Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Robodebt Zombie Apocalypse

 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.


  1. I have so much to say here and so mad that I don't even know where to begin. The fact that this fucking right-wing Pentcostal preacher went after the most vulnerable in our society says it all. No going after the multi-nationals and businesses who rip tax payers off by paying no tax at all but yeh, let's kick these poor fuckers in the guts cos, well, they are already lying down and they won't have the energy to fight back.

    You are absolutely right - the past 7-8 years of this neo-liberal governmnet has cut the heart out of our country. And yes, thank God for journalists with integrity and free speech in this country, though that is severely under threat too. Peter van Onselen was on Insiders this week and his parting comment was powerful - he said he wasn't even angry any more, just 'at the point of despair' about it and pointing out that because Morrison was right in the middle of this, politics once again was privileged over justice.

    I note that the ABC is going a lot harder atm though. They backed off because their funding was being cut to bits and this government would love nothing better than to remove them from the Australian media who are the only ones holding them to account at the moment. Maybe the ABC figure they have nothing much left to lose, know they ahve some Australians backing them all the way and have gained credibility because of the ADF debacle which the government also tried to shut down but couldn't - but raiding journalists' homes in the process to try and scare them off. What sort of fucking country are we living in? I barely recognise it.

    1. It's good that it's finally come out and that the PM has been placed at the centre of Robodebt but as Onselen says, he's hardly going to sack himself. Probably he'll just get papped praying or building a cubby house instead. Someone mentioned to me that the PM's religiosity is a marketing brand rather than a faith. *Nods head furiously*

    2. Sarah I actually think Morrison's religiosity has a much more evil implication than it just being a marketing ploy. He actually plays down his born again status because it would probably alienate a lot of conservative Christian LNP supporters. My Catholic friend said as much.

      No, what worries me far more is the implication that if you are a believer you will be OK and enter the kingdom of God, if you aren't then whatever happens to you is your own fault - a philosophy embedded in his favourite mantra: 'if you have a go, you'll get a go'. he ahs absolutely no empathy for those doing it tough, and he's an actor, acting out appropriate emotions when he thinks he needs to. He doesn't have much of a social conscience - if any at all. His hard heartedness has been on display many times as he has moved through various portfolios. THAT is really concerning and there have been signs of this attitude in Morrison's 'preaching' - and I say preaching because he talks to the electorate like we are naughty Sunday school kids and he's at the pulpit.

      Morrison is one of those arrogant so-called 'Christians' that thinks he is going to heaven and fuck those who don't go to his church. No humility. Very Trumpian and very dangerous.

  2. Oh, Sarah, what a shocking tale! Scoundrels, is all I say. Low-hanging fruit are so easy to target. The Tax Office is another scoundrel-filled department. Scrabbling around to get some readies to fund this latest stuff-up and the magic pudding of Jobkeeper by unleashing the kraken of middle-class audits, for we mustn't financially embarrass the multi-national corporate tax cheats. If you have cause to ring them for anything, there's a recorded message to sit through before you are put through where you are reassured that if you would like to report whomever you may consider a tax cheat, you are encouraged to do so anonymously. Wish a pox on your enemy? Let the tax office do it for you. Seven years is a mere myth and if they wish to go plundering your underwear drawer, they may go back two decades or more if they chose, even back to pre-digital times. Plus they will add 90% penalties and the compound interest rate of a credit card company to make your revenge even more fun. And probably set Probe upon your victim if they chose bankruptcy over suicide.

  3. Yes,Pip, it was disgraceful. In the middle of it all, while they stole our tax returns and presented us to the media as cheats, it was stressful and felt targeted towards, as you put, low hanging fruit. To pick up registered mail from the PO was embarrassing too. Every post master in every small town knew we'd been fingered as a cheat.