Centrelink’s robo debt is illegal and unjust

Contributed by Jim Hayes

According to Terry Carney, who happens to be Emeritus professor of law at the University of Sydney, the government’s “robo-debt” system is illegal.

Carney was on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal for 40 years and was its longest serving member, until he retired last September. One would suspect he would know something about the letter of the law in circumstances like this.

The reason why it is suggested that the system goes against the law. There is a breach of the obligation to get enough information to raise a debt when its first contact with a recipient. Rather than go through the process of obtaining this information, the computerised robo debt process, automatically issuers out debts in insufficient information about the case.

He has also said that Centrelink uses the method of calculating averages, in place of what specific evidence might suggest.

The assumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty has gone. A person who receives one of these debts, must prove that they are innocent. Centrelink does not need to prove anything. If the individual cannot prove that the debt is not real, the debt still stands.

However, following the government line, the Department of Human Services dismisses Professor Carney and any other criticism,  and suggests that the government has changed the law to allow it to operate in this way.

It doesn’t all go one in one direction. There is the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s report and a Senate inquiry. Sweeping changes have been recommended, and this will add further, to the the disrepute of the system.

Legality is one thing. But it is just as real that the system is morally reprehensible. It places an undeserved burden on some of the most vulnerable people in the Australian community. And this cannot be justified on the grounds of cost saving.

And this galls more, when a parade of politicians and former politicians have been caught out making false claims, or wrongly using public money, and they are not asked to pay it back.

It is a case of double standards, mired in the class view of the government and top functionaries. People depending on Centrelink payments are regarded as being somewhat less than equal, undeserving riff-raff, that must be put in their place, and have not resources that can be used for other purposes, wasted on them.

It is the attitude that has led to a deterioration of working conditions at Centrelink itself. Staff number have been reduced in a big way, and those who remain are overworked in a high stress environment.

Most Centrelink employees know that the treatment of those seeking help is abysmal and getting worse. For this reason, the ability to make decisions have been progressively eroded and transferred to computer systems lacking any compassion. Work is also in the process of been handed out to the private sector, working on lucrative commissions, to deny payment to as many people as possible. Work at Centrelink is also being casualised.

Centrelink staff also need community support.

These changes are deliberate, and the best guess is, this is an effort to create a layer of Australians, desperate enough to take on work for a miserable wage and under terrible conditions.

This is nothing less than the creation of a cheap labour force, to undermine the wages and conditions of all.

People once thought that this thinking belonged back in the days of the industrial revolution. It has returned and must be taken on and the slide backwards stopped.

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