Shorten says Centrelink is increasingly targeting vulnerable Australians

The former opposition leader has called the robo-debt program 'faulty', 'illegal', and a 'scam'.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Former Labor leader and now Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten has called out the Australian government for "ramping up" investigations into vulnerable welfare recipients, instead of toning it down like it promised.

On Monday, Shorten said the "faulty and illegal robo-debt scam" has gone into overdrive against vulnerable recipients of sickness assistance and disability social security.

In a statement, the former opposition leader published figures obtained by Labor in the Senate that he said reveal tax garnishees of Sickness Allowance and Disability Support Pension increased by nearly 2,000% last financial year.

In November 2019, Shorten said Services Australia publicised that it removes people from the debt recovery process if they have a vulnerability indicator on their file.

"This is not a helping hand for people in need. This is a new low for this government and its handling of social security," the statement said. "Robo-debt is illegal. And what's worse is the government has known it is while deploying it against the vulnerable."

In the snippet distributed by Shorten, it can be seen that 124 debts in 2018-19 were regarding people in receipt of a Disability Support Pension, with the value recovered sitting at over AU$182,000.

Similarly, in 2018-19, 501 debts were regarding those in receipt of Sickness Allowance. The value recovered of these debts was over AU$600,000.

It can also be seen that 110 debts were raised under Carers payments, which in 2018-19 had over AU$140,000 recovered.

In September, Shorten said the government knows robo-debt is illegal, and hence the department wipes debts before court appearances.

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

See also: Government to continue 'robo-debt' in the name of mutual responsibility

"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."

Shorten said at the time that the legal foundations of robo-debt, such as its reverse onus of proof on those receiving a debt notice, was on shaky ground.

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

"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."

Shorten has previously labelled robo-debt as having the same essential logic and ethics of a mob standover.

"Our social security legislation holds that something is a debt only if proven. But robo-debt victims are not given the courtesy of the detail. They are given the figure that an automated algorithm arrives at but not shown the 'working out'," Shorten said in September.

"Many are frightened into paying off debts that may be wrong or non-existent."

The Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) program, also known as robo-debt, 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.

One large error in the system was that it was incorrectly calculating 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.


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