A month ago next week, The Saturday Paper reported on the death of Rhys Cauzzo. The florist and musician was being pursued by Centrelink over historic payments. He was menaced by debt collectors. On January 26, he committed suicide. His mother and girlfriend say Centrelink’s treatment of him tipped him over the edge.
This week the secretary of the Department of Human Services, Kathryn Campbell, was asked by a senate committee about Cauzzo’s death. Her response was so specious, so tellingly disconnected, that it is worth reproducing at some length. To paraphrase would be to inject feeling.
“This is a very sad event, and we don’t want to make it harder for families,” she said. “This was a former recipient. It wasn’t a current recipient. So that’s why the debt collectors had been used on that occasion. There are always different dimensions to stories that appear in the media, as I’m sure you’re aware. We have a different take on what was reported.
“We provided the initiating letter. And the initiating letter asked people to clarify. There was a 1800 number that people were able to access, and deal with and work through those issues. We often find that people are distressed when dealing with the social welfare system. I mean, every morning I have a look at my email and there are a number of emails about people who are distressed in different circumstances – it may be their personal circumstances, it may be the interaction of our system with other systems, it may sometimes be a misunderstanding of eligibility under the criteria. And we work with those individuals to try and resolve those issues… But this is a complex payment system. And often people don’t understand the obligations that go with the payments, that they are required to update various pieces of information. And we do our very best to make it as streamlined and user-friendly as possible. But I do acknowledge that there will be people distressed.
“I think in the lead-up to Christmas and into January people became even more distressed because of the significant media attention around these issues. I think half of the stories that appeared in the media were not part of this system – they were general debt matters. And because of some of the stories in the media, there was a belief that all debts were wrong. And therefore people started to get saying, ‘I want this debt waived. I don’t think I should have to pay this back.’ ”
None of what Campbell said changed the facts of Cauzzo’s death – it simply avoided them. This is not about the media. It is not about whether a debt was raised manually or by a grossly flawed algorithm. It is about a department completely unwilling to engage with the brutality of its procedures.
Recently, private information about welfare recipients has been leaked to the media in the hope of discrediting critics. After The Saturday Paper published Rhys Cauzzo’s story, the department shared his personal data with our reporter in the hope of changing the piece. This week, Barnaby Joyce said: “If you want to keep your information absolutely private, don’t go and get the dole whilst you’ve also got a job.”
The contempt in which people who receive welfare are held is the contempt of a government out of touch with its responsibilities. It is this contempt that designs a system such as the one that drove Rhys Cauzzo to suicide.
Welfare does not exist to punish people; it exists to help them. In receiving the support of the state, a person does not forfeit their ordinary rights. Nor should they.
But these simple principles seem beyond this government and beyond the department that serves it. In their place is a deadly barbarism, a breakdown of the social compact under which this country once operated. Our system of social security was once the envy of the world. Under this government, it has become a monster.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 11, 2017 as "Inhuman services". Subscribe here.