Labor accuses Coalition of knowing 'robo-debt' is illegal

Apparently all you need to do to get a Centrelink debt wiped is show up in court to contest it.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Former Labor Leader and now Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten has called the federal government out for knowing its Centrelink data-matching project is illegal.

A statement on Friday from Shorten said that every time a victim of the initiative colloquially known as "robo-debt" nearly has their day in court, the department in charge wipes the debt.

"Clearly the government does not want the legality of their bureaucratic standover racket tested in court," Shorten said.

"Clearly they hope these last minute reprieves will help them convince the court that they have no case to answer and that the system corrects its errors."

According to Shorten, the government is only listening to the two people running cases with Legal Aid lawyers.

It isn't just the two test cases run by Legal Aid that get the "emergency triage treatment", however.

"In hundreds of robo-debt appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal the government accepts the claims with the result that judgement cannot be given on the legality of the scheme," Shorten continued.

"Little wonder, given many prominent lawyers including former AAT member Terry Carney have given the opinion the scheme amounts to illegal extortion."

Earlier this week, Shorten called robo-debt "harsh and inaccurate", likening the scheme to having the same essential logic and ethics of a mob standover.

See also: Why Australia is quickly developing a technology-based human rights problem (TechRepublic) 

"I have consistently expressed my view that the legal foundations of robo-debt -- a reverse onus of proof on alleged debtors over often inaccurate figures -- are very shaky indeed," he said on Friday.

"Judged on their actions, the government feels the same way.

"This strategy of deny, deny, deny -- and then fold at the last minute -- reveals that in their heart of hearts the government fears robo-debt is not just immoral but illegal."

The Department of Human Services (DHS) has been automatically issuing debt notices to those in receipt of welfare payments through Centrelink since 2016.

The Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) program automatically compares the income declared to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) against income declared to Centrelink, resulting in debt notices -- along with a 10% recovery fee -- subsequently being issued when a disparity in government data is detected.

One large error in the system was that it incorrectly calculated a recipient's income, basing fortnightly pay on their annual salary rather than taking a cumulative 26-week snapshot of what an individual was paid.

"Robo-debt has already caused a trail of human suffering around this country -- persecuted retirees, stressed out students, parents being chased for alleged debts of their dead children, a mother who attributes her son's suicide to him being targeted by robodebt," Shorten added on Friday.

"What is truly unconscionable is that Minister for Robodebt Stuart Robert refuses to call off the robo-debt hounds while knowing it could be illegal and actively working to prevent it being found just that. In fact he is considering expanding the scheme to even more vulnerable categories of people.

See also: Centrelink's new data-matching project targets Medicare fraud

"This is not in keeping with our traditional values of a fair go. It is unAustralian."

Shorten again called for the OCI project to be scrapped.

DHS in March last year told a Finance and Public Administration References Committee that its data-matching program went well because it produced savings, but this ignored claims from individuals that the OCI system caused them feelings of anxiety, fear, and humiliation, and reportedly even resulted in suicide.  

Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert has also responded to pleas to stop the program by saying that the government has a lawful responsibility to collect "where citizens have mismatched what they said they'd earn versus what, through their tax return, they've been shown to earn".

According to Robert, across Australia, as at 30 June 2019, there were 1.54 million outstanding social welfare debts he claims have a value just shy of AU$5 billion.

While the Coalition claims AU$1.9 billion has been returned funds thanks to robo-debt, the program has cost AU$375 million so far, but has only recovered a little over AU$326 million in overpayments, while at least 31,000 debt claims have been wiped.

Shorten's accusations come the same day the Australian Data and Digital Council, chaired by Robert, agreed to establish a National Disability Data Asset, which will compile data on those in the country living with disability.


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