25 November 2022
Robodebt involved looking at the tax records of welfare recipients over a year, and then demanding money back from them over their year’s income. The Social Services Act specified that their income should be calculated fortnightly. Many people, particularly unemployed and disadvantaged ones, live from week to week, and don’t keep good records for tax purposes, as mostly they do not have enough income to pay tax, or the tax is already deducted from their income before they get it. So when a computer algorithm stated that they owned money to the Taxation Dept. and they had to prove that they did not, they were in no position to dispute this and the money was automatically taken from their already meagre welfare payments.
It seems that a number of public servants told the government that the process was neither wise nor legal, but it went ahead anyway.
This was in sharp contrast to the JobKeeper scheme, where businesses could estimate the costs of keeping their staff and be reimbursed. The JobKeeper legislation was modelled on New Zealand legislation, which had ‘claw-back’ provisions if businesses were overpaid. So the government did not ‘forget’ the claw-back provisions, they actively deleted them from the template.
It is difficult to see these actions as anything other than an ideological, punitive approach to people on welfare combined with a willingness to overpay those were approved of. It is difficult to see the Morrison government except in the light of rewarding friends and punishing people that were not approved of. The exemption of university academics and the performing arts from JobKeeper is further evidence of this proposition.
Since one of the significant public servants has now died, it may be that there will be no answer as to who is responsible for the Robodebt fiasco, but this maladministration has immense consequences for those denied income, with a number of suicides linked to the stress.
We can only hope that our arcane legal system will find a crime was committed and that someone will be charged and found guilty. What is more likely is that there will be shared responsibility, ministerial discretion, people in charge protesting their unawareness of the effect of the algorithm, a few embarrassing moments for a few people and nothing substantial happening. I hope I am wrong.
Here is part of the legal saga so far, as told by an ex-public servant.