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The Robodebt reckoning


In the wake of the Royal Commission into Robodebt, there has been a good deal of talk about the cruelty of the scheme and its illegality. Make no mistake, the findings of this Royal Commission make for grim reading. However, in terms of someone responsible for overseeing the scheme being held accountable, this appears problematic.

Major political figures central to the scheme from 2015 until 2019, have already dismissed the Royal Commission. However, one specific element mentioned by the Royal Commission is still being overlooked; this is the fact that there was a deliberate demonisation of people receiving social security benefits by politicians. The Final Report of the Royal Commission notes that a punitive attitude underpinned the Government attitude towards welfare.

In 2014, then Minister for the Department of Social Services (DSS) Kevin Andrews proposed ‘an interdepartmental committee to develop a whole-of-government strategy for recovery of debt owed by members of the public to the Australian Government.’ This included ‘examining data matching, using online and self-servicing options, using external debt collection agencies and applying a standardised interest charge to debts.’ When Scott Morrison was appointed Minister for Social Services in January 2015, he described himself as a ‘strong welfare cop on the beat.’

The Department of Human Services (DHS) outlined in January 2015 by executive minute what would become Robodebt, and it ‘received rapid approval.’ Approved first by Scott Morrison, the proposal ‘in the form of a New Policy Proposal (NPP)… [made its way] through Cabinet with remarkable speed. In May 2015, as part of its 2015-16 Budget, the Government adopted a measure named Strengthening the Integrity of Welfare Payments.’ The purpose of this measure was to assess fraud and implement new debt collection measures. At different points, the Australian Federal Police, Australian Tax Office and Centrelink all worked closely.

Robodebt was premised on an attitude that those on social security were scroungers, dole bludgers, scammers and even, criminals. If they had taken one dollar of taxpayer’s money that they did not deserve, these people would be made to pay. The Royal Commission concluded that ‘fraud in the welfare system was miniscule, but that is not the impression one would get from what ministers responsible for social security payments have said over the years.’ There is a long Australian tradition of bashing the unemployed, single mothers, the homeless, and other vulnerable people as dole bludgers.

In 2019, a four-year University of Queensland (UQ) study highlighted that the overwhelming majority of unemployed people spent vast amounts of time seeking work. The UQ study also highlighted the impact of social stigma. Robodebt is but the latest example of politicians weaponising negative attitudes against the unemployed and vulnerable.


'Charities throughout the country all aim to assist all those who come to them for help with empathy and compassion. It is time that our politicians and bureaucrats started to do the same.'


What is unique to Robodebt is that despite strong internal concerns about its illegality, the Australian Government implemented it anyway. The costs as we now know, are tragic. Commissioner Catherine Holmes concluded that Robodebt had been ‘responsible for heartbreak and harm to family members of those who took their own lives because of the despair the scheme caused them.’ Commissioner Holmes concluded that:


While each of those deaths may have prompted an internal review of the particular case, they did not galvanise either the Department of Human Services or the Department of Social Services into a substantive or systemic review of the problem of illegal, inaccurate, or unfair debt-raising.


Throughout the four years of its operation (2015-2019) it did not matter that there were consistent internal concerns, or that the method of income averaging being used to calculate the debts were wrong, it did not matter about the harm the Robodebt collection system was causing to people, what mattered was that the unemployed were being held to account. This is the most troubling aspect of the Royal Commission and Robodebt, it lays bare that the dignity of the most vulnerable people in our community is of little importance.

We might ask ourselves, why was it possible for the Robodebt scheme to operate as it did and for so long? A simple answer is that those it intended to ‘police’ are never afforded the same respect and good faith enjoyed by others. For the unemployed, the homeless, and the vulnerable in our society, this is not a new experience. It is just that for the moment this reality is being brought to the attention of the wider media.

In 1993, the Australian Catholic Social Welfare Commission stated that there should be ‘a moral accord with people who are long term unemployed.' A ‘'moral accord’ recognises and affirms that:


Each one of us has an equal human dignity. And human dignity is served best when we are in community and solidarity with one another. Our common human dignity leads us to promise that we will act to meet the needs and dignity of all people, especially people who are long-term unemployed.


In the wake of the Royal Commission, concrete steps must now be taken to ensure that the dignity of vulnerable people is placed at the core of all social service administration. The language used around the unemployed and those on benefits needs to change. As noted, the Royal Commission found that actual rorting of the welfare system was miniscule. This fact needs to become widely known.

Further, the full force of the law must be brought against those responsible. Parliamentarians (and others) are not above the law. This is an important first step in reconstructing the meaning of human dignity in our polity. We should also declare a moratorium on all ongoing social security debt collection actions until better safeguards are put in place to deal more fairly with potential overpayments. Interest should never be charged on any outstanding debts.

As Pope John Paul II wrote, welfare support is ‘the right to life and subsistence.’ We should oppose any system that stigmatises, victimises, and denies ‘subsistence’ particularly to those individuals in most need of help. The Society is routinely seeing the impact of the current cost-of-living crisis, of the housing crisis, and homelessness all over the country. Charities throughout the country all aim to assist all those who come to them for help with empathy and compassion. It is time that our politicians and bureaucrats started to do the same.




Mark Gaetani is National President of the St Vincent de Paul Society.

Main image: Scott Morrison reacts during Question Time at Parliament. (Martin Ollman/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Mark Gaetani, Robodebt, SVDP



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Existing comments

Useful analysis, Mark. But you are being too gentle about this horrific policy.

The unemployed deserve valuing not just because of basic human values such as compassion and human rights, but also because they are the victims of deliberate government policy. In the 50's and 60's government policy was full employment - number of unemployed equals number of job vacancies. Since the onset of neoliberalism in the 80's, government policy (as we're seeing now with the RBA) is to deliberately create unemployment in order to control inflation. The economists call it the NAIRU (the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment). This makes the demonisation of the unemployed an even more disgusting example of blaming the victim.

Secondly, Centrelink complexity and stuff-ups create underpayments as well as overpayments, possibly even more so because of the pernicious way the system is structured. But no-one talks about the underpayments. And if it takes you more than 13 weeks to discover that Centrelink has ripped you off, bad luck – you can kiss your money good-bye, even when Centrelink admits it was their mistake. This contrasts with the legal ability of Centrelink to chase overpayments in perpetuity (increased from six years by the Coalition).

Thirdly, demonising the unemployed for crass political advantage was just a part of the Coalition's modus operandi since Howard. They've also done it to Muslims, asylum seekers and African youth. An article in today's Crikey discusses the Right's war on empathy and its latest manifestation - the 'no' campaign against the Voice to Parliament. Unfortunately, this cruel politicking has worked a treat for them.

Margaret Thatcher, an early matriarch of neoliberalism, was quite open about what she wanted when she said, 'There is no such thing as society". We are now reaping the dystopia of this dog-eat-dog individualism.

Peter Schulz | 03 August 2023  

It should be noted and advised to readers that Gillard and Shorten fermented this ''robodebt'' and in fact took it to an election which they subsequently lost. But they voted in full for it it in the Senate as the Opposition

PHILLIP VINCENT ROWAN | 07 August 2023  
Show Responses

Phillip, can you provide a skerrick of evidence to support this outrageous claim? We've just had a royal commission, the most in-depth enquiry possible, which proved your claim totally false.

Maybe you're confusing it with data-matching, which is a long-standing screening tool to flag possible overpayments, subject to checks by real humans. Robodebt was completely different.

Robodebt involved using data-matching to automatically raise a false debt, put an impossible onus of proof on the victim to prove their innocence by producing casual payslips from five or six years previous, ignored all advice that this was illegal, ignored the 80-odd occasions it was ruled illegal by the AAT, and then illegally used personal data on Centrelink recipients who complained to discredit them. It was a deliberate attempt to extort money from vulnerable people. The perpetrators still show no remorse whatsoever.

As a Christian, what I find most troubling is that, as my atheist friends gleefully remind me, this evil was promulgated by two people who claim to be Christians (Morrison and Robert). It seems that prosperity-preaching Pentecostals think discipleship is waving your arms around rapturously on Sunday morning and doing the Devil's work on Monday - in complete disregard for the life and teaching of Jesus.

Peter Schulz | 08 August 2023  

Ah, but Morrison's and Robert's 'discipleship' was presumably in play when they absented themselves from the vote on the same-sex marriage bill. Presumably there are 'core moralities' that are about other people's behaviours, and 'non-core moralities' that are about one's own behaviour.

Ginger Meggs | 10 August 2023  

The good thing about non-Christians such as Peter's friends critiquing the behaviour of some Christians as being incompatible with their faith is that they have to know what the faith is before they can legitimately draw the distinction. Therefore, more power to them knowing about the faith.

But what do they know or think they know?

It's important for Christians to remember that when non-Christians think about what Christianity should be, they are usually thinking about, because of the long history of Christian philanthropical institutions in Europe and spread elsewhere, practical assistance. That's a branding which should be, like the Crucifixion at Mass, "re-presented" every day, as is done by Mark Gaetani through the SVdP, and others.

Not that we Christians want clouds, but the clouds have silver linings.

Christians are said by Scripture to be ambassadors of Christ, to show, so to speak, "professional driving on display." "Christ" is sometimes a vague concept for the general public. What can usefully be displayed every day is an interpretation of "Christ" through being ambassadors of the Christian brand of practical beneficial assistance.

s martin | 12 August 2023  

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