Life and debt

It’s almost as if Centrelink set out to design the worst system possible. It’s as if the department worked at finding the most vindictive and imprecise arrangements through which to pursue the people it is supposed to serve, then put out a tender to see if they could be made more cruel.

This week, it emerged that almost half the debts raised under Centrelink’s flawed computer algorithm have been referred to private debt collectors. This is despite Centrelink’s claim that debt collectors are used only in a “small proportion” of cases.

Between July and March, 56,504 people had their alleged debts referred to the two companies used by Centrelink, Probe Group and Dun & Bradstreet. Unlike with other departments, these debt collectors work on a commission basis. Centrelink will not reveal the rate of this commission, although it creates an incentive to pursue alleged debts more aggressively. Threats are made to garnish wages. Correspondence is brusque and intimidating.

This on its own is perverse. But it is only one part of a deeply perverse system.

Centrelink knows its system of income averaging is flawed. It admits as many as one in five of the debts it raises is wrong. Error is the marker of its algorithm. And yet, the program continues.

The scheme as it was initially imagined began pursuing debts even if they were contested. Its phone system was pitifully inadequate. Hours could be spent without resolution. By nature, among welfare recipients are the country’s most vulnerable. To the system created, this seemed of little concern. 

As these flaws became apparent, the government became defensive. Private information about the system’s critics was leaked to the press. This was likely done unlawfully. The pursuit of these critics was more aggressive than the pursuit of the debts.

Welfare recipients have been so fearful of retribution that submissions to a senate inquiry have had to be made in camera. “People out there are genuinely scared about what the government might do,” Greens senator Rachel Siewert told The Saturday Paper last week. “I’ve personally had emails from people saying they are concerned about the government knowing their identities. And I’ve heard the same story from organisations representing them.”

The response from the government has been cavalier: “If you want to keep your information absolutely private, don’t go and get the dole whilst you’ve also got a job.”

No one suggests that government should not prosecute welfare fraud. But this system is not just about debt recovery; it is about punishment.

The caricature of the dole bludger is a classic of conservative politics. It allows for an easy villain in an unequal system. A person can accept indulgences for the rich if they know their real enemy is the poor.

What Centrelink has done is redraw this cartoon on a grand scale. The lines are clumsy and unfeeling. Increasingly people see that. The once useful “other” has become ordinary people mistreated by a malicious system. And yet, despite all this, the flawed scheme continues. And the solution is simple: stop raising robo-debts until the system is fixed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 15, 2017 as "Life and debt".

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