Issues and policies

Moral bankruptcy
Robodebt stemmed from the false ideological division between the deserving and undeserving poor, but the government still clings to moralistic language

Australians queue at Centrelink in Brisbane. Image © Florent Rols/Zuma Press/Alamy 

When my robodebt letter arrived from Centrelink in the middle of 2017, I knew what it was, and could foresee the whole wearying process of trying to disprove a debt I didn’t owe. By then, a Senate committee inquiry into robodebt had already been held, and the committee, chaired by Greens senator Rachel Siewert, had concluded that the impact of the government’s automated debt-recovery program upon welfare recipients was “profoundly negative”. Alan Tudge, who was then human services minister, dismissed the committee’s findings as “politically motivated”.

By then, grassroots organisations such as Not My Debt had collected hundreds of statements from individuals targeted by robodebt, and dozens of media articles had already been published about people stung by debts that sometimes ran into tens of thousands of dollars, plus interest. Recovery of some of these so-called debts had been passed by Centrelink to private debt collectors, who bombarded luckless citizens with automated phone calls and threatening text messages. One robodebt victim, blogger Andie Fox, wrote about her own difficulties with Centrelink as well as a private debt collector, and had her personal Centrelink records “mistakenly” sent from Tudge’s office to a Fairfax journalist, who then wrote an article questioning the validity of Fox’s claims. In a world where people in powerful positions could be held accountable for their actions, such a flagrant attempt at silencing a critic of government might have resulted in Tudge’s resignation. But we don’t live in that world.

By the time my robodebt letter arrived, vulnerable people had already died, pushed into acute mental distress by the prospect of paying money they didn’t have in order to clear debts that didn’t exist.

And still, successive federal governments pushed on with the scheme. Debts were raised against the dead, the intellectually disabled and the homeless. All the way into 2019, in fact, the Morrison government was still contemplating an expansion of the robodebt dragnet. The whole grotesque scheme was always, quite obviously, an ideological exercise: an attempt to blame the structural problems of a capitalist economy upon the poor. As if, without all those shameless welfare cheats stealing dollars from the system, we’d all be living in the promised land, free of strife and deficit. As campaigner and independent journalist Asher Wolf wrote in April 2017, “the Turnbull government baked debt collection targets into its budget”. The Turnbull government forecast raising $3.7 billion from robodebt; what those savings were then meant to be spent on, or for whose benefit, was unclear. But the money was never the point. The point was that welfare recipients were not to be trusted. Perhaps, Tudge helpfully suggested, those who had debts raised against them could go to jail.

Mine was a textbook robodebt case, really: I’d claimed Newstart for a period of about 10 weeks during a summer when I was between teaching semesters as a casually employed university tutor. Casual tutors, unlike tenured academic staff, are not entitled to holiday pay or annual leave; their employment contract generally ends the week semester ends, if not before, and then a tutor has to wait and hope for re-employment when the next semester begins. As any numpty apart from Centrelink’s algorithm could have deduced, there was no crossover between the dates I claimed the dole and the dates during which I had been employed as a tutor. But the algorithm averaged out my employment income over the whole financial year, and as a result I was instructed to repay nearly $3000.

Caught up in the robodebt scheme, hundreds of thousands of people, including myself, were forced to spend countless hours chasing up former employers for payslips, searching bank records, navigating Centrelink’s massively understaffed phone system, or dealing with the unwieldy MyGov website. The effort required of welfare recipients in order to disprove their debt was a key part of the scheme’s design, another ideological signal. Ever since the Howard government’s welfare reforms of the 1990s, when such happy concepts as “mutual obligation” and “work for the dole” were introduced, the idea that the poor and unemployed should labour to deserve their welfare payments has been maintained by both Coalition and Labor governments. The full-time job of the unemployed person under mutual obligation is to be unemployed: to spend their hours fulfilling the demands of Centrelink and the make-work tasks of the job agencies. Underpinning all of this is the abiding fear of our governing class that, if left to their own devices, the poor might decide to be unashamed of themselves – might even realise that their poverty is not a personal failing – and get talking to each other.  

I’ve been dealing with Centrelink, intermittently, for 20 years, since my undergraduate days on Youth Allowance, and through three short stints – so far – on Newstart. In all that time, I have never found Centrelink to be anything other than humiliating and maddening. Their systems are obfuscatory, their instructions often downright contradictory. Call Centrelink three times in one week about the same issue and you will receive three totally disparate lots of advice. If you point out that one person has told you one thing and one another, and you have a letter in front of you that says something completely different again, no one at Centrelink will ever acknowledge that they could be in error. It’s your fault, always. Centrelink can make me feel that I am losing my mind, and I don’t mean that metaphorically.

Yet I have just about every structural advantage. I’m literate, numerate, white, an Australian citizen by birth, and English is my first language. No chronic illness or serious disability impedes me. I’m not a carer or a minor. I still find Centrelink almost impossible. After that summer on Newstart – the period of unemployment that eventually triggered my robodebt – I swore that I would rather sleep on someone’s couch or go to a foodbank than deal with Centrelink again. This is entirely the point of Centrelink’s punitive culture: to drive you away, or discourage you from contacting them at all. I have no doubt that there are many, many people out there, unwilling or even unable – especially in the case of people who are homeless – to go anywhere near Centrelink.

After a year, I had my robodebt reduced on appeal to $133.72, an amount that actually dated all the way back to 2011, when, during a separate period on Newstart, my welfare payment allegedly crossed over with my employment income for all of a week. I could have disputed that debt further: dug deeper into my bank records, made yet more phone calls and sent yet more documents to Centrelink. But by then I was done. It seemed easier to repay the money, and I could spare it, which not everyone targeted by robodebt could. So I paid it. That day, I asked the Centrelink employee I was speaking to whether it had really been worth their while, or mine, to have spent 12 months chasing me for $133.72. He said he’d note my concerns.

On May 31, the Morrison government announced that mutual obligation requirements will be reintroduced in June, after they were suspended during the COVID-19 lockdown. An unprecedented economic crisis is unfolding across the world, due to the pandemic; the national unemployment rate is likely to be close to 10%, and the underemployment rate much higher. There is not enough work even for those who have jobs to go to. All this comes on top of nearly a decade of stagnant wages, and in an environment where industrial action by workers is illegal in all but the most limited circumstances. But you wouldn’t know it from Morrison, who has returned already to the moralistic language of “effort” and “respect” required from the unemployed. Nor has the government budged on its intention to end, in September, the fortnightly coronavirus supplement that has been paid to some welfare recipients – though not all, and not to disability pensioners – since late April. This $550 supplement had the effect of immediately doubling Newstart, now rebranded as JobSeeker. This is a payment that had not otherwise been increased, in real terms, since 1994. 

The Labor Party has not covered itself in glory here either, with federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese commenting to radio host John Laws, on May 18, that JobSeeker should not “be kept at the level where it is, where JobSeeker is higher than the age pension”. But nor, Albanese said, should it be reduced to the old rate of $40 a day. Note once more the underlying assumption that some welfare recipients – in this case, aged pensioners – are more deserving than others.

It is exactly this false ideological division between the deserving and undeserving poor that led to the debacle of robodebt. Watch and listen for that language again now, for blame and shame sheeted upon the poor and jobless as the recession takes hold and unemployment rises. Look for the signals from government of austerity politics: the “savings” that now “need” to be made by taking money away from public services and welfare. Be wary of those myths; better, be willing to challenge them.  

In a world where politicians could be held to account by the rest of us, the sheer cruelty, incompetence and illegality of the robodebt scheme would, I hope, lead to the downfall of a government that pursued it. But we don’t live in that world, not yet. I look forward to the refund of my $133.72, plus interest, and to seeing compensation paid out to everyone who was targeted by this wholly unlawful scheme.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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