The PM imposed an illegal ‘debt’ collection scheme on Australia’s most vulnerable
Media constantly refer to Labor’s “pink batts” scheme as a “disaster”: it resulted in four accidental deaths and was the subject of a royal commission, but at least it had the laudable policy objective of insulating homes and stimulating economic activity during a threatened recession. But for sheer government incompetence and malevolence, nothing comes close to the disgraceful robodebt program, which was based on a tabloid myth of rampant welfare fraud, was heartlessly implemented, and which turned out to be illegal. On Friday afternoon we learnt that, in the face of litigation that threatened to embarrass key Coalition ministers, the federal government would refund a staggering $721 million in debts unlawfully charged to more than 373,000 vulnerable Australians. Attorney-General Christian Porter, who was the social services minister when the program was introduced, refused to apologise on the ABC’s Insiders yesterday, and said robodebts would be “zeroed”. But this utter debacle is about much more than the money, which always represented chicken feed for taxpayers but was literally a matter of life or death for the unfortunate recipients of unlawful debts.
Last year, a Senate inquiry into the scheme took evidence that more than 2000 people died after receiving their initial robodebt letter, of which a third were considered “vulnerable” by the Department of Human Services. Chair of the inquiry, Greens senator Rachel Siewert, wrote a piece for Crikey saying that while correlation was not causation, she had been “told of five families (and there have been other media reports) who believe their family members’ suicides are connected to receiving a robo-debt letter”. Labor leader Anthony Albanese did not mince words about this on the weekend, saying: “There were suicides as a result of people who received these debt notices for a debt they didn’t owe, which were illegal.” If that’s not grounds for a royal commission, I’m not sure what is. As Crikey’s Bernard Keane writes today, an inquiry could examine “not merely the issue of what was known about the unlawfulness of the scheme, but the human cost of the scheme, the government’s use of private debt collectors to pursue victims, the release of the private information of Andie Fox by departmental officials when she dared to criticise the scheme … the government’s legal strategy of avoiding appealing AAT decision if they might lead to exposure of the unlawfulness of the scheme, and behaviour in Centrelink’s ‘debt recovery offices’”.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison – himself a former social services minister, and then treasurer when the scheme was introduced as a budget-saving measure – is directly implicated, wrote Nine’s political editor David Crowe. At a press conference this morning the PM avoided an apology, saying only that the government “has great regrets about any pain or injury that has been caused here, but those are issues we are still working through and we’re making it right”. But the government is not making it right. Beyond having their debts “zeroed”, there are claims for unpaid interest and damages that remain the subject of a class action and which the government is resisting. And, as Guardian Australia reported yesterday, there are an unknown number of pre-2015 debts that were likely illegally raised, and which will not be repaid. What’s more, the government has learnt nothing from all this, announcing the resumption of mutual obligations yesterday, forcing the unemployed through the humiliating ritual of searching for jobs that don’t exist as the economy dives into recession.
Labor’s shadow government services minister, Bill Shorten, who championed the class action, has called for a full apology, telling Sky News: “This is pretty, pretty bloody outrageous what the government’s done.” Freelance journalist and digital rights activist Asher Wolf, one of the original organisers of the grassroots campaign against robodebt, today describes the program as “a terror campaign against class mobility. The automated data-matching program cost almost as much to run as it was projected to recoup.”
Not only did the PM fail to apologise, it may be that he has not completely given up. As Guardian Australia’s Luke Henriques-Gomes tweeted this afternoon: “Notable comment from Scott Morrison today on #robodebt and unlawfulness of ‘income averaging’. ‘That doesn’t mean those debts don’t exist. It just means that they cannot be raised, solely, on the basis of using income averaging.’”
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“The new 2020–25 National Health Reform Agreement provides an estimated $131.4 billion in additional funding to public hospitals over five years from 2020–21 … The Morrison Government has provided a funding guarantee to all states and territories to ensure no jurisdiction is left worse off as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and guarantees the Commonwealth’s funding contribution for public hospitals over the next five years.”
“Just over half the workers laid off across the economy are women. In the last recession, only 15 per cent of the lost jobs belonged to women. This is new ground for Australia. Our politics is attuned to male aspiration and grievance: when the economy is growing, he deserves a tax cut; in recession, he demands retribution. How will politics hear the women left behind once health restrictions are eased?”
“This is not a matter of prurient curiosity or of public interest, although there is a lot of interest, even from those who were not born when the political crisis took place. It goes to the heart of our system of government, to the links between the various areas of power on which we rely to preserve us from autocracy and dictatorship. The refusals from both the Queen and Kerr to disclose their discussions that led up to the crisis were not, and are not, theirs to make.”
“Wilkins said Treasury’s forecast would likely have affected the scheme’s design, including who would be eligible and who would not. ‘I think when Treasury came back with a number of $130 billion, that was a very big number and would have influenced where the line was drawn,’ he said … Despite the scheme’s cost savings, the government has ruled out expanding it to include temporary migrants, casuals employed for less than a year, or employees of companies owned by foreign governments.”
Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
Media constantly refer to Labor’s “pink batts” scheme as a “disaster”: it resulted in four accidental deaths and was the subject of a royal commission, but at least it had the laudable policy objective of insulating homes and stimulating economic activity during a threatened recession. But for sheer government incompetence and malevolence, nothing comes close to the disgraceful robodebt program, which was based on a tabloid myth of rampant welfare fraud, was heartlessly implemented, and which turned out to be illegal. On Friday afternoon we learnt that, in the face of litigation that threatened to embarrass key Coalition ministers, the federal government would refund a staggering $721 million in debts unlawfully charged to more than 373,000 vulnerable Australians. Attorney-General Christian Porter, who was the social services minister when the program was introduced,...
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