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Robodebt at the vanguard of government power grab

  • 12 September 2019
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.

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 garnisheed from Amato’s tax return but has refused to pay interest. Further, and