Australia

UN expert takes aim at Scott Morrison's 'punitive, harsh' approach to welfare

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The UN's Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights had strong words on two elements of Australia's welfare system.

A United Nations expert has slammed Australia's controversial Centrelink robo-debt scheme and cashless welfare cards as both being "unduly punitive and unduly harsh".

Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston told SBS News on Friday Australia was using digital technologies to diminish its welfare system rather than improve it.

Robo-debt is an automated Centrelink debt recovery system and cashless welfare cards quarantine a certain portion of welfare payments so the money can only be spent on essential items.

Philip Alston talks at a press briefing.
Philip Alston talks at a press briefing.
Getty

Professor Alston, who is Australian, said these highlight the Morrison government's "obsessive focus on the fraud dimension [in the welfare system] in order to achieve other political goals".

"Welfare in Australia is moving in a way that removes a lot of compassion," he said from New York.

The robo-debt scheme matches tax office and Centrelink data to claw back overpaid welfare payments. But the government has admitted about one-fifth of initial letters included information that was later proved to be wrong.

Government's welfare card plan 'fails the human rights test': lawyer
The UN has urged the Morrison government to reexamine its approach to welfare.
AAP

Professor Alston said this debt recovery scheme "imposed immense hardship on a significant number of people".

"Imagine if the tax system was geared in that way … large numbers of notices being sent out, reclaiming tens, hundreds of thousands of dollars from wealthy taxpayers and saying that all sorts of things would be suspended if they don't pay. That hasn't happened, that wouldn't happen," he said.

While he said the cashless welfare card scheme was a case of "new technologies being used for one set of objectives - to penalise, to stigmatise and to justify reductions in the overall benefits that are being provided".

On Friday, the UN released a report authored by Professor Alston that expressed concern about the emergence of "digital welfare states" around the world, including Australia.

The report said that digitisation of welfare is "presented as an altruistic and noble enterprise designed to ensure that citizens benefit from new technologies".

But it said the real motives behind such programs are often "a narrowing of the beneficiary pool [and] the elimination of some services".

Professor Alston said broadly speaking, digital welfare systems are used to "slash welfare, to impose harsh conditions on welfare beneficiaries [and] to be able to track them systematically."

He said the Morrison government should "not just see the combination of welfare and technology as a way to further emphasise the element of fraud ... [Australia should] go back to asking why is welfare there and how can technology help it?"

The comments come weeks after Mr Morrison decried "negative globalism" and unaccountable internationalist bureaucracies.

Professor Alston said such comments were unhelpful.

"[Mr Morrison] complaining in a very vague way about multilateralism as though it was in any way constraining the options of the government is really setting up a straw man and we should focus instead on the policies," he said.

"Are they doing the best they can to promote the rights of the people concerned?"

SBS News contacted the Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert with a number of Professor Alston's claims.

A spokesperson for Mr Robert's office said, "We note Mr Alston's comments ... and could appreciate wanting to relate his report to Australia, but the report is really directed elsewhere".

Additional reporting: Pablo Vinales

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