Australian PM calls inquiry into ‘robodebt’ scandal; Philippines government to invest in climate change measures: policy & delivery news in brief

By on 01/09/2022 | Updated on 01/09/2022
Anthony Albanese said he wanted to prevent anything like the robodebt scandal "from ever happening again". Photo courtesy of the Australian Government, published on www.pmc.gov.au under the CC-BY-4.0 licence (via Wikimedia Commons).

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Australian PM calls inquiry into ‘robodebt’ scandal

The Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese has announced an inquiry into the ‘robodebt’ scandal in which federal government chased more than 400,000 people for inflated or non-existent debts.

The royal commission – the highest form of inquiry into matters of public importance – was called by Albanese last week. It had been one of his pledges in the run-up to the May federal election, which his party won, ousting the coalition government that had overseen the failed debt-calculation system between 2016 and 2020, when it was scrapped it.

Read more: Labor promises public inquiry into ‘Robodebt’ failings if it wins Australian election

The system was used by Centrelink – the Services Australia agency responsible for making social security payments – to identify people who had been overpaid benefits. It calculated people’s income over short periods and assumed that their earnings remained steady throughout the year, leading government to unlawfully demand that claimants pay back non-existent debts or more than was owed.

“The royal commission will examine the establishment of the scheme, who was responsible for why it was necessary, how concerns were handled, how the scheme was financing the government and measures to prevent this from ever happening again,” Albanese said. 

Read more: Australian government was aware ‘Robodebt’ programme unlawful, emails reveal

Bill Shorten, minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, said responsibility for the scandal rested both with the ministers responsible and senior public servants. He added that the new government was “going to continue reforming debt-collection systems”.

The ‘robodebt’ scheme has been the subject of considerable controversy with critics saying it exacerbated mental health illnesses in some of the country’s most vulnerable people and may have led to suicides. It has been the subject of an investigation by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, two Senate committee inquiries, and several legal challenges. Last year, a federal court judge awarded victims a AUS£1.8bn (US$1.2bn) settlement.

The commission has been allocated AUS$30m (US$20m) and will be led by former chief justice of the Queensland Supreme Court Catherine Holmes. The deadline for the final report is 18 April 2023.

Read more: Australian government to refund 470,000 unlawful welfare debts

Philippines government plans to spend US$8bn on climate change measures

The Philippines government hopes to allocate a record ₱453bn of its proposed ₱5.27 trillion (US$93bn) budget for next year on addressing climate change.

This would mean the proportion of the budget spent on climate change adaptation and mitigation for 2023 would be 56.4% higher than this year’s allocation of ₱289bn (US$5bn). Budget chief Amenah Pangandama said there had been a 21.3% increase in climate-related expenditures since 2015.

The bulk of next year’s funding, around 58%, would go to water sufficiency projects. According to the Department of Budget and Management, funding for major projects such as the Department of Public Works and Highways’ flood management programme would be prioritised, and have been allocated ₱169bn (US$2.9bn) in the plan. This would cover the construction and rehabilitation of flood-mitigation structures and drainage systems nationwide.

The rest of the funding would be spent on sustainable energy, food security measures, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ greening programme, and an initiative that would see over six million trees planted across 11,631 hectares of land.

Read more: Singapore and Indonesia to collaborate on tackling climate change

Singapore government and Google Cloud sign AI MoU

The Singapore government and Google Cloud have signed a memorandum of understanding that will see the two partners working together to create, test and scale artificial intelligence applications in key areas such as finance, sustainability and healthcare.

The partnership will see Google Cloud provide dedicated training resources and certification programmes to cultivate AI and machine learning proficiency for certain public sector officers, and will also cover research and development and AI governance.

Read more: A closer look at Singapore’s AI governance framework: insights for other governments

The programme, which is being led by Singapore’s National AI Office, is understood to be the first AI-focused public-private-partnership involving a global technology company.

“With the MoU, we can look forward to novel AI solutions that will make an impact on the way Singaporeans – and people around the world – live and work,” Chng Zhenzhi, director of the National AI Office said.

Read more: Singapore AI strategy signals launch of dedicated unit

US government urged to improve feds’ fertility benefits

A group of 24 Democrat lawmakers have urged the Biden administration to improve health insurance coverage for government employees seeking treatments such as IVF.

At present, the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program only requires insurance carriers to cover infertility diagnosis and some treatments meaning that some plans do not cover IVF and the use of assisted reproductive technology (ART).

The group of Democrats, from both the House of Representatives and Senate, sent a letter to Office of Personnel Management (OPM) director Kiran Ahuja urging her to expand fertility treatment coverage as part of Biden’s efforts to boost employee recruitment and retention.

They pointed to survey findings that showed that insufficient health insurance cover is a factor “in individuals seeking new employment from organisations that do provide family-friendly coverage of infertility services, such as comprehensive access to ART”.  

They noted that improving insurance coverage would help to improve diversity in federal agencies, enabling LGBTQ+ couples to more easily access fertility treatments in order to start a family.

“The choice to build a family is a fundamental right for all Americans,” they wrote. “People should not have to take on substantial medical debt to grow a family… Federal employees provide essential, often underappreciated, work that is necessary to keep our government functioning, and they should be provided access to affordable family planning services.”

The OPM addressed the issue in February. It said it was interested in “supporting family building efforts” for those covered by the health benefits programme and acknowledged that “more could be done to assist with the financial burden of ART treatment for those who may require it”.

Read more: Biden directs federal agencies to protect abortion access

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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