The atmospherics of the Centrelink robo-debt debacle

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The secretary of the Commonwealth Human Services Department, Kathryn Campbell, appeared to have little sympathy or concern for the victims of the robo-debt scheme when being questioned senators yesterday (8/3/17),

Was one of Centrelink's robo-debt scheme's main purposes to frighten, confuse and discourage people seeking welfare, asks Michael Clanchy.

Senate Inquiry

The Senate Inquiry into the widely publicised Centrelink robo-debt debacle has commenced in Canberra, amid continuing speculation about Government intent behind the introduction of the scheme in the first place.

The Centrelink robo-debt recovery scheme, unmediated as it is by human investigation, assessment or discretion, has been decried within the community as “unfair, inaccurate and inhumane”.

Some of the reported failures of the robo-debt system have been:

  • inaccuracy of debt invoices through double counting and crude averaging of client income over time;
  • reversal of the onus of proof onto clients to show they do not owe money;
  • automated debt letters sent to thousands of wrong addresses;
  • instigation of debt repayments or debt collector action without confirmation that the original automated debt letter had been received by the client;
  • curbs on Centrelink staff assistance on robot-debt resolution and poor phone access by clients to Centrelink for information on debts; and
  • imposition of debt recovery fees.

Centrelink’s role as a safety net

Under strict eligibility criteria and means-testing, Centrelink provides maintenance of income, at a subsistence level, for those who are unable to support themselves through work or other financial assets. As such, Centrelink acts as the vital safety net for all Australian citizens.

ACT ACOSS director Susan Helyar and National ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie have indicated to the Inquiry that the robo-debt controversy has undermined community confidence and trust in the very system established to protect the most socially and economically vulnerable within the national population. In their advocacy, the ACOSS executives have underlined the imperative that all citizens, in times of crisis, must retain the trust to approach Centrelink and to know they will be dealt with fairly and respectfully, according to their prescribed rights and entitlements.

There appears to be some community suspicion that Minister Alan Tudge’s robo-debt scheme may have served to frighten and confuse people about the welfare system in general, and discourage those seeking assistance.

Whatever the truth of this suspicion, the atmospherics of the robo-debt conflict are heating up dramatically. 

On the morning of the opening of the Senate Inquiry, a sizeable consortium of reputable community organizations called upon Minister Tudge, via an ACOSS-coordinated press release, among other things, to:

  • Ensure people contacted about potential overpayments are not bullied or intimidated;
  • Guarantee fundamental principles of procedural fairness and reasonableness apply to all Centrelink clients;
  • Protect people’s confidentiality and privacy, particularly during the Senate inquiry...

The press release further noted:

'First the Minister threatened people who had a debt with jail time. Now, he has released private information in response to a client who publicly challenged the error-riddled scheme. The effect is a climate of fear for individuals and families affected across Australia.'

Recent requests by ACOSS and the CPSU to meet with Kathryn Campbell, the secretary of the Commonwealth Human Services Department, to discuss ongoing problems with the robo-debt scheme have been refused.

A co-ordinated and vociferous campaign against the Government provision of welfare, particularly to people of working age, has been conducted over the last 30 years. The assault has been waged by groupings of right-wing think tanks and political parties, particular media commentators and high wealth individuals allied by an interest in tax-minimisation. This aggressive advocacy has taken place despite periods of troubling unemployment, underemployment, manufacturing decline and the offshoring of jobs.

One such campaigner was Peter Saunders, the then social research director at the libertarian Centre for Independent Studies. Saunders consideration and analysis of the functioning of the Australian Social Security system is betrayed by the tendentious title of his 2004 work: 'Australia’s Welfare Habit and How to Kick It'. There are no prizes for guessing the tenor of his conclusions and recommendations on how modern Australia needs to cope with the labour market failures of its capitalist economy.

Throughout the book, minimal attention is paid to the lived experience – the challenges and the distress – of those excluded from work and from a self-sustaining livelihood. Rather, emphasis is placed on the opportunities for further tax reductions for those with the good fortune and privilege of being in work and in an economic position to support themselves.

What is more unsettling are Saunders’ pervasive references in the book to the tactics of active deterrence against real and potential beneficiaries, seeking assistance under the social safety net – “sticks”, compliance hurdles, checks and tests, breaching, benefit suspensions and other monetary penalties – all tactics likely to promote discomfort and stress for many already at their wit’s end in coping with their predicament.

There is no need for Saunders’ sermons about the virtue of restoring self-reliance, capacity and personal independence. Australians stand in universal agreement with these aspirational goals.  But the proposition that merely cutting benefits puts a person into a paying job is simplistic and fanciful.  And the emergence of job-depleting robots and higher levels of artificial intelligence intensifies the problem today and in years to come.


The long-term neoliberal attack on welfare recipients of working age is tired and unjust. The last thing Australians want is for existing and potential beneficiaries in deep trouble to be driven away from the national safety net because they have heard that the cure is sometimes worse than the disease. Australians have the patience, wisdom and solidarity to stick with their fellow citizens as they move to restore their own independence within the community. And yes, for some that may be a long process.

As for robo-debt, however, Minister Tudge needs to consult with community stakeholders and fix the problem quickly.

Michael Clanchy is a management and policy development consultant and has authored books including Good Bosses, Bad Bosses: Surviving at Work. Publishers of his feature articles include BRW, The Age, The Brisbane Courier Mail and The West Australian.

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