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The cost of automated welfare

  • 17 July 2023
For those unacquainted, the Robodebt scandal was a controversial welfare debt recovery scheme, where automated systems incorrectly flagged and pursued thousands of individuals for purported overpayments. The consequences were harsh, with the fallout prompting a Royal Commission investigation and a slew of legal actions. This week, while tuning into a discussion on Robodebt on ABC's The Drum, media commentator Dr Vyom Sharma caught my attention. Sharma noted:


I was surprised by the temperature of the commentary… I was hearing a lot of, ‘that’s just politicians up to their usual tricks’. I would have expected a certain amplitude of fury about this, and I can’t help but think that this is connected to how this fraudulent program existed in the first place; that there actually is some political currency to having a program based on an idea that poor people lead on the rest of us. If such a fraud was aimed at the middle class or corporations … it would have elicited pitchfork effigies outside Parliament House. The tepid tut-tutting that I’m hearing can only happen because it’s occurring to the most disenfranchised people. I can’t help but think that if the most marginalised in society had more of a voice, there would have been justice much sooner.  


In the commentary I’ve read about Robodebt, it’s been appropriately discussed as a shameful chapter. But socially, it isn’t something that has featured much in conversation. And when it has, it’s been at a level of remove. Low-temperature discussions, Sharma might say.  

When the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Robodebt was released, it unveiled damning findings on a scandalous government program, bringing to light not just the program's operational failures, but also the underlying attitudes towards welfare recipients.

In analysing the aftermath, one pervasive narrative has been one of caution against over-reliance on automation in critical sectors. And post-Robodebt, the lesson many will walk away with is the dangers of attempting to streamline welfare services using automated technology without adequate human oversight. That’s a valuable take away, and I’m wondering how many more times we’ll have recurrences of Robodebt-like fiascos in future as we cede responsibility to algorithms without adequate human oversight. 

But there’s a more important lesson. As pointed out in Andy Hamilton’s piece in Eureka Street, the Royal Commission into the scheme has unmasked some troubling attitudes and practices within Australia's political landscape. Beneath it is an underlying punitive attitude towards people relying on welfare marked