Overdue care

The government’s response is that it doesn’t care. It will not suspend its flawed system of debt collection. It defends its actions in inaccurately and inappropriately raising thousands of debts against Australians. It feels no contrition or need to apologise.

It has taken three months for the government to respond to the senate report into the robo-debt fiasco. In doing so, it has dismissed complaints made against the system as “third parties … aimed solely at scoring political points”.

This is the system that, by the government’s own estimates, claimed incorrect debts against at least 20,000 people. It is the system that began pursuing debts even as they were contested, that sooled private debt collectors on thousands of people.

It is the system built on an algorithm the government knew was flawed, that was used as a means of vindictiveness against vulnerable people.

Before the inquiry, the government acted to suppress critics. It and the department leaked private information about detractors. So fearful were some welfare recipients of explaining their experience that evidence had to be given in camera.

This is a system that cannot be defended, but the government defends it.

“The government is committed to maintaining a strong social welfare safety net. This requires that there be integrity in the welfare system,” its response said.

“Each person should receive exactly what they are entitled to, no more and no less. This principle has been in place under successive governments and has not changed.”

The government doesn’t care about the flaws in this system because the government doesn’t care about the people it serves.

It does not trouble the government that this system is needlessly vindictive. It does not trouble the government that error is its most consistent marker.

The cruelty of it is part of the design. The system of recovery exists to reinforce the view that welfare recipients are predisposed to fraud.

A society that does not wish to support the needy makes crimes of their need. This system makes criminals out of those who owe nothing. It falsely accuses thousands and then asks them to prove their innocence.

In any other portfolio, a system so delinquent, so bent by inaccuracy, would be immediately discontinued. There would be no excuse to keep it running.

But the government keeps this running because it says one thing: the concerns of the poor will not bend the government’s resolve.

It does not matter that the sums recovered are inconsequential in comparison with the hardship unfairly wrought. Those errors are necessary to prove the government right.

To reject the senate inquiry is to reject fact. It is in this state of vicious fantasy that the government now routinely operates.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2017 as "Overdue care".

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