‘It should have never happened’: doubts raised over 'robo-debt' rollback

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The move to overhaul Centrelink’s robo-debt system has been welcomed but advocates fear the trouble is far from over.

Australians affected by Centrelink’s controversial automated debt recovery scheme - dubbed ‘robo-debt’  - have warned a system ‘overhaul’ might be too little, too late. 

Yesterday it was announced that Centrelink will suspend one contentious feature of the ‘robo-debt’ system.

The use of an ‘income auto-averaging feature’ resulted in thousands of Australians lumped with debt they either weren’t aware of, or didn’t believe they owed. Once assigned a debt, it was up to the recipient themselves to prove they didn’t owe money - not on Centrelink to prove they did. 

Those who found themselves in ‘robo-debt’ told The Feed the process caused significant stress.

Pensioner Robert Cummings has been struggling under a ‘robo-debt’ for the last two years. The Feed first met him earlier this year, when he was taking on Centrelink over $3000 he allegedly owed. 

“That was what really hurt me, they accused me of being a thief. It really did make me feel very depressed,” he said at the time. 

While today he’s receptive of the overhaul, for him, the damage has already been done.

“It caused me a lot of stress because there was no reason for where the debt came from, nothing was told to me - just that I had this debt,” Mr Cummings told The Feed.

It’s good finally seeing something happening with the debacle but it’s disgraceful that they even started it.

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert said in the SMH on Tuesday that the government would make "no apologies for fulfilling our legal obligations to collect debts with income compliance".

Mr Cummings told The Feed Minister Robert’s comments were ‘disheartening’ for himself and others who have suffered under the robo-debt scheme.

“Get it sorted out, admit you’ve done wrong and at the very least come out and make a public apology to the people that have been affected by the whole debacle,” he said.

“It’s been disgusting and what this government put into place should never have happened.”

Organisations helping people fight robo-debt are skeptical that the review will result in positive progress.

Lyndsey Jackson, one of the minds behind the #NotMyDebt campaign, told The Feed details about the change remain unclear. 

“We don’t know the details of what this rollback actually means for individuals that are either working through their debt, had a debt in the past or may get a debt in the future,” she said.

One of the main things is that none of this is every really transparent. That has always seemed really difficult for the government.

Earlier this week Minister Robert said human attendants will be introduced for case discrepancies - but for now, Centrelink won’t completely scrap income auto-averaging. 

Lyndsey
#NotMyDebt's Lyndsey Jackson.
The Feed

Ms Jackson says even an updated evidence-based debt collection system could be just as problematic as income-averaging.

“We’ve got this announcement that says we’ll no longer take just the straight averaging, that there has to be other evidence that warrants further questioning,” she said.

“But how are people going to know what they’ve done to warrant further questioning? If you get a call are you going to be told what that other evidence is? It still makes it a really tough system.”

In a statement released on Tuesday, the Australian Council of Social Services said that when it comes to potential changed to robo-debt, “the devil will be in the details.”

“While we’re relieved to hear that the Government is finally halting the use of averaging to calculate debts, we call on the Government to replace the entire error-ridden program with a humane form of debt recovery,” ACOSS CEO Cassandra Goldie said.

Robo-debt is an abuse of government power, and it should have never seen the light of day.

Ms Jackson says that the timing of the roll back announcement could be an indicator of the government’s motivation.

A test case run by Victoria Legal Aid against Centrelink’s robo-debt system is due to land in Federal Court on December 2nd.

“Part of that legal action is if a debt can be raised off this crude data matching alone,” she said.

“The cynical part from our point of view is are they doing that to avoid further scrutiny from the legal system,” Ms Jackson said.

Regardless of the outcome of the robo-debt changes, it’s business as usual for Ms Jackson and the rest of the #NotMyDebt team.

“People still need support as well as accurate and updated information. So we can be that middle bit between what the government is saying and what the people are saying. We’re keeping that human voice alive.”

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