Anti-corruption body decided against robo-debt probe. Now it is being investigated

The official who oversees the National Anti-Corruption Commission has said she will look into its decision not to investigate public officials involved in the robo-debt scandal.

Last week,thecommission revealed it would not launch an inquiry after a royal commission into the welfare debt recovery schemelast year referred six unidentified individuals for further investigation.

Gail Furness,SC,is the inspector of the NACC,tasked with looking into the commission’s decisions and conduct.

Gail Furness,SC,is the inspector of the NACC,tasked with looking into the commission’s decisions and conduct.Jeremy Piper

The integrity body had said the conduct of the public officials was discussed extensively in the royal commission’s 990-page report,and it was unlikely further evidence could be collected.

But on Thursday,NACC inspector Gail Furness,SC,said she had received 900 complaints about the commission’s decision not to start a corruption investigation.

“Many of those complaints allege corrupt conduct or maladministration by the NACC in making that decision,” the inspector said in a statement.

“I also note that there has also been much public commentary. Accordingly,I have decided to inquire into that decision. I anticipate that I will make my findings public in due course.”

The first Commonwealth anti-corruption body,set up by the Albanese government as a key election commitment,said last week it would not be useful to conduct another lengthy and costly inquiry.

The former Coalition government’s robo-debt scheme aimed to recover $1.7 billion in alleged Centrelink overpayments. It used an automated system of income averaging to identify alleged discrepancies between recipients’ reported income and income data held by the Tax Office,then put the onus on recipients to disprove the debt.

Many debts were calculated based on incorrect data,leading to huge stress among vulnerable Australians asked to repay money.

Advocates who campaigned against robo-debt criticised the NACC’s decision not to investigate further,but it attracted minimal political blowback.

The NACC statement explaining its decision said:“In the absence of a real likelihood of a further investigation producing significant new evidence,it is undesirable for a number of reasons to conduct multiple investigations into the same matter.

“This includes the risk of inconsistent outcomes,and the oppression involved in subjecting individuals to repeated investigations.

“There is not value in duplicating work that has been or is being done by others,in this case with the investigatory powers of the royal commission,and the remedial powers of the[public service commission].

“The[NACC] cannot grant a remedy or impose a sanction[the public service commission] can. Nor could it make any recommendation that could not have been made by the robo-debt royal commission. An investigation by the[NACC] would not provide any individual remedy or redress for the recipients of government payments or their families who suffered due to the robo-debt scheme.”

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news,views and expert analysis.Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter.

Paul Sakkal is federal political correspondent for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald who previously covered Victorian politics and has won two Walkley awards.

Most Viewed in Politics