My brush with robodebt



I was heartened by the announcement that Gordon Legal is pursuing a class action for robodebt victims that will seek to require Centrelink to establish a lawful basis for any debt due to it. I am one of hundreds of thousands of people who has gone through the robodebt process.

A man walks into a Medicare and Centrelink office at Bondi Junction on 21 March 2016 in Sydney. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)Like Victoria Legal Aid's test-case client Deanna Amato, I too felt the exercise of a reverse burden of proof; like I was guilty until proven innocent. The very nature of the scheme goes against the common law principle that the prosecution is to prove the guilt of an accused person, which is said to lie at the foundations of law and order in this country. Despite what I already knew of the problematic nature of the scheme, I was left feeling deeply anxious and questioning my own conduct.

There seems to be distinct phrases in how Centrelink have approached robodebt, which has been referred to by Bill Shorten MP as verging on extortion. Earlier victims were issued debts directly. My story was a little different and goes like this.

In July of this year, I was issued a letter via registered post with the subject line 'We need you to check and update your past income information', signed 'National Manager Compliance Program'. The 'check' was for the 2013-14 financial year. I came to know about it on a Friday evening and I got right into it, determined to get it over with quickly. Well, if only!

After trawling through emails, I discovered I was one of the fortunate ones who had sufficient payslip information available to me electronically. I filled out the required form online which took hours, including uploading payslips to the Centrelink system with some difficulty as it froze regularly. I was unable to complete all the information as the form in question pre-filled the dates of payslips, which did not correspond to the dates on my payslips.

This demanded a phone call. I cringed at the thought, reflecting on my experience with 132490, still called the 'Youth and Students line', which now handles calls regarding everything from Low Income Health Care Cards to Youth Allowance and Newstart for under 22s. I thought of my recent phone queue 'on hold' experiences: 20 minutes if I called right on 8am; 40 plus minutes if I called before 11am; an engaged signal anytime later than that.

To my surprise, getting through on the robodebt line was pretty swift. Unfortunately, my documents had not yet appeared on the system at the operator's end so I had to go through and read all the details out loud so that he could enter them manually.


"I wonder when corporations and millionaires are going to receive the same scrutiny as 'the little people' in this country."


Eventually, the operator informed me that I had provided sufficient information for the debt to be calculated. After an extended time of waiting on hold, he returned with a 'provisional result' which turned out to be zero. He informed me that I had $70 unreported income which was adjusted using working credits, meaning it was of no consequence. He also informed me that I would receive a letter communicating the final result and he apologised twice for taking my time.

Before the call ended, he asked me to agree to provide any further information that the department may ask for on this matter. I asked if this agreement would reflect on the determination of the final result and he said it wouldn't, so I declined.

This conversation took place over five weeks ago and I have received no correspondence since. I am among many who have sacrificed time for this scheme as I also continue to wonder when corporations and millionaires are going to receive the same scrutiny as 'the little people' in this country.

For these reasons and so many more that have come to light around the flawed nature of this system, this joint action is extremely welcome. As Kate Galloway raised earlier this month, there have been multiple issues of great concern raised, from the allegations of staff claiming to have issued debts to reach performance targets to the 2030 deaths allegedly linked directly to the scheme.

No amount of 'keeping your details up to date' would be sufficient when the nature of data matching involves averaging out income across the financial year in question when the majority of people under scrutiny were employed casually at that time.

The hope for us all in this climate of politics that are vehemently attacking social security and treating poverty as a moral issue is in not losing sight of the fact that each and every one of our voices counts. With Deanna Amato's case going to trial in December and the class action against the federal government in motion, we must continue to stand up for our rights and remain critical of government actions.


Bree Alexander's words have appeared with Enchanting Verses, Westerly Magazine and Australian Multilingual Writing Project. Under pseudonym Lika Posamari, she was shortlisted for the Overland Fair Australia Prize 2018 (NTEU category) and published a poetry chapbook The Eye as it Inhales Onions.

Main image: A man walks into a Medicare and Centrelink office at Bondi Junction on 21 March 2016 in Sydney. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Lika Posamari, Bree Alexander, Robodebt, Centrelink



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Existing comments

The indignity of Robodebt (Centrelink and ATO) is that the debt is assumed on their basis of sometimes misinformation despite that the Claimant(s) have made a Declaration that their information is true and correct, being under penalty if not. Shorten and Amato may struggle to prove extortion; nonfeasance by public departments has no case with certain legal protections but misfeasance could succeed. It should be readily easy to determine Administrative Action Complaints which have addressed earlier shortcomings with systemic errors but failed to achieve corrective targets... A public entity has no responsibility to act but must act with diligence if they do so. The Centrelink portal remains an abject failure despite "new look" redesign and Apps. I find it unconscionable that departments issue threatening debt notices when they're fully aware of their own system/records failings and disregard a person's Declaration...but no apologies when the debt is unfounded.

ray | 01 October 2019  

I am wondering if this robodebt scheme is inherently any different from the robocaller system which induces ordinary citizens into parting with their resources under false threat of prosecution. But perhaps only the robocaller is guilty of a false threat.What a disgraceful mass miscarriage of justice and of extortion by Centerlink and the Morrison Government.There are reliable ,efficient and legal means of dealing with the relatively few benefit scammers. This is what happens when an ideological driven false idea of mass fraud is farmed out to IT privateers, to correct, IT always overpromise and underdeliver while ignoring basic rights, but not usually under government sponsorship.

jpb | 02 October 2019  

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