The ‘Robodebt’ royal commission began this week. 

The first official hearings were held in Brisbane after the government last month announced it would follow through with its election promise to set up an inquiry into the creation, design and implementation of the scheme.

The Robodebt scheme was found to have unlawfully claimed almost $2 billion in payments from 433,000 people, using a computer algorithm to match people's income support payments with data from the Australian Tax Office to see if they had been overpaid their welfare payments.

The scheme was set up to automatically send debt notices to people it decided had been paid more than they were owed. 

It was a change from the previous process in which notices would only be sent after a Centrelink officer had checked the debt was right.

It crucially relied on averaging out people's income over a 12-month period to work out the debts, which the Federal Court of Australia found in 2019 could not be used on its own.

A successful class action ended with a $1.8 billion federal court settlement between the government and victims.

The inquiry is being run by a commissioner; Catherine Holmes AC SC, as well as senior counsel assisting, Justin Greggery.

Commissioner Holmes said in the opening session that while much is already known about how the failed scheme operated, the government’s response “behind the scenes” to warnings and criticism must still be revealed.

Former prime minister Scott Morrison, current opposition frontbenchers Alan Tudge and Stuart Robert, and former ministers Christian Porter and Michael Keenan, all held portfolios with oversight for the scheme.

In the opening session, senior counsel Justin Greggery KC said the “first form of the Robodebt scheme” was in an executive minute to the then social services minister Scott Morrsion in 2015. 

It is unclear which senior ministers may be called to give evidence, but the inquiry has announced that it is unlikely “positions of seniority will be permitted to give evidence remotely”. 

The inquiry will meet again on 31 October.