Robodebt at the vanguard of government power grab

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As the government plans to roll out cashless welfare cards beyond the trial locations, and attempts to garner support for drug testing of welfare recipients, a Monash University report reveals that those on Newstart have significantly poorer health outcomes than the general population. Although the government proclaims its policy objectives are to get Australians off Newstart and into work, those who do move off Newstart and into work are relentlessly pursued under the government’s discredited robodebt policy.

Outside of a Centrelink office (Scott Barbour/Getty images)

Despite the Prime Minister’s invocation that those who ‘have a go will get a go’, robodebt shows no such idealism. The program, operating since mid-2016, matches Centrelink data with data from the Tax Office to reveal ‘inconsistencies’ between income declared to Centrelink with that declared for tax. However, Centrelink is paid fortnightly, and tax is declared as an annual sum. The program therefore averages annual taxable income to compare against Centrelink payments. The effect is that even if you earned nothing for six months while correctly collecting Newstart, the amount you earned in the next six months is averaged over the entire period to make it look as though you were collecting Newstart payments to which you were not entitled.

The department automatically generates letters demanding that the former social security recipient prove the calculation to be incorrect. As these calculations span back as far as nine years, it is usually all but impossible to prove the calculation wrong. A debt notice then issues, followed by pursuit of debt collectors, and ultimately tax returns are garnisheed putting alleged debtors in a position where they just cannot win.

Tragically, over 2030 deaths have been reported following the issue of debt notices to recipients who simply cannot cope with the often false accusation. The government affirms this dystopian program, claiming that it is ‘working as intended’.

Early in 2019, Madeleine Masterton, a robodebt recipient, brought an action against the government, challenging the validity of the program. That matter settled before going to trial when the government waived the debt. A second challenge has since been mounted by Deanna Amato. Miraculously, and just before the matter was due to be heard last Friday, the government discovered that the debt of $2,754 was incorrectly calculated. The correct calculation of debt was under $2.

You read that correctly — two dollars.

The government has agreed to refund the money it garnished from Amato’s tax return but has refused to pay interest. Further, and in contrast to the first action, the government has agreed that the matter can still be heard. This will therefore be the first time that robodebt will be tested in the courts.

 

"The misapplication of government power affects us all, whether we are personally in the firing line or not. Once government power advances unchecked, society itself becomes out of balance and government exists solely to uphold its own power."

 

It would be surprising that anyone would condone fraud against the government. However, the government’s staunch defence of the robodebt system is disproportionate in myriad ways.

There is little evidence that there is overpayment anywhere near the extent ‘uncovered’ by robodebt. The fundamental — and deliberate — flaw in its calculation makes it impossible to determine whether the program has uncovered overpayment or not.

Additionally, job seeker allowance amounts to only approximately 6 per cent of total government expenditure on welfare and social security — a relatively insignificant part of the Australian budget. It is somewhat puzzling that the government expend so much energy pursuing dubious ‘debts’ when it could be tackling far greater financial burdens.

Welfare fraud is also not the rampant problem it is made out to be, and social security fraud prosecutions have reduced in recent years. The robodebt system, however, operates outside the framework of fraud offences, by manufacturing a debt, using unconscionable, and likely unlawful, means to do so. Of particular concern are allegations of Centrelink employee daily targets that remove the notion of ‘human services’ from the work of this government department. The department head denies the whistleblower allegations.

The government’s persistent mantra of ‘have a go, get a go’ pitting ‘lifters’ against ‘leaners’ turns into a lie when government effectively punishes those who move from Newstart into employment. A policy genuinely in support of moving into employment would not seek to capitalise on the ambiguity of accounting in the year of transition from welfare to work — which is effectively what robodebt does.

And the government is misapplying its power in multiple ways. Instead of proving that a recipient owes a debt, it has reversed the onus of proof so that recipients need to prove that they were not entitled to payments — often many years down the track. In an attempt to defend itself, the Department of Human Services (DHS) released personal information about one recipient who publicly criticised the program. And it can hardly be said to be behaving as a model litigant in the two legal challenges: the first, in settling before trial and doing so again.

While all of these factors are examples of an erosion of government responsibilities to promote civil society and good governance, it is perhaps the last of these that causes most concern. The misapplication of government power affects us all, whether we are personally in the firing line or not. Once government power advances unchecked, society itself becomes out of balance and government exists solely to uphold its own power.

Yet the government is aware of its power grab, shown by recent revelations that robodebt could be used to target ‘pensioners and other sensitive groups’. It is obviously weighing up the political cost of going beyond the vulnerable and relatively powerless groups it has already targeted. If we do not stand up to this erosion of due process, it will eventually reclaim us all.

 

 

Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.

Main image credit: Outside of a Centrelink office (Scott Barbour/Getty images)

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, robodebt, Centrelink

 

 

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Existing comments

Real stress, the physiological response to physical or mental/emotional threats, produces high levels of adrenalin and cortisone which have significant effects on the heart. Contrary to the perception that heart attacks and cardiac arrest come from physical effort, the chemical effects of stress are the commonest precipitating cause of heart attack and sudden death. The staggering 2030 deaths amongst the victims of the robodebt system are almost certainly due to the stress reaction in response to the threat of unearned debt and have to be attributed entirely to government policy. Such threats to life and good health should be removed immediately from government policy.
john frawley | 12 September 2019


I saw our PM on the 7.30 Report recently advising that Newstart was intended as an interim measure to 'get people back to work'. We all know how difficult it can be, especially in disadvantaged regional and rural areas, to find employment which fulfils the criteria of job satisfaction and financial viability. Robbing people of their dignity while searching for work, or accessing part-time work, devalues individuals and families. And reveals the measure of our leadership. It also shines a harsh light on people who are comfortably in employment and who turn the other way in not holding the government to account.
Pam | 12 September 2019


Thanks Kate for this analysis of a very pressing concern. John's and Pam's comments also point to very pertinent aspects of the Robodebt debacle. I remain astonished that not one of the federal ministers responsible for Robodebt (several in the frame) has acknowledged any significant error or lack of judgment in the entire process. Apart from the heavy handed brutalising behaviour of Centrelink and ATO in this saga, the following are for me very presssing, unresolved issues: 1, The overall stewardship of the fed government's funding relationships with non government employment agencies of many flavours. How effective is their actual performance in relation to cost? 2. The reluctance of a succession of relevant fed ministers to give us a statistical breakdown on the categories of jobs they claim to have created (full time, part time permanent, casual full time, casual part time etc) - instead of giving us one big number (the old bamboozle), expecting us to be impressed. How good are these jobs? For how long? Where are they? 3. If only the AIHW and related agencies could do serious statistical analysis on the health and wellbeing impacts experienced by those who have had serious disputes with Centrelink and ATO via Robodebt. Can't see it happening - but there is salutory learning here in the sphere of flagrant/inhumane and unjust abuses of statutory powers.
Wayne Sanderson | 13 September 2019


A well reasoned article Kate and it paints a chilling picture of a Government that has become the ultimate schoolyard bully. Morrison brags about creation of $1.4m jobs. Where are they? He brags about National security and turn back the boats. The reality is Manus and Nauru are perpetually paraded in front of the electorate as jewels in the Home Affairs crown. Morrison could take a leaf out of Adern's book. Do something positive about tree planting. Build the channel from the Burdekin Ross to the Darling. Encourage manufacturing in the Bus/ car/aircraft/ bicycle industry. Does everything have to come from China and Japan? Tighten our economic borders instead of blithering about the dire threat of a hard working Tamil family. Robodebt is a smoking gun which will blow up in their faces.
Francis Armstrong | 13 September 2019


Kate, One of my daughters has experienced the inequality of "Robodebt" . The impact on her mental wellbeing was immense, not to mention the impact it has had on the family .We calculated that there was no way she could have run up such a debt . In the end to get Centrelink off her back, she agreed to pay by instalments. I believe she will take a lifetime to pay it back-yet she did not owe it in the first place! This Government is the meanest lot we have ever had in power and the most unfair. As a Veteran, my battles with the DVA has gone back over two decades. I was conscripted and sent to Vietnam- I did not at any time agree to go. Now I am paying the price in ruined heath!
Gavin A O'Brien | 14 September 2019


The cashless card worries me as a control on where money is spent. These are just some cash only payments: Festival/Bazaar Stall, Farmers Market, Small Op Shop, Garden Services, Handyman Services. The handyman services especially can consume thousands of unbudgeted but necessary funds and can only seldom be paid in installments. It also puts women in abusive relationships at further risk with a diminished ability to hide small amounts of money to enable them to break away.
Anna | 16 September 2019


Thanks Kate. You are the first writer I have seen to identify approximately 6 per cent of total government expenditure on welfare and social security. Taking that to the overall budget of $500.87 billion, its hard to understand why this government is so determined to push the elderly into debt, when so many lived debt free for years
me thinks | 18 September 2019


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