As a victim of the robodebt scheme, automated data matching initiated originally by the Australian Labor Party in 2011, I have some thoughts. Serious ones.
As brought up in my interviews on the subject, my robodebt came at an incredibly sensitive time for me. My mum was still dragging myself and my disabled brothers through the family court for her share of the house, my dad having passed less than a month into the action back in November 2016. I was unable to work, following a back injury while dealing with my brother’s hoarding of newspapers. And my marriage was failing, on the back of being rushed into it because immigration to Australia is a racist, expensive nightmare, and my struggles with my gender. I hit one of the lowest points in my life.
An unfortunate reply to my mum’s lawyer’s legal threats had them call the police on me, as they were legally required to do, though I will never forgive them for it. There I was, dragged to the emergency department, dressed in clothes that didn’t even fit, made to repeat my current struggles several times, but basically sent out on my way the second they decided I had calmed down enough. It was also the first time I had expressed my gender incongruence with a medical professional. No meds, no follow ups, I had to do all that myself with my GP later. A friend dutifully picked me up and took me home, not before taking me to get Red Rooster. We had another family court appearance the next day, I couldn’t go.
Certainly not a time for Centrelink and their debt collectors to be hassling someone. They didn’t care I didn’t have an income, that I could barely pay my bills through my now ex-wife. They didn’t care that I’d asked for the debt to be checked by an authorised officer like I’d been told to do by the myriad of anti-robodebt activists and organisations that had popped up as it had reared its ugly head. They showed the same moral failure they do today when they overrule medical certificates, if they choose to process them at all – a rather distasteful practice I’ve recently been subject to. See, they still have absolutely no duty of care towards people who rely on them to, you know, live.
That is still my biggest regret, that damned class action. Gordon Legal had made some big arguments early on in the proceedings, especially that the debts were all tainted by inaccurate and illegal data matching. Data matching which I’ll speculate now was probably the same basis for Labor’s scheme to look closer at alleged “welfare cheats”, providing it was not the only basis for raising debts. In any case, Gordon Legal threw many of us under the bus, especially those of us who ended up complying with Centrelink’s unreasonable demands, including myself, operating on what Legal Aid told me would be inevitable. The betrayal of not even getting Centrelink to have a duty of care to the people they’re meant to service is still palpable to this day.
There really isn’t too much I can say about this debacle. Obviously, I’m extremely thankful for Catherine Holmes at the Robodebt Royal Commission, Squiggly Rick Morton, Luke Henriques-Gomes at the Guardian, and vile twitter troll Thomas Studans for live tweeting proceedings, and Asher Wolf and all the other activists who have been there from the start.
I guess I should acknowledge the Albanese Labor government for starting the Royal Commission, however, in that same breath I will spit venom at them for continuing punitive mutual obligations, scab Work for the Dole labour that undermines real unionised jobs, automating payment suspensions with Workforce Australia, lying about abolishing income management, and keeping us well below the poverty line, even with the pathetic increase that starts in September 2023. The foundation of robodebt that Labor set is heavily reminiscent of the violence against refugees in the Pacific Solution – targeting vulnerable people at all is the problem – and cannot be ignored.
As an aside, I did an interview yesterday with SBS about my robodebt, and while I was ultimately upset that they cut what I said down to the most pitiful parts, I would again like to acknowledge the public servants in the CPSU who are demanding a return of the CES and abolition of mutual obligations. It’s been made clear that working for Centrelink has been made much more dangerous since you became a cudgel to use against the poor back in the 90’s. I have become used to saying lately that we cannot expect all people who are attacked by Centrelink’s policies to resort to self harm. Clearly, I do not like the state of things.
In my view, Centrelink as a government department is financial abuse at a mass scale against welfare recipients. Things must change.