14 July 2023

Robodebt scandal an opportunity to reform punitive welfare system

| Ian Bushnell
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The Centrelink queue in Woden during the pandemic. Suddenly all kinds of people were on the dole. Photo: Region.

The full ramifications of the Robodebt scandal are yet to play out but it could be career-ending for some senior public servants, and it will be interesting to see if the former ministers involved are made accountable.

It should also prompt a reappraisal of Australia’s social security system, and its mission statement.

Robodebt had a long gestation period and was conceived out of a political belief that government was too big and the deficit could be cut by targeting “unproductive” spending.

It also served to blame welfare recipients, divide Australians and blacken those who fall on hard times and need support.

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The notorious 2014 Coalition Budget which attempted to gut welfare programs may have been modified in the face of community outrage but the sentiment remained, including a belief in the various Coalition governments that followed that social security fraud was rampant and significant savings could be made if only there was a better way of detecting it and reclaiming the money.

Like most things these days, technology was the answer.

Trouble is it was not only flawed but illegal.

The Coalition narrative about wasteful spending and welfare fraud also came unstuck when the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions put millions out of work and many businesses on ice.

Australia’s social security system stepped up to keep them going, restoring some of its reputation and reaffirming the need for such a safety net.

The false political and sociological premise for Robodebt collided with reality, as the unjustness of using an inflexible income averaging algorithm became more and more clear.

Robodebt and the ideology that spawned it has had a corrosive effect on the welfare system, eroding public trust, distorting its mission and feeding a meanness that lies beneath the surface of the great Australian fair go and from time to time is stirred to life by politicians and shock jocks.

Ask anyone who has had to deal with Centrelink what that experience is like and you would learn how uncomfortable it can be – from the unfriendly website to the obstacle course of justifying why you need help.

Few step into a Centrelink office because they want to and most will try to avoid any interaction with it all, given the pitfalls laid once support is provided.

If anything, a recipient can feel trapped given for example the problems finding some work can create for you.

Then there is the onerous points system and the requirements to attend employment agencies, which rake in millions to do not very much, apart from registering your attendance, offering useless tutorials and ensuring you keep up the requisite number of job applications.

If government wants to make savings that’s an area to look at.

On the whole, the system remains punitive, deterring many from seeking help or changing their situation.

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Robodebt provides an opportunity to recast the system and make it a safety net that can be more flexible, supportive and responsive to people in genuine need.

It doesn’t mean government turns a blind eye to potential fraud but the premise should be that most people are not out to rort the system.

And as we have seen the big money is not with individuals but private service providers such as childcare businesses and disability services, not to mention the scammers and hackers of organised crime.

It would be good, too, if we could finally bury the lifters and leaners tropes used to divide us and justify the likes of Robodebt.

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Tom Worthington2:01 pm 17 Jul 23

As one of the media advisers commented to the Robodebt royal commission, being seen to be cracking down on welfare cheats was popular with the electorate. So no government is going to want to be see too generous to welfare recipients, unless they are middle class welfare recipients during a pandemic.

However, it would be possible to use technology to look for welfare fraud legally, ethically, and without victimizing recipients. Systems can be designed which do not require interaction with Centrelink, their website, points systems, or for-profit privatized employment agencies.

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