So it's just been announced that the federal government settled a class action lawsuit against them to the tune of $AU1.2 billion. The class action was brought against them by the people of Australia who had been financially wronged by what has been called the Robodebt scheme.
I was directly involved in the Robodebt scheme, not the class action but because I was a casual worker who applied for unemployment benefits between 2015 and 2016. Look, this is a terrific country when it comes to policy around healthcare, social security and social housing but over the last seven or eight years the conservatives have strove to obliterate all that. To portray people who need those services as 'leaners not lifters' bastardised an entire egalitarian system and won them an election. Yes, I'm going all unrepentant leftie here.
I applied for unemployment benefits when I first moved to Broke, mainly to tide me over while I found a job and find a job I did - at the service station. (Any aspiring writers who think that once their first book is published, will never need to work a day in their life again, think twice please.) I was stoked to work there and met a lot of locals. The work was nourishing and I reported my wage to Centrelink every fortnight. I was unsure of ongoing work due to the casualised nature of the job, so I stayed in the system.
Last year I received a letter via registered mail from Centrelink saying I owed them a shit ton of money from that particular financial year. They were setting the debt collectors onto me. Here is where it gets messy. I rang someone ... someone? at the office and said, 'I'm just going to suck it up. Send me the bill. I'm sure it's not much, prolly just a few dollars. I've made a mistake somewhere in 2015.' It was then that she explained how the Robodebt was calculated.
It's the income averaging estimate. Say if you were on the dole for a month in 2015 and then got a plum job at $100K a year, Centrelink averaged your income over the whole year and decided that you owed them *a shit ton of money*. It's called Robodebt purely because there is no human interaction in this decision. At the time the government were campaigning hard for a surplus budget to get them re-elected. The current Prime Minister was Social Services minister and these numbers (billions of bucks from welfare recipients) gave all the pollies hard-ons and shored up their budget. Scott Morrison then moved onto Treasury and kept up the pressure on so-called dole bludgers, handing the portfolio to new social services minister Alan Tudge*. By the time Morrison was Prime Minister, the job was done and people in casualised labour like me were being told we were bludgers and welfare cheats. Many people had their tax returns raided - by the government - to repay a debt that has now been deemed illegal.
To collect the debts owed by unicorns and other dole bludgers, the federal government used a particularly nasty debt collection agency called Probe - an uncomfortable name that calls to mind what aliens do to their human abductees - to collect their dirty work's cash. I've had a fair bit to do with Probe, given my Robodebt, and I'm really sorry/not sorry about the visuals I've given you here.
To satisfy Probe's demands I went to my bank and had them print out the entire year's record from 2015/2016, and then highlighted all incomings. Handed that in ... and that's when the phone calls started. While I accepted the debt, Probe workers were trained to ask for more per month. They go hard. When I lost my job and rang them to say my fortnightly payment would be delayed, they asked me to lend some money from my Mum to pay them. No really. It was twenty bucks.
So I'm pretty pleased to see the news that this class action has been settled. I'm a bit pissed though that the federal government hasn't been held to account. It's odd that that it settled before the PM was called up. Their policy has allegedly caused the suicides of many folk who weren't as robust or as settled in community as I am. Can you imagine being homeless and having to go through this shit? I've got a PhD, very few mental health issues and a stable home, and yet I still found the Robodebt thing hard going and really stressful.
* As social services minister, Alan Tudge illegally leaked Centrelink private data on sole parent journalist Andy Fox who just happened to be taking a swing at the Robodebt scheme.
& Thanks to Andy Fox, Peter Van Onselen and Asher Wolf who covered this story over the last five years.