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Antipoverty Centre condemns Labor’s disturbing plan to raise debts against welfare recipients
The government has quietly announced it will ramp up debt collection against people who rely on Centrelink payments to survive
The Antipoverty Centre is calling on social services minister Amanda Rishworth and government services minister Bill Shorten to prioritise the wellbeing of people in poverty and abandon their plan, announced yesterday, to dial up aggressive debt collection practices against people who rely on Centrelink payments to survive.
Below: comments from Antipoverty Centre spokesperson Kristin O’Connell and contact information for crisis support services
We demand the government stop demonising us by implying there is widespread deception in the social security system.
This is a sickening and contemptible announcement, especially for those who believed the prime minister cared about them, that he would do something to help, as he swanned around making political hay of his childhood poverty.
Welfare recipients were under attack before the change of government, but less than a month since they were sworn in, Albanese’s government has already landed several blows on us:
Denying us any financial relief during an economic catastrophe
Refusing to listen or respond to our fears about people being cut off their payment as a result of the Workforce Australia rollout
Pursuing us over “debts” that are overwhelmingly the result of administrative error and confusing rules
Welfare recipients are in no position to cope with the distress brought on by receiving a Centrelink debt notice, no matter how small. Robodebt is a scandal not because of the method used to unlawfully raise debts, but because of the human toll on people affected by it.
The government must stop treating minor accounting and administrative errors as cause for punishment and abandon its punitive “debt” recovery approach. It must remove unfair and confusing rules that contribute to payment errors.
It is despicable that while this goes on, the government has remained silent on our call to suspend “mutual” obligations penalties for a minimum of 90 days during a dangerous winter for people on low incomes while the new Workforce Australia system is introduced. It is unacceptable for them to ignore our fears about the risk of wrongful payment cuts and “debts”, particularly when the last change in 2018 saw a dramatic increase in erroneous cuts.
The culture and purpose of Centrelink’s debt collection must be dismantled and replaced with a model that treats us with humanity. The role of public servants should be to ensure that accurate payments were made, including backpay for underpayments. When incorrect payments are made by Centrelink where an amount needs to be repaid, this should operate similar to HECS where repayments are deferred until a person has a liveable income.
The government must:
Immediately waive existing Centrelink debts in recognition of the current crisis and systemic failure to apply rules fairly and accurately, including in the time since Robodebt was abandoned.
Cease raising and issuing Centrelink debts until the model is redesigned to be centred on payment accuracy, including identification of underpayments to be back paid.
Ensure the Robodebt royal commission terms of reference include an investigation into the culture, nature and implications of all social security debt collection, particularly regarding people’s health and financial security.
Make a firm commitment that no automated or computer-based decisions will be used to generate debts or be weaponised against welfare recipients in any way, including through the new Workforce Australia employment service.
Adhere at all times to the government’s own debt collection guideline, produced by the ACCC and ASIC, which lists unemployment and pension income as examples of reasons not to pursue debts.
Cease outsourcing Centrelink debt collection and funnelling public money to private companies that profit from our poverty – the same companies that caused immense harm to Robodebt victims.
Quotes attributable to Antipoverty Centre spokesperson and DSP recipient Kristin O’Connell
My blood is boiling. The government knows as well as we do that pursuing welfare recipients over so-called debts only brings more of the horrifying outcomes already produced by abhorrently low payment levels: hunger, homelessness and suicide.
We are stunned that Labor’s highest priority for people who need the social safety net is to extract further budget savings from us at a time when we are pleading for support to get through the triple crises of rapidly rising food, electricity and housing costs.
First they abandoned us by ruling out urgently needed payment increases, now they’re sticking the boot in by seeking to extract money we just don’t have to repay so-called debts we don’t even realise are hanging over us.
This is just another example of dog-whistling to create negative perceptions of welfare recipients among the broader public. It’s a cynical move the government to get away with its savage treatment of people who are only asking for care and support.
How dare the minister needlessly turn the screws on people who rely on income support payments as we face unbearable cost of living pressures – and in the same week as she acknowledged Centrelink payments are too low, while distracting the media by claiming the meagre minimum wage increase and legislated indexation of Family Tax Benefit as immense victories.
The government cannot continue to hide behind budget ledgers that mean nothing to those of us who cannot afford to live. This is no longer the previous government’s failure, but the cumulative result of decades of degradation of social security that Labor is now in a position to fix.
Consistent cuts and political bastardry have led to the systemic failure, criminalisation and abuse of people who rely on social security – and this new government, in its first month, has indicated it has no desire to correct this.
This is unspeakable cruelty from Labor and it is not what people voted for. The ministers responsible ought to be ashamed of themselves.
Media contact: 0413 261 362 / media at antipovertycentre.org
Crisis support and counselling services
If you need support you can seek guidance, counselling or crisis help from the below organisations or talk to someone you trust.
Suicide Call Back Service – general: 1300 659 467
SANE Australia – general: 1800 187 263
13YARN – for First Nations people: 13 92 76
National Counselling and Referral Service – for disabled people: 1800 421 468
Headspace – for young people: 1800 650 890
QLife – fo LGBTQIA+ people: 1800 184 527
Full Stop – for people who have experienced sexual harassment and assault: 1800 385 578
Embrace Mental Health – multilingual service: https://embracementalhealth.org.au
MensLine – for men: 1300 789 978
Brother to Brother – for First Nations men: 1800 435 799
About the Antipoverty Centre
The Antipoverty Centre was established in May 2021 by people living on Centrelink payments to counter problems with academics, think tanks and others in the political class making harmful decisions on behalf of people they purport to represent.
We have deep expertise in poverty, disadvantage and unemployment, because we live it. Our goal is to help ensure the voices and rights of people living in poverty are at the centre of social policy development and discourse. We believe there should be no decision made about us without us.
The Antipoverty Centre is not aligned with any political party and does not accept funding that places political constraints on our work.