Last week’s conclusion of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt scheme has once again brought national attention to the program that, from 2015 to 2019, saw nearly half a million welfare recipients hounded over unlawful fake debts concocted using faulty calculations.
Over 46 days, the Commission heard from a parade of some of the country’s most repulsive politicians, bureaucrats and spin doctors as they denied, feigned ignorance and outright lied about their role in the most deliberate and cold-blooded persecution of the poor and destitute in recent Australian history.
Centrelink’s Robodebt scheme was cooked up by Liberal Party ministers and high level bureaucrats from the Department of Human Services (DHS) and Department of Social Services in 2014. In an effort to bulk up the 2015 budget, these vultures turned to some of the most vulnerable Australians for some easy revenue raising, proposing a concerted campaign against alleged welfare fraud. The program’s architects promised a return of $1.5 billion from the scheme.
In order to raise this improbable sum, government bureaucrats created an automated program that compared the fortnightly income reporting that Centrelink recipients are required to provide with Australian Tax Office yearly income data. The program looked for discrepancies between these two figures and calculated debts that ranged anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars. The estimated 443,000 Centrelink recipients identified by this process as having been paid more than they were entitled to were then subjected to a campaign of harassment via letters, emails and automated calls.
All human oversight was removed from the process of debt collection and replaced by an algorithm. And it quickly had the desired effect. Before the program’s launch, Centrelink issued roughly 20,000 debt notices per year. Between July 2016 and October 2018, DHS spokesman Michael Keenan reported that his department had sent out a staggering 900,000 of these notices.
The human toll of the Robodebt scheme is difficult to convey. At least two people committed suicide after being relentlessly pursued over debts they had no ability to pay. Many thousands more were subjected to intense and traumatic stress and panic. Sandra Bevans, a palliative care worker and single mother who testified at the Royal Commission, described driving home from work with the debt looming large in her mind and contemplating crashing her car into a tree “just to make it all stop”.
Those who tried to challenge their debts found themselves repeatedly brushed off by dismissive and unsympathetic bureaucrats. It was only as courageous victims came forward publicly that people began to realise they were caught up in a fraudulent scheme alongside hundreds of thousands of others.
The Royal Commission has shone a light on the deep hatred for poor and oppressed people that permeates not just the Liberal Party but the upper-echelons of government bureaucracies. One of the chief villains to emerge from the hearings was Kathryn Campbell, the former secretary of DHS. Over the course of the hearings, she admitted she knew from the start the scheme was illegal and would lead to the over-calculation of debt on a mass scale (unemployment benefits are calculated, by law, based on the recipient’s income in a particular fortnight, rather than their average income over an entire year). Despite this, she defended the scheme publicly for the whole period of its operation.
The racket was also supported by a whole apparatus of advisors and spin doctors that worked overtime to prop up the scheme, even as it faced increasing public scrutiny from 2017 onwards. Liberal Party ministers consistently defended Robodebt in the press. Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge appeared on A Current Affair in late 2016 to warn victims "we'll find you, we'll track you down and you will have to repay those debts and you may end up in prison”.
Tudge’s media advisor Rachelle Williams admitted to leaning on “the more friendly media, the right-wing media” to smear victims of the scheme that went public, going so far as to release their private information to the press. This was in aid of achieving a chilling effect on further victims speaking out.
Aside from exposing the callousness and deep-seated disdain for the vulnerable shared by those at the top of society, the Robodebt affair also reflects something more fundamental about the punitive logic of welfare under capitalism. The whole system—the below poverty line level payments, the punishing “mutual obligations”, the bureaucratic stonewalling—is designed to make receiving welfare so stressful and so dehumanising that people have little choice but to find whatever paid work will accept them.
The scheme is over, and the Royal Commission’s final report, due in June this year, will provide something of an epilogue to the whole affair. But with the Albanese government’s recent introduction of a points-based welfare scheme, and their ongoing commitment to keep payments at current rock-bottom levels, it’s clear the structures that keep welfare recipients in desperate poverty remain firmly in place.
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