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Stuart 'Robodebt' Robert and unfunded empathy

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

The Minister responsible for Centrelink's shambolic robodebt recovery system, Stuart Robert, thinks it is working well, despite at least a 20 per cent inaccuracy rate, writes executive editor Michelle Pini.

IT'S INTERESTING that Minister for the NDIS and Government Services Stuart Robert – who was stripped of his portfolio for ministerial misconduct and later promoted, only to rort taxpayers again – has been given senior oversight for the payment of Government funds to those most in need.

It is interesting and also mind-boggling that someone who managed to take taxpayer funds under false pretences but was still given the benefit of the doubt, has no issue with a system to claw back money from others while pronouncing them guilty until proven innocent.

I SCAM DEAD PEOPLE

Robert recently apologised for his Department trying to take $7,000 from a dead person (in one known instance). But instead of acknowledging there may be problems with Centrelink’s debt recovery system, he said only that he understood why people might be angry about receiving possibly fictitious debts.

He then offered the following sage advice:

 “I certainly understand that and I always encourage people, if in doubt, contact the Department.”

Robert made this statement without any hint of irony, despite the obvious inability of privately outsourced call centres under his control to handle the volume of such enquiries. In the 2018 financial year alone, 46 million calls went unanswered and a further 5.3 million calls were abandoned due to absurd waiting times.

But we digress. Back to the issue of extorting money from the needy.

STRENGTHENING WELFARE

According to Prime Minister Scott Morrison:

“What we’re doing in the welfare system is strengthening it.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? “Strengthening” evokes thoughts of a benevolent government providing additional assistance to the needy. Except that the Coalition Government’s idea of “strengthening” the welfare system refers to the systematic targeting of vulnerable people to repay – what are often fake – debts.

Approximately 500,000 Australian citizens have been sent automated letters of demand from Centrelink, alleging that debtors – including people with disabilities, carers, students, the aged and unemployed people – owe the Government, often vast, sums of money that must be repaid, including interest.

Speaking with IA, former Victorian Chief Crown Prosecutor Gavin Silbert QC said:

I am very troubled by the fact that honest, law-abiding citizens are receiving letters of demand, threatening legal action. They are letters threatening to recover alleged debts plus interest, to deduct the so-called debts directly from wages, and to stamp passports, preventing these citizens from leaving the country until the debts are repaid.

 

… The letters demand documented proof from the recipients going back as far as ten years. And in many cases, these debts have been found to be false.

When challenged, however, many debts (about 100,000 so far) have been either waived entirely or significantly reduced due to inaccuracies in the ”robot’s” calculations.

When questioned in Parliament by Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese as to when the Government would admit that the robodebt scheme had failed, Robert replied it was working well because, apparently,

“80 per cent of debts issued were accurate.”

Even if this is correct, a 20 per cent rate of inaccuracy is monstrous. The system is clearly not working properly.

Robert then went on the attack:

“Does the Leader of the Opposition seriously want the Government to wipe $1.121 billion from 408,000 debts because the member doesn’t believe in income compliance?”

UNFUNDED EMPATHY

This, of course, is an absurd over-simplification. There is a proper and humane method of recovering money owed to the Government. Robert himself reimbursed money owed only after a Senate Inquiry. There were no letters of demand, wages automatically deducted, or travel rights revoked.

No doubt, approaching the issue of “income compliance” in a compassionate and efficient manner, where people are treated with respect and presumed innocent until proven guilty, is more of what Prime Minister Scott Morrison dismisses as “unfunded empathy”, though he was referring to the raising of Newstart at the time.

Yet Stuart Robert still thinks the system is operating well.

Robert told Lara Tingle, proudly:

“The Department has recovered $1.9 billion in overpayment and we have a legal responsibility to do that.”

However, Mr Silbert told IA:

“Government departments are meant to be model litigants — what is happening here is bullying and it is fraudulent.”

If this is an example of your administration’s policies working well, Mr Robodebt, we can only wonder what it might look like if one of them went wrong.

This is only half the story! The other part of this editorial may be read in the IA members-only area. It takes less a minute to subscribe to IA and costs as little as $5 a month, or $50 a year — a small sum for superb journalism and lots of extras.

You can follow executive editor Michelle Pini on Twitter @vmp9Follow Independent Australia on Twitter at @independentaus and on Facebook HERE.

 
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