Meet the regional mums taking on the government's automated debt recovery scheme

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A Mum of two has been fighting the government’s so-called ‘robodebt’ system from her kitchen table in regional South Australia.

Watch 'Fighting Robodebt' The Feed 8:30pm Thursday and 5pm Sundays on SBS VICELAND . 

While federal Labor calls for Centrelink's so-called 'robodebt' system to be shut-down, a group of mums from across Australia have long been fighting against the government's automated debt recovery scheme.

These women have been working remotely to manage #NotMyDebt - a website and social media platform providing resources for those disputing welfare debts - and it's run completely by volunteers.

Lyndsey Jackson was on maternity leave when the government launched its "online compliance intervention" program, dubbed by the media as robodebt, which uses a computer program to calculate if welfare recipients have been overpaid.

The scheme, which began at the end of 2016, matches Australian Tax Office data with income information welfare recipients have provided to Centrelink. If the computer detects a discrepancy, it will trigger a request for more information, such as payslips dating as far back as 2010. A debt notice will be issued if information isn't provided or a discrepancy is outstanding. 

At the time of its launch, thousands of Australians began receiving debt notices for overpaid welfare. Some of these people hadn't been on Centrelink for more than five years.

Ms Jackson was at home with a new child in Moonta, a small town two hours from Adelaide, when stories of those struggling with debts flooded the media.

"There were people that were at risk of homelessness, or making the choice between paying this debt and buying food," she said.

"People that had been working for the last five years and thought that they were close to buying a car, or something positive, then all of a sudden they were hit with thousands of dollars debt from the government."

A training ground for regional women

Ms Jackson was outraged and "a little bit bored". So, armed with 10 years experience in web development she made a website and put out a call for volunteers.

"Quickly, an interesting pattern emerged of women that were really active and putting their hands up and a lot of people from regional Australia," she said.

"There were lot of us were mums. Quite a few people had taken time out of the workforce to do some sort of caring roles and quite frankly they were kinda bored."

Ms Jackson reached out to freelance journalist and social media activist Asher Wolf who led the viral #NotMyDebt campaign.

#NotMyDebt transformed into a training ground for the volunteers. Ms Jackson has since taught dozens of women from around Australia skills in web development, all in the name of challenging Centrelink's robodebt system.

"I'm really interested in training women in to using technology. I'm really comfortable with training people and that was really necessary for this project when we did start to get big volumes of stories that were submitted," she said.

Volunteers labelled 'political point scorers'

The data matching algorithm was used by the previous Labor government, but staff would cross-reference ATO data with reporting data themselves to verify whether debts existed and would then issue debt notices appropriately. Since the end of 2016, staff no-longer cross reference and the onus of proof has been reversed and the debt recipient must prove they don’t owe money.

A year after the first debts were handed out, a senate inquiry concluded there was a "lack of procedural fairness evident in every stage of the online compliance intervention program".

#NotMyDebt contributed to the inquiry with a submission based on the stories shared. The Coalition dismissed calls for the scheme to be shutdown, and labelled NotMyDebt as a group of political point scorers:

Coalition Senators further note the input from some third parties, such as #notmydebt, which were aiming solely at scoring political points and inflaming the situation rather than offering practical assistance in resolving the issues raised.

Ms Jackson was surprised the government labelled the volunteer political point scorers.

"We're just a bunch of mums and people from regional areas who thought that this was, was really terrible," she said.

"It's just volunteers that actually care about this and that's probably challenging for government to understand."

A report released by the Commonwealth Ombudsman in 2019 found Centrelink had improved processes for how it handled automated debts.

The Department of Human Services General Manager Hank Jongen said in a statement provided to The Feed: "In reviewing our processes, the Commonwealth Ombudsman found that it is reasonable and appropriate to ask people to explain discrepancies in data.

"The Ombudsman is satisfied that we have significantly improved the way we communicate with our customers to ensure they better understand the way debts are calculated and have greater access to support if they wish to have a debt reviewed."

This week the senate has sent robo-debt to an inquiry for the second time in three years.

Twenty percent of debts incorrect

The government has issued more than 500,000 robodebts, data released earlier this year showed more than 100,000 have been reduced or waived.

Senate estimate figures this year showed the robodebt system has clawed back 500 million dollars from current and former welfare recipients. But it has cost 400 million dollars to manage.

One fifth of debts have been reduced or waived.

There are two cases before the Federal Court testing the lawfulness of the scheme.

This week the Opposition spokesperson for government services Bill Shorten said the program had left "a trail of human heartache."

"The Government's robodebt scheme is so seriously malfunctioning it must be scrapped," he said in a statement to the ABC.

Government sticking by the system

The Department of Human Services General Manager Hank Jongen said in a statement provided to The Feed: "We work hard to balance the specific sensitivities of working with people who need support and the obligation to ensure that people have been paid the right amount of welfare for their circumstances.

"We have a designated team available to help people experiencing difficulties or with concerns about their review.

"The Ombudsman noted that allowing customers to provide information at any stage of their review, potentially reducing the debt amount, reflects a reassessment process functioning as it should," General Manager Hank Jongen said. 

"If customers disagree or don’t understand a decision we’ve made, they have the right to ask us to review our decision at any stage of the process."

#NotMyDebt continues to receive stories

Ms Jackson's daughter is three years old - almost the same age as the scheme - and volunteers for NotMyDebt continue to receive stories and requests for help from those dealing with sudden debt notices.

"It's been an incredibly rewarding community project that has really helped thousands of people and stopped people from paying money that they didn't owe," she said.