Robodebt and the Demonization of Welfare in Australia

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Robodebt and the Demonization of Welfare in Australia

The scheme, engineered to claw back funds supposedly overpaid to welfare recipients, was broken and cruel from the start. Despite a royal commission’s findings, its political backers are unlikely to face punishment.

Robodebt and the Demonization of Welfare in Australia
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“Probable illegality.” 


This is how Royal Commissioner Catherine Holmes, SC, described Robodebt – one of the most egregious attacks on the vulnerable in Australian history – in her findings for the Royal Commission handed down on July 7. 

The scheme was designed to improve the budget’s bottom line by clawing back 1.7 billion Australian dollars in supposedly overpaid welfare from recipients. 

Holmes described it as “utterly mishandled from its conception to rollout.” 

The Royal Commission’s report – which at almost 1,000 pages is one of the most stinging documents in recent memory – lambasted the former coalition government. Even when they were made aware that the automated scheme was failing, rather than recall it, they attacked welfare recipients in the media who complained that they were receiving debt notices for money they didn’t owe.  

Some of these people who received notices took their own lives. 

Others attempted to do so, and were hounded by debt collectors as they lay in hospital beds recovering.

What Is “Robodebt”?

The Robodebt scheme was an unlawful method of automated debt recovery from those on welfare, implemented by government agency Services Australia through an organization called Centrelink.

Put in place in July 2016, it was designed to replace the manual debt calculation for overpayments with an automated data-matching system that compared the records of people receiving Centrelink payments with an averaged income from data obtained through the Australian Taxation Office. 

The program was attacked from the onset by welfare advocates and academics, who argued it was generating incorrect data. When someone was given a debt, Services Australia used private debt collectors to hound the recipients. 

Many of the debts were fraudulent.

In May 2020, the Morrison government announced it would scrap the program and $720 million in wrongly issued “debts” were to be repaid in full. The figure eventually blew out to A$1.2 billion when the government settled a class-action lawsuit to avoid a trial. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who himself was the Social Services minister when the Robodebt scheme was introduced, never formally apologized to the victims. 

The Royal Commission

Holmes eviscerated the entire Robodebt scheme in her findings, arguing that it seemed to have been put together as “an ill-conceived, embryonic idea.”

“It is remarkable how little interest there seems to have been in ensuring the scheme’s legality,” she noted. “How rushed its implementation was, how little thought was given to how it would affect welfare recipients and the lengths to which public servants were prepared to go to oblige ministers on a quest for savings.”

The Royal Commission also heard that the government’s defense of the scheme involved releasing personal and private information about welfare customers to friendly media sources to correct what the government believed to be inaccuracies in the “left-wing media.” 

The News Corp papers ran attacks on welfare recipients with regular leaks from the office of then-Human Services Minister Alan Tudge. Holmes said Tudge had significant public power but abused it through media leaks “to distract from and discourage commentary about the scheme’s problems.”

“It was all the more reprehensible in view of the power imbalance between the minister and the cohort of people upon whom it would reasonably be expected to have the most impact, many of whom were vulnerable and dependent on the department, and its minister, for their livelihood,” the report said.

Tudge denied the findings in the “strongest term.” 

When it came to former Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Holmes was scathing. She noted that he had allowed cabinet to be misled over the legality of the scheme. She “rejects as untrue” the evidence he gave to the commission. 

On Robodebt, when he knew the scheme was illegal, she stated, “He failed to meet his ministerial responsibility to ensure that Cabinet was properly informed about what the proposal actually entailed and to ensure that it was lawful.”

Morrison was renowned for his glass-jaw responses to criticism when prime minister. He used his best Trumpian response to attack the findings. 

“I reject completely each of the findings which are critical of my involvement in authorizing the scheme and are adverse to me,” his statement said.  “They are wrong, unsubstantiated and contradicted by clear documentary evidence presented to the commission.”

Other cabinet ministers, including Stuart Robert (who has just stood down) and Christian Porter (who did at the last election) were also criticized, as were bureaucrats who allowed and defended the scheme to its dying days. 

Holmes also recommended several people be referred to external agencies, such as the Australian Federal Police, for possible criminal and civil proceedings. The names have been kept in a sealed section that has so far escaped any leaks, which has set off salacious gossip of who it might castigate further. 

Given the excoriating criticism it now evokes, why was Robodebt allowed to happen in the first place? 

Welfare Demonization

Melbourne-based publication The Saturday Paper has long criticized Robodebt for its focus on some of the most vulnerable in society. In an editorial last Saturday, it opined that the program was allowed to happen because of the political demonization of welfare recipients:

At the end, robo-debt [sic] was about two things: a government totally unable to imagine the experiences of the poor and a politics that sees votes in their exploitation. Robo-debt [sic] would never have existed were it not for the contempt with which the political class views those living in poverty.

The evidence of fraud in the welfare system is tiny. The word the commissioner used was minuscule. She said this was not the impression given, however, by the ministers discussing it. They saw the grim advantage in propagating falsehood.

Holmes noted in the Royal Commission’s report that “anti-welfare rhetoric is easy populism, useful for campaign purposes… those attitudes are set by politicians, who need to abandon for good (in every sense) the narrative of taxpayer versus welfare recipient.”

Right-wing media often propagated this, routinely being given friendly leaks by politicians who were more than happy to have their positions defended unilaterally and without a hint of criticism, on the front page of newspapers.

The Australian, once a bastion of intellectual brevity, has been reduced in recent times to platforming columnists who preach a plethora of racially charged commentary, climate-change denialism, and conservative government stenography. It often celebrated the toughness of the scheme and defended it from criticism at all accounts, as did Murdoch tabloids who have often used people on welfare as a cudgel. 

In many ways, these mechanisms were as bad as the government ministers implementing the scheme. In a press that is meant to hold power to account, it instead boosted an abusive program under the guise of defending its chosen political side.

Even after the Royal Commission, columnists in The Australian argued that there is a “weaponization of quasi-judicial processes” to “hound” Morrison out of parliament. 

It is this indifference and failure to understand the ultimate tragedy of a process that was designed to intimidate and ruin lives that will be the lasting lesson from the Robodebt scheme. As Holmes noted in her final report, the scheme was simply built on “venality, incompetence and cowardice.”

Poverty is not a choice. It is an outcome that is exacerbated by a society unwilling to help others avoid it. For many in the political class, this is too hard of a pill to swallow. 

The likeliest outcome to all of this is that no one responsible will be truly punished. Morrison remains in parliament, while former Secretary of the Department of Human Services Kathryn Campbell, who the Royal Commission found had misled Parliament and took steps to avoid the illegality of the scheme being uncovered, pockets close to A$900,000 as a special adviser for the Department of Defense. 

But for people like Kathleen Madgwick, whose son Jarrad took his life after getting a debt notice a few weeks before his 23rd birthday, the cost remains indomitable. 

And that is the real cost of Robodebt.