Unjustified Centrelink debt continues to be a reality for thousands

Illustration by John Shakespeare

Contributed by Ben Wilson

It looks like our politicians and Services Australia bureaucrats refuse to accept the lesson of the Robodebt scandal, where it was found that unjustified debts had been imposed on tens of thousands of Australians. Many are still saddled with such debts.  They have not been cancelled as they should have been.

Royal commissioner Catherine Holmes’ damning findings found the robodebt scandal to be crude, cruel and neither fair nor legal. 

As if this was not enough, unjustified debts are still hanging over people’s heads. justice demands that these debts be scrapped.

Illustration by Paul Farrell

Yesterday (4 December 2023) a report released by the Commonwealth Ombudsman revealed that agencies on contracts with Centrelink had imposed unjustified debts of more than 100,000 individuals between 2009 and 2020. There means was the use of unexplained calculations. Efforts by the Ombudsman’s office to get details on how these calculations were made from private businesses contracted by Centrelink failed. They provide no explanation.

The government has accepted the recommendations made. but the test will be on whether and how a real change is implemented.

One known method known to have been applied to create these debts, is to record income reported by someone receiving JobSeeker payments reported as an average ongoing payment, even if only received once. The extra supposed payments then become a debt.  Despite this being a direct breach of the Social Security Act, nothing has been done to stamp out the practice.

A big part of the problem is that the private service providers contracted to do work once covered by Centrelink, are paid to get people off JobSeeker, and not for finding them a job. Debt is used as a tool to make life as difficult as possible for those targeted. They are pressured off JobSeeker payments.

Politicians and Services Australia bureaucrats have been happy with this arrangement, because it helps to keep the official unemployed numbers down. It also serves the inclination to blame those out of work, for being for the situation they find themselves in. the unemployed have become useful scapegoats to hide a failure to create jobs.

These are good reasons why there has been little movement to change the situation, despite the Robodebt scandal.

Responding to the Ombudsman’s report, Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth merely passed this off as a “complex” issue and insisted that wrongful debt collection had stopped in 2020. She should try telling this to those currently facing unjustified debt to their faces.

Noting is going to change, so long as there is a failure to look at unemployment in a different way. Most of those who find themselves in this situation are there through no fault of their own. There are not enough jobs to go around.

Secondly, that everyone has the right to a decent life and to be treated with respect should be treated as basic principles that guide how government agencies operate.

Service delivery should no longer be contracted out to private business only interested in their bottom line.

Mistreatment will continue for as long as the present order in maintained and there continues to be a failure to change.

1 Comment on "Unjustified Centrelink debt continues to be a reality for thousands"

  1. The Ombusdman’s recommendations were accepted by Centrelink, except the suggestion to waive 100 000 debts!

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