One of the chief proponents was Morrison himself. He announced the biggest part of the welfare crackdown as treasurer in the Turnbull government in the closing days of the 2016 election campaign.
Morrison revealed the decision with the Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann, as a surprise saving to help pay for the Coalition’s election promises four days before polling day.
The saving claimed to be worth $2.3 billion over four years and it was meant to generate revenue by asking people to repay some of their government payments when their income exceeded the test in the welfare rules.
The concept of checking a welfare recipient’s income and asset records was not new, but it was escalated that day to a scale that captured far more people.
The core calculation has since proven to be totally flawed. The Federal Court rejected the fundamental design of the policy – the reliance on “income averaging” to decide who breached the income test – and the government never collected the money it claimed.
That did not stop Morrison and Cormann using the welfare crackdown during the election campaign – on June 28, 2016 – to claim their election promises would add $1.1 billion to the budget bottom line.
Without the robodebt scheme, they would have been forced to admit they were deepening the budget deficit like Labor.
The claimed savings included $285 million from “improving engagement” with welfare recipients, $661 million from income data matching, $527 million from non-employment income data matching and $527 million from ensuring welfare recipients properly disclosed their assets.
(It is not clear how much of that money was ever received. The government has not revealed these details, only that it will repay $721 million already collected.)
The Coalition assumed what it wanted to believe and the computers calculated the savings. Nobody cared about the nightmare they would unleash when the computers churned out the debt notices and the letters went out in the mail.
The head of the Australian Council of Social Service, Cassandra Goldie, saw the fundamental problem: the government would be asking for money from people who did not have it.
“Aggressive pursuit of debts against people who are on the lowest income is high risk,” Goldie said on the day the savings were announced. She was proven right but the government would not listen.
Why not? It had an election to win.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.