August 2019


by Robert Skinner

How I fought off a robodebt

One man’s battle against the confounding maths of a Centrelink robodebt

I received a letter from a government department that read, “You have been overpaid by $1314.” The letter was unsigned. At the bottom it merely said:

Director, Earned Income
Customer Compliance

I didn’t feel like someone who’d been overpaid. When the letter arrived I was living in a van with towels strung up everywhere to cover the windows. It wasn’t even my van. The letter (a digital letter – creepily, they would always arrive in the middle of the night) said that I had 30 days to pay. I began, quietly, to seethe.

The letter gave no explanation for how the debt was calculated, provided no evidence of any kind. This, I came to discover, is because it was a stab in the dark.

My job at the time was hammering wood. I would get two pieces of wood from the shelf and nail them together. Then I’d find two more pieces, and so on. Normally it was a little on the dull side. But on the day of the letter I bashed away with the fury of Thor. No force of nature will ever separate the pieces I hammered together that day.

The next day I tried three times to get the department in question – Centrelink – on the phone, but no luck. And no surprise. In 2013–14, Centrelink kept Australians waiting on hold for a combined 143 years. And that’s just counting the time for people who got through. Despite never mastering their own telephone system, the department nevertheless strode boldly into the murky world of data-matching. And they were using it to send out debt letters galore.

In their initial letter to me, they pointed to the difference between my 2017 reported earnings and their own, data-matched figures, as if to say, How do you explain THIS? At first I misunderstood. I thought they were asking me to explain how they had got it wrong. “Oh God,” I said, “with pleasure”, and sent them a detailed explanation by post. It did not seem to have done the trick.

So, robodebt letter in hand, I tried calling again and waited on hold. Finally someone picked up.

“What in the name of Robert Menzies is this?” I asked, and tried to explain that they’d made a mistake.

The compliance officer said, “We understand that the ATO-matched data isn’t always accurate ––”

“Oh, thank God.”

“We understand that the ATO-matched data
isn’t ––”

“So, that’s that, then.”

“We understand that the ATO-matched data isn’t always accurate,” the compliance officer said again, “which is why we give you the opportunity to appeal your case.”

What happened to just getting mugged? Those were the days.

The flaw in their maths was so basic, so fundamental, that I found it almost impossible to explain. It was like trying to explain walking.

 “Well, if you haven’t done anything wrong,” said the officer, “then there won’t be a problem.”

Imagine having to prove for insurance purposes that your wife is not a dolphin. And no matter how many photos you provide of her doing chin-ups and playing video games with her thumbs, the insurance company keeps saying, “Yes, but then why did she visit SeaWorld?”

I spent days and weeks on the phone with Centrelink. Even when I tried to play it cool I’d somehow end up shrieking down the phone line. Being right only made it worse, because it seemed to matter so little.

At this point in the story, it’s probably necessary for me to explain the maths behind it all, to explain how the government is averaging out the incomes of people working casual or precarious jobs in a way that has no bearing on reality, and then using it as the basis to accuse them of owing debts.

You can follow along with a pen and paper. First, draw a picture of a rabbit with half its brain missing. Now imagine that you are being audited by the rabbit.

I began to suspect that no one at Centrelink was even trying to understand the maths. But I couldn’t stop trying to explain it. It was like a madness. The same thing was happening at parties. Do you think this is the sort of sexy injustice you can regale people with at the dip table? It is not.

The whole thing sounded so Soviet. But I was surrounded by genial Australians saying, “I can’t imagine our government ever doing that.”

Eventually I called my old work, got all my old payslips, indexed them, highlighted pertinent sections and sent them to Centrelink with explanatory notes.

A few weeks later I received a notice saying that my revised debt was now $95.74.

Principles, as you may know, are a dumb basis on which to form an argument, especially if you care for such things as your sanity, your sense of humour or winning the argument.

I could have bought myself a lot of life if I’d just paid that $95. I could have spent whole days reading Chekhov in the sun. I could have had a love affair.

But the principle of it was so galling. If someone falsely accuses you of owing $1314, why would you suddenly believe them just because they tone it down a bit? Especially if they’re still using the same bananas maths.

Winter was turning into spring. My football looked at me mournfully from the passenger seat, wanting to be kicked.

“Not today, buddy,” I said.

I persisted with phone calls. One Wednesday afternoon, I refused to get off the phone until someone could adequately explain the maths to me. It was the recourse of the desperate.

“It’s too complicated to explain over the phone,” said the young guy miserably. We had been going for several hours now. “I will send you the assessments by mail.”

“If you can’t understand it, how am I going to?”

I clung to the call. If they wanted my $95 they were going to have to earn it.

The guy said, “Actually, sir, my shift finished 20 minutes ago,” which is how I finally got to speak to a supervisor.

The supervisor swaggered onto the phone.

“G’day,” he said, “I hear you’ve been having some issues.”

“You could say that.”

The supervisor, Brent, said he’d look into the figures himself. Go over the whole thing top to bottom.

“If you haven’t done anything wrong,” he said, “then I’m sure there won’t be a problem.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

It all seemed like such a heinous waste of human life. Even now that I’d got a supervisor on the phone, and the debt would finally be overturned, it hardly seemed worth the fight.

My friend once gave me some mountain-biking advice. If an obstacle appears in your path, he said, don’t look at it or you’ll hit it. Focus, instead, on the gap. No matter how small, he said, go for the gap.

If I reach old age and decrepitude, will I look on this as a worthy battle? Surely my old self would want, instead, to know: What did you do with your body when it was still young and limber? Did you ever run foolishly at full tilt through an open field? With whom did you laugh? Did you invent? Did you find some path through the trees? Or did you stand there doinking your head against them in the name of justice?

The next day Brent, the supervisor, called and said, “I’ve got some bad news for you, mate. Your debt is actually more than we thought it was.”

That was it for me; I was finished. I’d been fighting for too long. I wanted to curl up, suckle on a teat. And Brent’s was the only teat around.

“Listen,” I said. “Maybe I did make a mistake. How about I just pay the $95 and we call it even?”

“I can’t do that,” said Brent. “Once it’s in the system, that’s what it is.”

A week later, the assessments arrived at the house I was now living in. And finally, for the first time in the whole ordeal, things became funny. They had sent me black-and-white proof that I was not the crazy one. I clung to the papers like they were a life raft.

Their provisional assessment had come up with a figure of $177. Then, after doing their data-matching, they came up with $1314. In the next assessment they made a simple accounting error that had them owing me $1004 (I never got a midnight letter about that one). Then it was a debt of $95.74. Then $216.26. And then, insanely, I was sent a final debt notice for $312, which was the total of the last two assessments added together.

That’s funny! It’s funny that the department doing this to people is called the human services department. Imagine if the roads department sent crews out to start digging potholes. Or removing the middle of bridges. It’s funny that human services has barely broken even doing it. For all the distress they’ve caused, it’s cost them $400 million to get back $500 million. And much of that $500 million is under appeal. It’s funny that entire call centres’ worth of people are being paid (much more than anyone on welfare) to enforce debts that don’t exist. Viewed from some angles, it looks an awful lot like the government is running a welfare program for debt collectors.

I called them once more. A friendly lady on the phone said, “Hmmm… that doesn’t sound right. I’ll have a manager call you straight back.” That was the last I heard for six months. I assumed their silence was a sheepish one. That they had dropped the case. But then I filed my tax return, and was due to receive a modest tax refund. On the day it arrived I got an email from Centrelink saying that, as per some regulation, they had gone ahead and taken the $312 plus interest straight out of my tax refund.

And that was pretty much checkmate.

Except you can’t cure stubbornness that easily.

I put it to appeal one last time.

The government will say that it is cracking down on welfare fraud. They talk as though they’ve bred some sort of super-beagle for sniffing out welfare cheats. What they’ve really got is a sniffer dog that loses its mind every time it smells luggage. And the government has let them loose in an airport where 400,000 people are trying to make their flights.

One year after my first notice, I got a letter in the mail saying that their assessment (using the same bogus maths with which they have accused so many others) had got it wrong, that I didn’t owe anything, that a refund was on the way.

Well, shit. I tried to tell them.

Robert Skinner

Robert Skinner was born and raised on the Adelaide Plains. He is now based in Melbourne.

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