‘An abject failure’ – we give evidence on Centrelink’s robo-debt scheme to Senate inquiry

‘An abject failure’ – we give evidence on Centrelink’s robo-debt scheme to Senate inquiry

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

In Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate inquiry into Centrelink’s automated data-matching initiative, we called for the flawed scheme to be immediately abandoned.

Our Managing Director Bevan Warner said the scheme is ‘an abject failure. It is hurting people. It will continue to undermine the integrity of the social welfare system it is meant to be improving.

‘It is arguably unlawful, and even if it is lawful, it shouldn’t be.

‘The minor improvements that have been announced don’t go far enough and it should be stopped.

‘The scheme was a blunt solution to a self-inflicted problem, that gave little thought to the customers who would be affected. What thought was given was of the uncaring kind.

‘Committing to improving communication and citing a need to protect taxpayers will not fix this broken scheme.

‘Automated data-matching shifts human scrutiny and dialogue to the end of a frightening process. In so doing, it imposes new obligations on citizens that Centrelink previously did for itself. Many find these impossible to fulfil.

‘In our view this initiative will become a lesson in what not to do in public administration and whoever’s pride is at stake should not prevent it from being fixed.’

Mr Warner said that steps taken by Centrelink to disclose protected information about its clients, in an attempt to refute criticism, were deeply concerning.

‘It is a failure by government to comply with the written law in relation to privacy, and to lead by example. We also contend it was unlawful.

‘Correcting the public record should be limited to just that, and confined narrowly, when a citizen’s privacy is the right that will be forfeited. It should not be construed as allowing a public relations defence of a flawed scheme for reasons of bureaucratic pride or for party political purposes.’

Mr Warner said that Victoria Legal Aid’s submission includes stories from our clients about the profound difficulties they experience in ‘running the debt gauntlet’.

‘This initiative is a “double whammy” because it hurts the most those who have the least resources – emotional, physical and financial – to respond.  

'Either they try to put the resources they have into a mammoth accounting exercise they are not equipped to perform, or they acquiesce to a debt which we know may not be correct.

‘No modelling was done about the likelihood of over calculation of debts. This has almost certainly resulted in an acquiescing public, and those under duress, paying debts they don’t owe.’

Mr Warner also said that the rationale for introducing the initiative – of saving taxpayer money from rorters – ignored research showing that many Australians don’t claim their entitlements. ‘But this data-matching only works in one direction – debt recovery.’

More information

Read our Submission to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee – April 2017

We can provide you with free information on what to do if you disagree with a Centrelink decision. Read Disagree with a Centrelink decision?

Media enquiries

If you have a media enquiry please contact Senior Communications Advisor Kerrie Soraghan on 0422 966 513 or (03) 9269 0660.