Frontline staff working on the government’s ill-fated Robodebt scheme knew they were involved in illegal debt recovery and their bosses knew it too, according to submissions received by the Royal Commission.
Ahead of delivering its final report today (Friday), the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme has posted to its website a string of late arrival submissions from anonymous witnesses.
Some were from victims of the scheme who remained unwilling to be identified, while many others were from staff working on the program at Services Australia and its predecessor the Department of Human Services.
They too were unwilling to be identified due to fears of repercussions.
But the accounts are compelling and detail a culture of fear and intimidation in the department – and a complete disregard for the law and for the rights of those people it was wrongly and vigorously pursuing over false debts.
Below are examples of what staff involved in the debt recovery practices have told the Royal Commission.
“I am a former employee of Centrelink. Myself and other employees at the service centre noted from day one (that) the implementation of the ‘earnings averaging system’ to record customers earnings was an illegal and unfair practice as it did not accurately record customers’ employment circumstances.
“We voiced our concerns at staff meetings with the manager and team leaders. We were however advised in very strong terms to not raise our concerns about this ‘averaging’ practice and were also threatened and intimidated when we wanted the matter taken further up the chain of command.
“In actual fact we were advised it was nothing to do with us and were told to shut up and just do our job.”
“I left my job with Centrelink because of Robodebt. I loved my work, and always did my best to help our clientele, which included some of Australia’s most vulnerable people.
“When I first started at Centrelink we were taught about our duty of care for our clients. I took this duty of care seriously, and was always mindful of how I could help people. But I couldn’t help them with Robodebt.
“At first I felt blindsided by it. I feel like when it was first implemented there was barely any information about this new scheme for frontline staff. But I was actively doing harm to my clients.
“I used to be able to brush off the abuse from people because I was assured in my actions, and knew that ultimately I would always uphold my duty of care.
“But I just couldn’t deal with the rightful hurt and anger from people. People telling me they would die because of my actions. Because I knew some people might die.
“Because of a decision made so far above my rank, I was the one actively hurting people. I couldn’t stomach hurting anyone like Robodebt did. I had to live with myself, so I left.”
“I was an APS employee for Centrelink since (sic) 2003 to 2020 but was terminated for speaking out about the Robodebt issues within Centrelink.
“I raised issues about the calculation software, methods used, policy, incorrect debts, to (the) national manager and the secretary at the time. I even made an internal public disclosure but I then became a target and was bullied and harassed before setting me up for termination.
“I was a direct witness to a client’s debt of 10k wiped out because the client said she would commit suicide. The debt was zeroed within around 55min while she stayed on the phone.”
“I was so burnt out, having to speak with people day in day out who had debts raised against them, hearing about their circumstances and the anxiety these debts brought them, that I just gave up.
“I stopped questioning decisions that I knew were wrong, I drank at lunch and came to work hungover, I called in sick all the time, I took smoke breaks all throughout the day just so I didn’t have to do that awful job.
“I was called all sorts of names by customers whose lives were ruined by these decisions, and I was so ashamed of the work we were doing that I just let people abuse me. To this day I think I deserved it.”
“I was a Centrelink staff member in the compliance division at the time of Robodebt conception through to implementation.
“I know that when the idea was floated at a meeting by [redacted name], a colleague of mine who was at that meeting immediately told them it was illegal, and she was not invited to future meetings.
“[Redacted name] was also at that meeting, so they both knew all along that THEIR idea was illegal.”