Inquiry shines light on the harmful Centrelink mutual obligation system

Image from TND

Contributed from Queensland

As the Robodebt inquiry rolls on, it not only causes embarrassment to for those politicians who were responsible and the bureaucrats who implemented it, this and other related inquiries are bringing other injustices to light.

The most important of these came by way of ombudsman’s office submission into the Senate inquiry into the ParentsNext scheme for single parents, which takes aim against the mutual obligations system. Mutual obligation came into existence years ago. The original purpose was to target the unemployed. It was justified under the claim that recipients of Centrelink payments are somehow doing something wrong.

The system depends on a contractual agreement and imposing penalties for deemed breeches. The effect has been to propagate the accusation that the receiver of a Centrelink benefit is a malingerer trying to live it easy.

Anyone who has experienced not having a proper job and trying to make ends meet will tell you that this is far from being a ticket to an easy life. It is tough living in poverty. To be treated as a third-rate citizen, humiliated, and being forced pass through ongoing and meaningless loops makes it all that much worse.

Cartoon by Megan Herbert

Being under the presumption that you are doing something wrong invites mistreatment. You are always presumed guilty of wrongdoing. Under the system, most will sooner or later have their payment suspended because of often unproven accusations or for not complying. For instance, if you do not turn up for an appointment if you are sick. The same thing will if you happen to be working on that day or attending a job interview. it does not matter whether you inform them of the fact or not.

The mutual obligation system is engineered to be a system of punishment for having the affront to register for Centrelink. The purpose has been to discourage registration, and this has the effect of lowering the numbers and making the government of the day look better.

Making involvement with Centrelink into hell on Earth creates desperate people, who will take on underpaid and substandard working conditions. This suits those who want a cheap labour force to pull down wages and working conditions overall.

Imposing mutual obligation contracts has proven to be a good way to create profitable opportunities for private contractors to provide sham training, endless appointments going nowhere. It has provided opportunities to gain payments for reporting alleged wrongdoing. This is a form of abuse. It generated a scandal, that compelled the current government to terminate contracts with some of them last year. But the system persists and there is little sign of an appetite form the political elite to get rid of it.

The treatment has not been limited to the unemployed. Single parents, as well as those on disability and other pensions are suffering, and pressured into transferring onto JobSeeker payments as part of their individual contract.

It led to Robodebt. Individuals were hit with manufactured and false debts. Australia was justifiably horrified when the truth of this came out, and if it was not for this, there would have been no inquiry.

Robodebt must go and the mutual obligation system along with it. If this it continues, it is only a matter of time before something just as odious replaces Robodebt. At issue is whether Australia is going to treat those who fall on difficult times with respect and value them as human beings or continues to marginalise blame and punish them for something that is not their fault.

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