By AMANDA MCLEOD
Prior to the 2022 federal election I was too scared to admit how I was going to vote.
I couldn’t post my political affiliation on social media. I couldn’t tell anyone my intentions. I couldn’t engage in debate and I couldn’t persuade anyone to vote like me. I certainly couldn’t say I was going to vote Labor.
I was traumatised by countless run-ins with Services Australia’s automated bureaucracy. I was simply too scared to expose myself, in case my situation was ‘reviewed’, again.
During the 2022 election campaign Labor promised to shake up the social welfare system. It would hold a Royal Commission into the Robodebt scandal and scrap the Indue Cashless Debit Card.
When it came to Robodebt the Morrison Government ‘consistently denied, obstructed and covered-up [its origins] and refused to take responsibility’, as the Guardian reported in Nov 2020. The Labor-supported class action resulted in an $18 billion settlement. In promising to establish a Royal Commission, Labor called for the ‘need to learn the truth of Robodebt’s origins so that something like this can never again be perpetrated by an Australian Government against its citizens’. Driven by a social justice agenda, Labor called Robodebt ‘illegal and immoral’ and said that the policy ‘caused serious harm to many Australian families — who have reported that this contributed to stress, anxiety, financial destitution and even suicide’.
I hoped that things would change on 21 May 2022. I breathed a sigh of relief; Labor’s election promised much.
If 2020 and 2021 were bad years, for me at least, 2019 was worse.
It was the perfect storm. I was overworked as a sessional academic. I was a single mum and I had been in and out of the workforce for years due to a serious mental illness. I was supplementing my Disability Support Pension (DSP) with sessional work, desperately trying to use my education to its full. I did everything I could to work. The casualisationof academia meant I was overworked, unsupported and underappreciated. And, I was becoming increasingly unwell.
Then, on 8 August 2019, came my initial Centrelink debt notice. All $19,575.81 of it. I was given less than a month to pay the balance which included a 10 per cent interest penalty. My world collapsed. How could I pay more than $650 a day when my pension was less than $500 per week?
How could this have happened? While working at a regional university on and off since 2016 I had carefully declared my income every fortnight. I kept meticulous records. How was this even possible?
Services Australia’s ‘income averaging’ system meant that my pay was spread over the entire tax year rather than the period in which I had worked. As Gordon Legal explained: ‘Robodebts are calculated by Centrelink applying averaged Australian Taxation Office (ATO) PAYG income data across either part or all of the fortnights in which the recipient received payments and treating those averaged amounts as the recipient’s actual earnings in the relevant debt period’. In my case when I did work, I worked semester by semester rather than a weekly set number of hours over a full year. But to an automated system my fortnightly pension looked like an overpayment.
The automation did not take into consideration my particular circumstances. The same thing happened to hundreds of thousand of others receiving Newstart, Austudy, Abstudy, Youth Allowance, Carer Payment, Sickness or Widows Allowance, Parenting Payment or, like me, the DSP, all got caught up in the scandal.
The reframing of what it meant to be worthy of support, was no better expressed when it came to my own experience of Robodebt and the neoliberal agenda of the LNP. I had tried and tried to work so many times that I lost count. At times, I was significantly unwell, at others, I traversed a complicated path in order to stay in good health. For me, things could change day by day. Disability Support pensions are notoriously difficult to get and are increasingly so. I qualified for a DSP when I was seriously unwell during a time when Labor held power. It has given me a level of protection that I could not have done without. But things changed with the election of the LNP and with the introduction of Robodebt. Life became more complicated and those receiving social welfare payments became the target of a neoliberalist agenda in ‘new and improved’ ways.
As someone with a serious mood disorder, the whole event was completely destabilising. Put simply, my symptoms were triggered and my world collapsed. I knew of no way around the system that offered me a way out. I was unaware of the experiences of others until the media began its assault on the scheme. Dealing with Centrelink made everything worse.
For me, navigating Centrelink’s complaints system was confusing and frustrating. Wait times for its Disability, Sickness and Carers phone line blew out. Every time I called, I was met with the same message, that Centrelink was experiencing higher than normal demands on its services. Some calls simply remained unanswered. Contradictory information and advice made the entire process distressing and debilitating. Centrelink’s processes made me feel helpless, hopeless and desperate. The whole system had been deliberately designed to dissuade and deflect and place blame on the recipient.
Federal governments of both persuasions have long sought to determine the eligibility of social welfare payments through the use of data matching to assess overpayments.
Prior to the introduction of the automated ‘Income Compliance Program’ in July 2016, overpayments were manually checked and assessed by using ATO data with reported income.
The Turnbull Government oversaw the implementation of the new plan, with Scott Morrison playing a starring role, formulating the recovery method: ‘As Treasurerin 2016 and social services minister before then, [he] joined a long line of ministers, including Christian Porter, Alan Tudge and Stuart Robert, who believed in the promise of automated welfare debt recovery.’ (Jennett, abc.net.au, 30 May 2020) In 2016, Alan Tudge made the government’s position clear: ‘We’ll find you, we’ll track you down and you will have to repay those debts and you may end up in prison’.
By the end of the same year, the media began to report on the problems with the program and the experiences of those caught up in the system.
Throughout 2017, the criticism continued as the #notmydebt campaign, The Greens, and Labor all voiced concerns. The first Senate inquiry was held and the Commonwealth Ombudsman reported on the system and debt recovery measures. Increasingly, however, Services Australia continued to find more and more cases of ‘non-compliance’. As early as 2017, claims were made as to the illegality of automated debt generation. Yet, the system was strengthened and more citizens pursued. In 2019, shadow minister Bill Shorten publicly supported the idea of a class action pursued against the government. By 2020, there were calls for a Royal Commission into Robodebt and a commitment by Labor to one if elected.
When it came to the human toll, the fallout was immense. According to legalaid.vic.gov, it is believed that more than 2000 people died prematurely between 2016 and 2018 after receiving a ‘compliance’ letter. Some of the most vulnerable people received letters of demand, were hounded by private debt collectors and forced to prove compliance with the rules. They had, in the words of Alan Tudge, been tracked down and forced to repay false and ultimately illegal debts. Peter Whiteford wrote in 2020 that ‘this human cost is difficult to assess and involves much more than financial losses’. Centrelink was aware of the human fallout, writes Whiteford, ‘it has been noted that from January 2017, Centrelink began tweeting the contact number for Lifeline, the national charity providing 24-hour support and suicide prevention services’. Yet Centrelink did nothing more.
The class action brought by Gordon Legal in 2019 successfully argued that the program was unlawful and the government was ordered to wipe and repay debts, pay costs and provide compensation.
The Federal Court called the debacle a ‘shameful chapter’, and approved a settlement worth almost $1.8 billion arguing that the Ministers responsible should have known that the program was flawed. More than 433,000 people had had more than $750 million debts leveled against them.
Even after the scheme was found to be unlawful, Services Australia continued to use income averaging to retrieve money from welfare recipients.
In 2019, as the government came increasingly under fire as to the legality of the program, there were internal signs within Services Australia that the sole reliance on income averaging would be abolished. It would be again combined with manual assessments.
It appeared to be an accident of timing that I, unlike many, was finally able to navigate a deliberately broken and opaque social welfare system. After endless phone calls over many months, I was finally advised to ask for a manual reassessment of my debt. The onus was still on me to prove compliance and that I hadn’t been overpaid by supplying pay slips and other information that Services Australia already had.
In the end my debt was ‘zeroed’ (cancelled) by Services Australia. But because it had been manually assessed it was no longer considered a Robodebt, despite the initial debt letter being computer automated, my experience is not recorded in official figures; I was not part of the class action. But hopefully, the Royal Commission will hear my voice.
Yet, like hundreds of thousands of Australians, I was a victim of the Coalition’s welfare reforms and its budget saving measures. For me, the election of the Labor government promises much.
When it came to the political economy in which the Robodebt scheme was designed, the LNP pursued a neoliberal welfare policy agenda which placed individual responsibility before the common good. Scott Morrison’s ominous claim that ‘we are on your side. If you have a go in this country, you’ll get a go. That’s what fairness in Australia means’ is emblematic of this attitude. The onus was on the individual to not ‘rely’ on the government for support, with individuals increasingly required to express their worth through workplace participation without engagement with the state. The Robodebt scheme was designed within these parameters. Individuals were actively discouraged from engaging with Services Australia. The punitive nature of Robodebt was largely confined to the working and lower-middle classes. For others there were tax cuts and other benefits as if they were the only ones ‘having a go’.
There has been no sincere apology from those in government responsible for the unlawful nature of automated debt generation. There has been no apology to those who have been caught up in it. Nor to families who have lost loved ones. In June 2020, the then Prime Minister Scott Morrison chose his words carefully when he stated: ‘I would apologise for any hurt or harm in the way that the government has dealt with that issue,’ and for ‘any hardship that has been caused to people in the conduct of that activity’. Despite this, and while the Robodebt program would be wound back, Morrison announced that automated debt recovery would continue. After all the inquiries, media coverage, a successful class action and the promise of a Royal Commission, the Coalition had learnt nothing. It simply did not care. As Michelle Pini wrote in Independent Australia ‘it is hard to apologise sincerely for something when you fundamentally believe you have nothing to be sorry about.’
The Robodebt scandal has destroyed lives. The scrapping of the program and the Royal Commission will go some way to right wrongs but, for many, the damage has been done.
The Labor government’s proposed reforms will touch the surface of a system that has suffered at the hands of neoliberal governments for years. At the time of writing, the Jobseeker mutual obligation ‘points based [automated] activation system’ is being widely criticised. It too, is based on the assumption that the welfare recipient owes a debt to society. If economic welfare is ‘designed to promote the basic physical and material wellbeing of people in need’ to ensure ‘the health, happiness, and fortunes of a person or group’, then we are yet to achieve it. And, while Labor has promised to ‘tweak’ the program, there are no plans to raise the level of the Job Seeker payment. I’m just one of thousands that has been caught up in the LNP’s program of welfare ‘reform’. I am not the only one who is hoping for a significant change in direction, and not alone in hoping for a reframing of what it means to be deserving of government support. A commonwealth must mean all are considered worthy and no one is left behind.
A Royal Commission into the Robodebt scandal and the scrapping of the Indue debit card will hopefully go some way to mend a broken system and improve lives of the vulnerable. It will give back some power to those who are at the end of ‘budget saving’ or other nefarious measures.
My Robodebt came at a time when I was most vulnerable. The program was not the sole reason that I became seriously unwell but it certainly was a significant factor. Before the scandal, I worked in higher education as a sessional lecturer in the humanities. The Coalition’s repeated attacks on the sector has made my position redundant. But that is a story for another time.
Dr Amanda McLeod (PhD Monash; BA (Hons) Monash) is a writer and historian based in Victoria with a special interest in capitalism and mass consumerism and their discontents.