Monday, 06 May 2019 09:10

Greens call for immediate stop to Centrelink robo-debt program Featured

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Greens call for immediate stop to Centrelink robo-debt program Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

The Australian Greens have called on the Federal Government to immediately halt the recovery of money claimed to be owed to Centrelink and calculated through the use of data, after the Department of Human Services wiped a $4000 debt that was at the heart of a Federal Court challenge to the recovery scheme.

The digital rights group, Electronic Frontiers Australia, added its voice, calling for the new government that will be elected on 18 May to rewind what it described as "the infamous Centrelink data-matching program known as robo-debt".

The case was filed by Victorian Legal Aid on behalf of Melbourne nurse Madeleine Masterton, after claims that welfare recipients were being asked to pay back debts that were wrongly calculated, or, in many cases, completely fictitious.

“The Department’s magic recalculation of this debt shows just what a farce this program is. The Department simply cannot explain how debts are calculated through its deeply flawed process,” Greens spokesperson on family and community services, Senator Rachel Siewert, said in a statement.

“Following the dropping of Masterton’s debt the obvious question is - how can we believe any of the calculations?"

The robo-debt scheme was started by the Coalition Government shortly before Christmas 2016, when the DHS sent tens of thousands of letters to people, telling them that their earnings were at variance with what they had declared to the Australian Taxation Office.

They were given up to three weeks to explain. Else, they faced an adverse assessment and a recovery fee of 10%. Human Services Minister Alan Tudge himself was unaware of this recovery fee.

Some letters dealt with payments made six years prior to 2016 and even earlier. The Centrelink website asks people to keep pay slips for six months.

In June 2017, a Senate panel recommended that the program be halted immediately until all the issues around it were fixed.

A year later, it was revealed that a third of the appeals, made by those who were slugged with these debts, had been upheld by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal

Senator Siewert said: “Robo-debt has caused harm to thousands and thousands of Australians. Many people are repaying debts they do not believe they owe but cannot easily disprove, and cannot afford to fight the system any further."

She said the government's act of dropping the debt at the last minute was "clearly a last-ditch effort by the Commonwealth to prevent the whole system from being found to be invalid".

“We now face the prospect of hundreds if not thousands of court challenges until the program is invalidated or dropped. I am calling on the government to cease the program now and rescind all debt notices to provide justice and fair play to some of our most vulnerable citizens."

EFA chair Lyndsey Jackson said the organisation condemned the actions of the DHS which she characterised as "deliberately evading scrutiny of the program".

“Dropping the complainant’s $4000 debt at this late stage is suspiciously convenient, and consistent with the Department’s ongoing efforts to avoid public scrutiny of this abusive program,” Jackson said in a statement.

“Denying people transparency and fair process is a disgrace, particularly given the widespread administrative flaws in the robo-debt system. Those flaws include crude income averaging, data errors like duplicate employers, and its reversal of the onus of proof.”

She said rights were at the intersection of human rights and digital policy. "Robo-debt is a severe example of what happens when poorly considered policy is combined with equally poor implementation of digital systems. It’s become a cautionary tale to the rest of the world, yet another algorithm of oppression.

“Those in technology, public policy, and the law have been waiting to see how this court case unfolded. We believe the flimsy pretence for this program will collapse under legal scrutiny, and it seems the Department does too, since it has struck off a debt rather than defend it in court.”

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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