Given recent events in Australia, you could say the price of political ideology is $1.2 billion, as that is the settlement the Coalition government negotiated to make the ‘robodebt’ class action go away without a court case. Probably more telling is there appears to be nothing for the thousands that are suffering long term psychological effects as a result of being falsely accused of large debts or even more sadly, nothing for relatives of those who felt the only way out of the financial issues caused by the Coalition’s systemic use of the ‘income averaging’ process to calculate Centrelink debts was suicide. The Conversation provides a detailed timeline of what it calls the fiasco as well as a discussion on Centrelink’s apparent long standing policy of settling any legal disputes resulting from ‘robodebt’ letters before they reached a court determination.
Despite the evidence of the former head of the Department of Human Services at one Robodebt Senate Enquiry claiming the scheme wasn’t linked to anyone’s death it seems there are a number of people with first-hand experience that have a different recollection
Handwritten letters were submitted to a Senate inquiry this afternoon by Queensland mothers Kath Madgwick and Jennifer Miller.
The women were responding to a comment made by Department of Social Services secretary Kathryn Campbell at a previous senate hearing on July 31 that assertions people had died over robodebt were “not correct”.
In her statement, Ms Madgwick wrote of her “amazing, caring and intelligent boy” Jarrad, who died on May 30 last year.
Others have claimed the death toll from robodebt is 2030 people, a number far higher than the Australian death toll from COVID-19 (at the time of writing this article).
Robodebt is a process within Centrelink that matches income reported through various government computer systems over a financial year and compares the income with benefits paid by Centrelink throughout the year. The problem is where a recipient doesn’t receive the annual income on a consistent basis.
For example, a student earning the (apparently mythical) $3,000 a week picking fruit over the three month Christmas break will report no income to Centrelink for the period of the year they are studying full time. As the wages earned run out, the student honestly reports no or minimal income in a Centrelink income support application as they are a full-time student. Centrelink assesses the claim and pays the relevant payment according to its rules.
When the student completes their tax return sometime between July and October and submits it, the ATO computer reports to Centrelink that the student received $36,000 from an employer in the past financial year. The Centrelink payment received while the student is studying full time is (according to the ideology of the Coalition) undeserved as it will be frittered away on trivialities but in reality is spent on essentials such as rent, food, uni fees and so.
Centrelink’s robodebt system then comes into play, looks at the $3,000 a week income earned in 3 months picking mangoes in northern Australia in the height of summer, annualises the income and sends a letter out some time later to the student saying they were overpaid. The justification for the letter is the automated system believes our student ‘earned’ close to $700 a week for the entire year. By the time the robodebt letter is sent, the student has moved, uses a different email address and knows nothing until a debt collector (whose job it is to get the money as per the details provided, not re-assess the accuracy of the claim) comes knocking on their door, chasing the original but incorrectly calculated debt, plus debt collector fees plus interest.
If only there was a way for someone to look at the computer calculated claim and follow the trail before sending out the letter. Well there was; until the Coalition in their ongoing battle to victimise those that need assistance, tweaked the system
In the past a Centrelink officer would do a basic investigation before deciding whether to send out a letter. But since July 2016, the computer prints out and sends the letter on its own.
The letter asks people to log on to myGov and explain why the income they’ve reported to the welfare agency is different to what their employer has reported to the tax office.
Before the system was automated, only 20,000 interventions were made a year. Now the amped up system is running at 20,000 a week [in 2017]
The Government says it’s wrong to characterise these as “debt letters” — Centrelink is just trying to get more information about what’s behind the discrepancy.
‘Gaining more information’ is probably fair enough as Centrelink does have an obligation to recover benefits claimed incorrectly, but oversight by someone that can make a judgement call is far preferable to reliance on a machine that applies the logic it has been programmed to apply. If 20,000 ‘information’ letters are sent out in a week rather than the previous 20,000 a year, surely someone would have noticed (even when boasting they had exceeded their performance indicators if nothing else).
You would have also thought that if a considerable number of people are complaining about a process to their local MPs and the media, the responsible minister would have asked for some information on how the system was working and if it was legal. Apparently not. It took two Senate Enquiries and a class action to find out what was happening.
The Coalition Treasurer in 2016 was Scott Morrison. He announced the change from human oversight to reliance on data matching as a part of a plan to expand automation, implemented to save costs just prior to the 2016 budget. “Responsible” ministers for the operation of robodebt also include Alan Tudge and Stuart Robert, both of whom seem to have an interesting set of moral and ethical values.
Settling this class action has cost $1.2 billion, plus the fees and costs associated in the negotiation of the settlement. It took two Senate Enquiries to publicise the details of the people having long term financial or psychological problems because our government was effectively acting illegally. And most importantly, the Coalition’s settlement doesn’t help and support those who felt so alone and depressed they took their own or their families’ lives. The Coalition claims that the ALP used a similar system, and they did. But the ALP system had human oversight which implicitly understood the truism that not all income should be annualised.
In January 2020, Morrison only committed $2 billion to bushfire recovery across the nation. It cost $1.2 billion to buy their way out of the robodebt fiasco they created, and we don’t know the cost of the legal and administration fees on top of that. Shows where the Coalition’s priorities lie, doesn’t it?
What do you think?
This article was originally published on The Political Sword
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