Centrelink has been criticised for trialing its automated debt recovery system on Australia’s most vulnerable welfare recipients.
The program, ostensibly designed to recover overpayments, has been widely criticised for its harshness and inaccuracy since it began in 2016.
Under the regime, the onus has been on individual rather than the government to prove a debt to Centrelink is not owed.
In mid-July, Centrelink began sending letters to a “small number” of welfare recipients which the agency has identified as “vulnerable” or who live in a remote location.
The term includes people with mental health issues or intellectual impairment; people requiring frequent treatment for illness; and those experiencing homelessness, drug or alcohol addiction, or escaping domestic violence.
The plan has been criticised by John Altman, an Indigenous affairs professor at Deakin University, who described the move as a “populist measure” which could have disastrous effects.
“This is just a way of the government punishing the poor and punishing Indigenous people for being welfare dependent,” he told NITV News.
“It’s very hard for people to meet burdensome bureaucratic requirements.
“We’ve seen that with the Cashless Welfare Debit Card and the Basics Card.”
He added that it could potentially have “disastrous” effects on the government’s Closing the Gap initiative.
“The algorithms that electronic systems use cannot take into account the living circumstances of Indigenous people living in dire circumstances,” he said.
Lisa Fowkes, a researcher from the Australian National University, said the program could have a disproportionately negative affect on Aboriginal people.
“The structures that are in place in the social security system are notoriously poor in picking up the issues that people in remote communities might have,” she said.
Ms Fowkes feared the scheme signalled a return to the 1950s era where welfare recipients were required to be of “good character”.
“I’d question the decision to trial it on the poorest people in the country,” she said.
“I really worry about how First Nations people as citizens to this country are being treated in terms of that basic right to a social safety net.”
The plan has also been criticised by Cassandra Goldie, the chief executive of the Australian Council of Social Services. In a letter to Human Services Minister Michael Keenan, she described the decision to extend the program as “deeply irresponsible”.
“People will experience serious anxiety, depression and a sense of hopelessness, which we know already occurs under robodebt,” she wrote.
“It is deeply irresponsible to extend a program that has caused damage to people’s wellbeing to people with poor mental health.”
Dr Goldie also pointed out that attempts to recover debts would worsen the situation of welfare recipients experiencing homelessness.
“There are also practical issues in that many may not have retain documents like payslips or bank statements that would verify their income because they did not have a home,” she added.
Centrelink staff will apparently use phone calls to discuss potential debts with vulnerable individuals rather than forcing them to complete online forms.
A spokesman for the minister referred questions to the department of human services.
The department declined the opportunity to provide details about the program.
Those details included exactly how many ‘vulnerable’ people are involved in the trial, how these people were selected, how many lived in remote areas and how many are Indigenous.
“The department completes income reviews in a fair and reasonable way,” it said in a statement.
“We have very carefully considered how to best work with people identified as vulnerable or who live in a remote location, to help them confirm or update their income details.”
Earlier this week, a proposal to drug test welfare recipients across Australia passed parliament’s lower house but may face opposition in the Senate.