The experience of fighting against automated debt notifications created during the infamous robodebt saga was a nightmare of bureaucracy one person described as “an outrageous thing to do to people who were just trying to get about their lives and have a bit of support”.
On Monday the Royal Commission into Robodebt heard from its first witnesses, one of whom was a woman who appeared under the pseudonym ‘Amy’.
Amy had received Youth Allowance payments during her studies.
In 2017, around two years after having last interacted with Centrelink, Amy received a notice warning of unaccounted-for discrepancies in her earlier income statements.
The letter, addressed to her former residence, had been sent as part of the government’s automated debt recovery scheme colloquially known as ‘Robodebt’ – an automated data matching system that unlawfully raised retroactive debt against welfare recipients.
It was the first of many letters Amy would receive encouraging her to contact Centrelink and update her information to rectify the discrepancy in her employment details or risk incurring a debt.
Nowhere did it state that her income data, provided to Centrelink by the Australian Tax Office (ATO), had been averaged across a period of time and cross-referenced with her reported statements.
“To my mind, I had told them exactly and correctly both my income and employment dates,” Amy said.
It appeared as a baffling bureaucratic error to the fastidious Amy who kept tidy records as a matter of course.
She felt “uncomfortable” by the suggestion that the clock was ticking and, if she didn’t act, the government would raise a debt against her.
“It made me very anxious,” Amy said. “I had just commenced full-time employment. I had just moved out which meant that of course suddenly my expenses were all my own and to have a debt hang over your head for a young person is a frightening concept.”
Just the fax
Amy called Centrelink, confirmed that all she had to do was enter her employment information into a web form, and got them to change her address in the database so any future letters would arrive promptly and not at her parents’ place.
After work, she sat down at her computer and began inputting the dates she worked over the period in question and amount she earned.
Over a couple of hours, she went through payslips totalling $24,000 worth of income and re-reported it to Centrelink.
But the system wasn’t convinced. Another letter was sent out, to her parents’ house again, prompting Amy to call Centrelink once more.
She prompted Centrelink to update her address, again, and learned she now had to provide bank statements to resolve the “further discrepancy” on her account.
Unfortunately, there was no way to upload those bank statements so she printed out all 71 pages, compiled them and, after some experimentation with a fax machine at her workplace, managed to get the documents sent.
Amy called to confirm that Centrelink had received her bank statements only to discover Centrelink never got them. So, she took down another fax number, gathered up the 71 pages once more, and sent another lengthy fax.
This time it worked and the so-called discrepancy was eventually resolved.
Amy’s evidence, which was just the beginning for the Royal Commission, serves as a single illustration of the frustrating nature of Robodebt.
She recognises being in a privileged position to spend the time and effort proving herself innocent of the debt, and said the onus was put on her to prove she didn’t have a debt – rather than the other way around.
“I believe this process caused great trauma to people who do not deserve to be treated in the way the scheme treated them,” Amy said.
The Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme’s first block of hearings runs until 11 November. You can watch the hearings live at https://robodebt.royalcommission.gov.au/.