry Carney explains that what’s different about this class action and the actions already underway before the tribunal is that it can’t be stopped by Centrelink wiping debts. More than half a million Australians have been served automatically generated notices asserting that their benefits have been overpaid since the robo-debt program began in mid 2016, meaning there are plenty of potential participants.

Tax law expert Helen Hodgson notes that the government itself has conceded that as many as one in five of the debt recovery notices issued under the program might be incorrect, an admission that should lend weight to the claim that there is something systematically wrong with the program, should the case get to court.

The total value of the robo-debt notices issued, not all of which will ever be collected, is $1.25 billion, which happens to be a fair chunk of the 2018-19 budget surplus Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is expected to announce later this week.

Peter Martin

Section Editor, Business and Economy

Top story

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