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As Centrelink continues its campaign of flawed and inscrutable debt collection, a young man commits suicide. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Centrelink’s debt collection ‘pushed him over the edge’

Florist and musician Rhys Cauzzo.
Credit: SUPPLIED

His girlfriend had begun screening his mail. The letters were too much. They were inducing panic. Rhys Cauzzo was 28 years old, a musician and florist living in Melbourne. Cauzzo suffered severe depression, for which he was medicated. It was a condition he shared with his mother. Late last year, he began receiving aggressive letters from a debt collection agency called Dun and Bradstreet. They represented the Department of Human Services, which demanded the “immediate” repayment of almost $18,000 paid to him by Centrelink. The letters made clear that failure to do so might trigger legal action, or the “garnishing” of his wages.  

He was sick and incredulous. In a private notebook, he doodled a man with a gun in his mouth – behind the figure, instead of blood, was a spray of dollar signs. His girlfriend, Brit, tried to help, ensuring letters weren’t overlooked in Cauzzo’s increasing unwillingness to inspect them. Meanwhile, Cauzzo called his mother, Jenny Miller, who lived on the Sunshine Coast. The two were close, and during what she called his “dark times” she had often flown down to see him. “He rang me distressed,” she told me. “I told him he needed to go in and talk to them. And he did that. In the meantime, Dun and Bradstreet were making demands for money within seven days. People with severe depression don’t handle financial pressure. And these numbers didn’t make sense. He was always anal about keeping financial records.”

The anxiety wasn’t just with the amount owed, or the aggression with which it was demanded – it was the fact that the amount requested seemed fantastical. “It made absolutely no sense to him,” Brit says.

In January, in letters of demand seen by The Saturday Paper, the debt collection agency had revised its figure to $10,283.81. Neither Brit nor Jenny is sure why Centrelink had suddenly made a significant reduction to the alleged debt. Such revision has been frequent in the department’s so-called robo-debt system.

The debt collection agency left a calling card at Cauzzo’s home on January 3. It read: “Need to speak to you about an urgent matter.”

On January 26, Cauzzo went out with Brit and friends to see some bands. Brit says he was a “little distant” but otherwise fine. When they returned home, Brit and some housemates left to get dinner. Cauzzo stayed home. They were only gone an hour. When they returned, they found Cauzzo’s body. “He didn’t leave a note,” Brit tells me. “It wasn’t planned. It was a flip.”

Mental health issues

Suicide is complex. Cause and effect isn’t immediately obvious. Sometimes it never is. Cauzzo had suffered severe depression for many years, and The Saturday Paper doesn’t presume to understand his state of mind when he took his life. But in his private notebooks, weeks before his death, Cauzzo expressed grave anxiety about the debt. Both his partner and mother believe it was a contributing factor.

“He was highly affected by the mail,” Brit says. “He was really, really stressed. He sort of denied the situation. I told him they weren’t real, there’s no way you owe that much money. Rhys and I were aware it was an AI thing, but he felt the debt collectors were gonna knock on the door. It’s hard to describe how he responded, because it was on another level. Rhys was a complex guy. But this overbearing financial stress was massive. It’s hard talking to you now, but the story needs to get out there.”

In a statement to police, Cauzzo’s mother described her son’s history of mental illness, and the debt notice’s effect on her son. “Over the next couple of months he was harassed by continual letters,” she wrote. “He then received another letter from Centrelink, stating that they had made a mistake and that it was now $10,000 that he owed. Again after consultation, the letters of demand continued. I believe strongly that this pushed him to his brink of despair.”

She told me: “I feel very strongly about what happened, and I believe this was the pinnacle that pushed him over the edge. He’s always had mental health issues, and they were aware of that. The algorithm did not pick up on that. [The debt notice] was not the only thing. But it was the icing on the cake.” 

A week after her son’s death, Jenny says she was on the phone for an hour-and-a-half to notify Centrelink of his passing. “And Dun and Bradstreet hung up on me, basically,” Jenny says. “There was nothing courteous.” 

Department points to assistance

A well-reported problem with Centrelink’s automated system of debt recovery is the gross miscalculations of debts. From July last year, the system began cross-referencing clients’ Centrelink claims with their taxation data to discover discrepancies and overpayments. Since then, almost 200,000 notices of overpayment have been sent to Australians. But there have been serial complaints that the system is badly flawed and is generating false debts. The Commonwealth ombudsman is currently investigating the system, while Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, who has previously defended the program, announced that the government would no longer seek repayment for debts under review. This is not a retrospective change.

Cauzzo was recognised in Centrelink’s database as requiring psychological help. The agency had previously referred him to a doctor. But the debt recovery undertaken by the department – which had already generated a false claim – did not appear to take account of his condition. The application of an artless system that aggressively demands fictional debts from Australia’s most vulnerable people has, unsurprisingly, caused considerable misery.

“I’ve now been approached by a number of people who’ve spoken about the possibility of self-harm on account of the angst caused by receiving a Centrelink debt notice,” says Andrew Wilkie, the independent member for Denison and one of federal parliament’s most vocal critics of the system.

In an email, Wilkie told me: “I’ve also been approached by the parents of a man who did indeed attempt to take his own life. This has shown me that not only is the debt-recovery program badly designed broadly, but also that it is especially inappropriate for people with a mental illness or other reason that makes them vulnerable.

“One of the problems with the Centrelink program is that it fails to discriminate between people and sends the same blunt and, frankly, guilty-until-proven-innocent letter to everyone. This is lazy and dangerous, and entirely avoidable seeing as Centrelink is already well aware of the health circumstances of many people. While the whole program is a dud and should be shut down, if nothing else at least those people who are most vulnerable need to be handled in a more understanding and careful manner.

“While I can’t possibly know all the facts of the matter regarding Rhys’s death, I do know enough to feel deeply for his family and share their concerns.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Human Services gave the following response to questions about the Cauzzo case: “We express our sincere condolences to the family. This is a terrible situation for his loved ones and we understand how difficult it must be coming to terms with their loss. It is not appropriate for us to discuss personal details publicly. It is really important that if people are in distress, they let us know immediately – we can help. The department has social work services available to customers requiring additional assistance.

“The department assists some of the most vulnerable people in the community. Welfare recipients who are identified as vulnerable are not part of the online compliance intervention system. Instead, a compliance officer works with the person to confirm income details, before determining whether or not a debt has been incurred. We don’t ever want people to feel they’re in a situation of helplessness.”

Such support mechanisms did not steer Rhys Cauzzo from despair. He received numerous compliance letters from outsourced debt collectors, and a visit from them to his home. He was notified of a huge debt in error, later revised. His experience reveals a system lacking nuance and understanding.  

“A gentle soul”

Rhys had made the familiar pilgrimage for creative youths: declaring his home town culturally arid, he moved from Cairns to the more fertile pastures of Melbourne. Other friends were making the same journey. He was 20 when he left Queensland.

In Melbourne he joined Tomb Hanx, a four-piece band that played an eccentric mix of pop, punk and synthy gloom. Music was a central passion, around which his imagination and social life orbited. He filled notebooks with lyrics, and his life with sweet, music-obsessed misfits. His mother says that he loved Melbourne – even if its crowds could trigger anxiety attacks – and he made many friends there. The church that held his funeral service had a capacity of about 80, but about twice that arrived, and mourners thronged outside. 

“He got dealt this awful hand,” Brit tells me, “and he couldn’t use it. It’s hard to tell you concisely about him.” She pauses. “He was an exhibitionist, and by that I mean he was good at fronts to shield his pain – of eccentricity for friends, or smiles at work. But he could be genuinely hilarious. Super kooky. I don’t think I’ll ever meet someone again who shares my sense of humour. He was fucking gorgeous. A complete diamond.

“I became a confident, independent woman with friends and lots of things to be happy about. He had a lot to do with that. He took me out of some dark places. I’ve been thinking a lot about him as an angel. He came into my life, did his work, then left.”

Cauzzo’s mother tells me of a gentle and sensitive young man. She says she is aware of the glossy treatments the dead receive. “But it’s really true in his case,” she says. “He was genuinely loved. A gentle soul. Soft, kind, an animal lover. He was popular. At work, he was considered family.”

When we speak, Jenny is preparing to leave Melbourne. She’s not sure what she’ll do when she returns home. For the past few weeks, the logistics of death have occupied her. Her son’s friends have provided comfort, context and a link to his city. Now, the calm after the storm is frightening. “I’m shattered,” she says. “I’m on stronger medication. When I get home, I’ll go to counselling. I’m not sure how I’ll cope when I get back there.”

Recovery system is flawed

We know that the government persisted with its program of robo-debt collection in the knowledge that its algorithm was faulty, that it would produce fallacious outcomes. The government itself admits that one in five of the debts it alleges have been calculated in error.

There is a grim calculus to this. The demonisation of “welfare cheats” and “bludgers” is a staple of retail politics. The relevant ministers, Christian Porter and Alan Tudge, still talk about the people on welfare who “owe a debt to the other 99 per cent of Australians”. They talk about people who “deliberately cheated taxpayers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars”.

Of course, there is welfare fraud. But the government has created a flawed debt-recovery system. It is insensitive, inaccurate and inscrutable. Appeals are difficult and time consuming. The agency is overloaded. The actions of private debt collectors are menacing and ill regulated.

 If the government has created this system as a form of popular appeasement, it has made a grievous error. It has preferred politics to the design of a system that is fair and responsive. It would be wrong to suggest that the government should not pursue fraudsters or seek the repayment of debts. But what’s been made is a calamity. It is blunt and cruel. The death of Rhys Cauzzo is one tragic example of that. 

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Update: The Department of Human Services say Rhys Cauzzo's debt was raised manually. A spokeswoman said counselling is offered to vulnerable people. Dun and Bradstreet said it followed procedure and denied hanging up on Cauzzo's mother.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 18, 2017 as "‘Centrelink pushed him over the edge’". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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