Centrelink, robo-debt, Services Australia, retirement income

Centrelink: the damage done



Is Centrelink no longer fit for purpose? Current reports of the use of phone passwords to check the relationship status of Centrelink clients are alarming. Big Brother is alive and well, it seems. Given the recent trainwreck revealed by the Royal Commission into Robo-debt, you would think that Services Austral would try harder. It seems not. Here’s why we should all be concerned …

Centrelink’s Robo-debt:

The damage done

It’s a wrap.

On Friday 10 March Commissioner Catherine Holmes concluded the hearings stage of the Royal Commission into the Robo-debt Scheme.

Since it began on 18 August 2022, hundreds of witnesses have been called, including two former Prime Ministers, five former government ministers, and countless personal case studies, public servants, lawyers, academics and ‘affected’ others. This Royal Commission has revealed awful truths about the Australian Government and its bureaucracy.

Except it’s not primarily about the machinery of government.

It’s actually about people – extremely vulnerable people at that.

And how those who serve people in need, view them and treat them.

Their treatment doesn’t make for comfortable viewing or reading.

At its height the robo-debt scheme was aiming for one million ‘interventions’, sending an average of 20,000 letters a week to those they claimed had defrauded the Commonwealth.

The result was untold distress, including suicides of vulnerable welfare recipients who could see no way out.

In the words of one, anonymous, victim,

‘The toll that this debt took on me caused me severe mental anguish, ruined my
relationships and had me seriously contemplating suicide. What was done to me can’t be taken back and the pittance of interest that was paid back doesn’t make up for what was done.’

You may feel sympathy for such victims but remain unconvinced that this has any relevance to you.

If so, it’s time to think again.

Ultimately, four out of five Australians will be welfare recipients during their eightieth decade. Unless you are in the top 20th percentile, you, too, will become a customer of Centrelink. Even if you are in the wealthiest cohort as a retiree, you are more than likely to need to deal with Centrelink to receive a Commonwealth Seniors Health Card. One way or another, you’ll be a client.

So how do you expect to be treated?

The findings of the Royal Commission are due to be released  in June this year.

But the evidence we have seen so far has been damning and the Commissioner, at times, unblinkingly scathing about the performance of senior bureaucrats and the ministers to whom they reported.

The Robo-debt process was most likely illegal. Evidence of this unlawfulness was available in 2014. But mass denial and ‘forgetfulness’ meant that this illegality was overlooked. The scheme relied on algorithms to average the incomes of people who largely existed on precarious, volatile income streams. These ‘average’ incomes were suspect, but nevertheless used as the basis for claims of ‘fraudulent’ debt and subsequent debt collection notices raised in support of such flimsy claims.

There was a seeming presumption of guilt with the ‘debtor’ required to prove innocence rather than the agency (Centrelink) which made the allegation.

In all, 400,000 claims were issued between 2015 and 2019. This was meant to bring in $2.8 billion in foregone revenue, but to date this supposedly ‘efficient’ collection system has led to a $30 million Royal Commission and a $1.8 billion class action settlement against the Commonwealth. Not that ‘make good’ payments will bring back those purported to have taken their own lives rather than deal with crushing debt. Nor will it assuage the stress of hundreds, if not thousands of others who were pawns within the Robo-debt machine.

And what of the department and its agency?

Perhaps it was not simple rebadging in 2019 with the name change from the Department of Human Services to Services Australia. Was there a message there we failed to see when ‘human’ was removed? The delivery arm of this department is Centrelink, long slammed for its poor delivery and ‘43 million calls on hold’ record. But the delivery of the Robo-debt scheme was not about poor resourcing or inefficiency. The methodology was illegal and brutal with many Centrelink employees complicit over a period of four years.

What does this say about the agency charged with managing and delivering vital support services including Jobseeker, family welfare, Medibank and the Age Pension?

And specifically, when it comes to retirement income, more than $49 billion in benefits associated with the Age Pension and concession cards – benefits needed by 80% of 80 year old Australians?

The evidence from the Royal Commission  suggests that many in the agency simply didn’t give a damn. That the long-term demonising of welfare recipients is alive and well. As one commentator noted, there was no regard for the ‘real people’. No understanding that financial support delivered to those who are out of work or who have retired is not a gift or a favour, but their legislated right. And that the agency’s job is to deliver it fairly, efficiently, equitably. At any level Centrelink’s performance looks like an epic fail.

This may sound harsh. Yes, there are probably thousands of Centrelink staff who are compassionate and caring individuals. But if their efforts can be overridden by an algorithm that firstly defines fraudulent debt illegally and then issues a ‘pay or else’ summons, it’s worth repeating the question. What does this say about Centrelink?

More specifically, what does the Robo-debt fiasco say about the central agency charged with delivering retirement income to four out five older Australians.

Should we be hopeful that this was just a blip and by the time we hit 80, all will go well?

Or should we be seeking a wider review of the way welfare works – or doesn’t – and force improvements now?

Maybe the first step would be to put the ‘human’ back into Services Australia?