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Robodebt royal commission rings hollow as Labor creates another debt collection “human tragedy”
Robodebt royal commission is a distraction from the government ramping up "debt" collection against welfare recipients in July
The Antipoverty Centre is disturbed by the government’s attempt to distract from its recent increase in “debt” collection activity against welfare recipients with today’s announcement of a royal commission into robodebt. Labor’s decision to ramp up debt collection without strong protections is a decision to risk killing people.
Included below: comments from Antipoverty Centre spokesperson Kristin O’Connell, proposal for a safe Centrelink debt collection system and crisis line contact information
It’s galling that after Bill Shorten ignored the grassroots campaign led by Not My Debt for years as opposition leader he is now claiming credit for and politicising the hard-won victories of that campaign.
Robodebt isn’t the root of a problem, it’s a symptom of the sick bipartisan desire to see budget savings off the back of the poorest people in the community. If Labor seriously cares about the harm it caused, they would extend this concern to everyone affected by aggressive debt collection practices used against welfare recipients.
This royal commission is carefully crafted with a narrow focus on events that can be attributed to the Coalition government. It must go further. The terms of reference should allow for anyone harmed by Centrelink debt recovery to be heard, no matter how or when the debt was raised.
These so-called debts are generally due to errors in the system or unfair, confusing rules. No one in poverty should be forced to repay Centrelink for money paid out by mistake. The government must stop treating minor accounting and administrative errors as cause for punishment and abandon its punitive debt recovery approach.
There are a number of provisions that allow Centrelink to stop debt recovery, including for people who were overpaid but received the payment in good faith. They have the power to waive debts under social security law and they should exercise this power for everyone on a low income. By failing to do so the government appears to breach ACCC and ASIC debt collection guidelines, which list unemployment as an example of reasons not to harass people for debts – of any kind.
We don't make students repay HECS until they earn enough to do so and it should be the same for welfare.
Quotes attributable to Antipoverty Centre spokesperson and welfare recipient Kristin O’Connell
The prime minister says robodebt caused a “human tragedy” and he’s right. But he’s wrong if the thinks that a bad data matching program is the reason for this tragedy.
A robodebt royal commission is cold comfort to the people who have been let down by the class action. It’s cold comfort to the people who have had the stress of Centrelink recouping money they couldn’t afford – no matter how it was calculated.
Issuing debts to poor people is dangerous and harmful, accurate or otherwise. It only brings more of the horrifying outcomes already produced by abhorrently low payment levels: hunger, homelessness and suicide. They must immediately cease raising and pursuing Centrelink debts until a safe system can be designed that does not recover money from people who can’t afford to live.
We welcome the opportunity this royal commission will provide for people to put their experiences on the record, but it will do nothing meaningful to address the daily violence inflicted on welfare recipients through the unliveable rate of payments and abusive “mutual” obligations system. If he cared, Albanese would ensure we have enough money to live and remove punitive requirements.
Every person affected by robodebt, no matter the sum they were pursued over, deserves justice. But so does everyone else who’s been issued with a debt notice they couldn’t afford to pay.
We extend our solidarity to everyone whose life has been affected by Centrelink recouping funds from those of us who can least afford it.
Media contact: 0413 261 362 / media at antipovertycentre.org
Antipoverty Centre welfare debt collection recommendations
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.