Emails reveal government knew Centrelink ‘robo-debt’ scheme was illegal

Newly published emails show the government was warned its controversial scheme was illegal.

Newly published emails show the government was warned its controversial scheme was illegal. Photo: TND

Explosive new emails have revealed the Morrison government was warned its so-called robo-debt scheme was illegal and the ‘debts’ were not lawful.

Confidential emails between tax office officials, provided to a Senate committee on Thursday, reveal that the Department of Social Service had legal advice that thousands of debts raised were “not lawful debts”.

But it’s not yet clear how long ago that legal advice was received.

The November 19, 2019, email, from the Australian Taxation Office’s general counsel, Jonathan Todd, to the ATO commissioner, Chris Jordan, was marked “Sensitive: Legal”.

“In further discussion with the DSS, it appears that what you need to raise is: they have advised you that they have received legal advice that debts based solely upon DSS own income averaging of ATO annual tax data are not lawful debts (‘robo-debts’),” the email stated.

“They have also suspended the raising and recovery of robo-debts as of today.”

Just a week later, on November 27, a federal court judgment revealed the government had settled a court challenge brought by Victoria Legal Aid over a robo-debt, rather than allow it to proceed to court.

In Parliament on Thursday, the first question to the Prime Minister was about the scandal, with Scott Morrison asked, “Does the Prime Minister regret administering an illegal robo-debt scheme?”

Mr Morrison asked Human Services Minister Stuart Robert to answer the questions.

Mr Robert claimed the changes were in response to community feedback.

“These changes are designed to make the program more robust by requiring additional evidence,” he said.

“This means we’ll no longer raise a debt where the only information we’re relying on is the averaging of ATO. For those debts raised to date, the statement was made that services Australia will be carefully and methodically working to identify those customers.”

His response prompted Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese to interrupt, yelling “you’re breaking the law”, in Parliament.

Greens senator Rachel Siewert said the government must reveal how long it knew the scheme was illegal.

“People in our community have been traumatised and harassed for years and years, many have large debts they don’t owe and are being forced to pay with interest and they want and deserve answers,” she said.

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