August 2023

Comment

Robodebt’s awful cost

By Jennifer Miller
Rhys Cauzzo, 2016

Rhys Cauzzo, 2016. Photograph courtesy of Jennifer Miller

The mother of robodebt victim Rhys Cauzzo on hopes the royal commission may offer the beginnings of justice

The ripples of robodebt began for my son, Rhys, at the end of May 2016. Rhys had moved to Melbourne from Cairns around six years earlier with a group of his childhood mates, as north Queensland offered very little for them in the arts and music scene. They couch-surfed and at some points they were homeless, but eventually it all came together and they were able to start “living the dream”. Rhys loved Melbourne’s creative vibe, the arts, the music and the social scene with his friends. The downside, however, was managing his mental health, his extreme anxiety and panic attacks when in a crowded situation, his dread of public transport. He had suffered with this for a number of years and the Department of Human Services had been made aware of his anxiety and depression, and that he had reported suicidal ideation.

In May 2016, he received a phone call from Centrelink saying they had information from the tax office that he had earnt X amount of dollars and asking whether he agreed that was correct. In his innocence, he said yes. There was no explanation as to why the question was asked or why they needed this information clarified, or any hint of what was to come. It was the beginning of our six-and-a-half-year nightmare.

The moment Rhys agreed with the caller from Centrelink, the hounding began. He phoned me late that May extremely distressed about debt letters he had started to receive. I flew to Melbourne to help him find out what the debt related to and to get assistance managing his mental health.

The findings of the royal commission into robodebt have not only confirmed the cruelty of the scheme, but also revealed the reason Rhys and I could not get any answers in 2016. When we presented at his local Centrelink office at the time, I thought it very strange that no assistance could be provided – nothing, nada, except the provision of a phone number for a call centre fielding queries about such debts. Rhys made many attempts to contact the number provided, but never got through and eventually gave up. He felt overwhelmed and frustrated, and expected the worst due to the mailed demands. I told him to forget it for now, and that I’d look into it further. (In the meantime, he and I were both supporting my eldest son, Josh, who was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service overseas. That meant grappling with another government department.)

Having gained access to Rhys’s Centrelink file by virtue of the royal commission, I am beyond horrified at his treatment. The abuse from Centrelink was awful – my sincere and innocent son was subjected to cruel and unrelenting pressure to pay what we now know was a false and illegal debt. On top of the consistent pressure from Centrelink, debt collectors had begun to hound Rhys from early November 2016 with phone and text messages, making demands of payment to Centrelink of nearly $18,000. By January 23, 2017, the proposed final date for the sum’s payment, messages had included threats of garnishing his wages and/or his tax return, and seizing personal belongings, such as his car.

It isn’t hard to see how Rhys was led to despair. He presented to his doctor on January 25, 2017, and explained he had a major financial problem. The doctor prescribed more Valium, and that script was filled. The next day, Australia Day, Rhys took his own life.

I flew to Melbourne immediately, grief-stricken and heartbroken. I was taken to his home and met with his partner and friends – a traumatic time for all of us. I frantically searched his home for a note, a message, anything to say why. As I was searching, a gut feeling – or mother’s instinct – kicked in, and I collected any official documents I could find. I came across the letters from the debt collectors and a picture on Rhys’s fridge, drawn by him, of a head with a gun firing into the mouth, dollar-signs sprayed everywhere, and the words “DEBT LYFE” written next to it. I knew something wasn’t right with the government’s financial pursuit, but at that point I still had no idea about the evil and corrupt robodebt scheme.

I spent many days organising Rhys’s funeral and sorting his affairs. For many of these days I was functioning in a bewildered state and only just managing to attend to what had to be done. Rhys had been working for a beautiful florist shop in Brunswick, in Melbourne’s north, and the staff and owners were in shock, but their support through this horrendous time was very much appreciated. They attended his funeral service and the wake, and provided the most outstanding, quirky display of greenery and flowers. It was while talking to the shop’s owner that I brought up the debt notices I had found, and said I didn’t understand them. She advised that there had been quite a bit of discussion in the news about debt notices being sent out by Centrelink. She happened to be a personal friend of the owner of Schwartz Media and said she would organise someone from there to get in touch to fill me in on what was going on.

Following the funeral on February 7, I spoke with the journalist Martin McKenzie-Murray, who brought me up to speed with what was happening nationally with Centrelink and debts being issued. Because of the debt letters, and from speaking with Rhys’s friends and work colleagues, as well as the obvious lack of assistance from Centrelink starting in June 2016, I knew that something was wrong. I absolutely believed that this debt-recovery scheme had pushed Rhys over the edge.

Little did I know how hard the fight for justice for my son was going to be.

From the time of McKenzie-Murray’s initial front-page story in The Saturday Paper in early February 2017, the media advisers for then minister for human services Alan Tudge started to work on the disparagement of myself and Rhys. They released Rhys’s personal information into the public sphere, and claimed that his debts were raised manually, that he had been cheating the system and he owed the money.

I returned home and embarked on a mission for the truth. I sent letter after letter, to Tudge, to the ombudsman, and not just to every minister but to every MP for whom I could find a contact; I requested an inquest through the Coroners Court of Victoria; I attended Senate inquiries, made freedom of information requests and joined the class action into the scheme. Centrelink counsellors got in touch to try convince me to stop – they tried to shut me down at every angle. But the more I was lied to, the more I dug in, like the proverbial tick. I was going to keep fighting till the day I died if need be – and believe me, at times I just wanted the world to stop and let me hop off. But there was no way that my son was going to be remembered as a fraud, a dole bludger or a welfare cheat. He never was.

That initial ripple of questions, six and half years ago, has now turned into a tsunami with the findings released by the royal commissioner. I attended the commission as often as I could, and witnessed each minister, each senior public servant, and all those complicit in the scheme, being disrespectful, disparaging and displaying absolute contempt to Commissioner Catherine Holmes, senior council Justin Greggery and counsel assisting Angus Scott. It was so shameless it was embarrassing.

In complete contrast were the witnesses who had suffered in so many ways. Seeing them finally being listened to by the commissioner, and being supported by the commissioner’s team, was refreshing and heartening. The front-line staff from Centrelink who gave their stories had also suffered at the hands of a corrupt government, which gave no regard to the pain they were directed to bestow upon the vulnerable. The government and senior public servants’ complicit behaviour is now set out in black and white in the commission’s report and cannot be denied – even though we know they will try. They’ve lied from the start and they will keep doing so.

But my son will be remembered for the beautiful soul he was: a gorgeous, creative artist and musician, an exceptionally soft and wonderfully kind young man, loved by family, friends and colleagues.

Rhys and every other victim did not deserve the cruel and evil treatment that was brought down upon them through deception and callous indifference, by a greedy, self-absorbed, power-hungry cohort.

My grief and my anger towards every one of the people involved in managing this scheme will take years to manage. I know that. But I was not going to stop pursuing the truth, not only for our beloved Rhys but for everyone harmed during this atrocious time. My sincere hope is that the fallout from the revelations of the commission will serve notice to anyone in public office, from the prime minister down, that such callous treatment of vulnerable people will never again be allowed.

This piece has been edited from the print version.

Lifeline: 13 11 14 

Jennifer Miller

Jennifer Miller is the mother of robodebt victim Rhys Cauzzo.

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