Centrelink is facing a landmark court case after Victorian Legal Aid (VLA) filed papers in the federal court on Tuesday challenging the legality of the infamous robo-debt system.
VLA says that the algorithm which averages a person’s yearly tax office income and automatically issues a debt-recovery notice if it doesn’t match fortnightly income reporting to Centrelink, is flawed.
It says that debts to Centrelink should not be imposed based on those numbers because they are unlawful.
The case is not about helping people avoid debt, but at paving the way for a fairer system, says VLA executive director of civil justice Rowan McRae.
“The way robo-debt averages people’s income assumes that they work neat, regular hours throughout a year. In reality, we know people work part time or sporadically throughout the year, because they’re studying, can’t get regular work, have multiple jobs or are unwell. This means the calculation of alleged ‘overpayments’ is often inaccurate,” said Ms McRae.
“Centrelink should create a system that encourages accurate reporting and fairly investigates overpayments. What we can’t accept is a system that is so clearly not working, that has been proven to be causing overwhelming hardship.”
The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) supports the motion, describing the ‘disastrous’ Centrelink automated debt recovery system as a “devastating abuse” of government power.
“Robo-debt has unleashed thousands of debt notices in error to parents, people with disabilities, carers, students and people seeking paid work, resulting in people slapped with Centrelink debts they do not owe or debts higher than what they owe,” said ACOSS chief Dr Cassandra Goldie.
Kasey Chambers, executive director of Anglicare Australia, told Pro Bono News she hoped the robo-debt program would finally be shut down.
“We certainly hope whichever colour of government we end up with is looking carefully at this, because we really need to get rid of a system harming people who are coming into contact with it,” said Ms Chambers.
However, Ms McRae said the government should embrace technology but do it in a smarter way.
“We hope the court will ultimately find that robo-debt is unlawful and that a system with integrity will follow,” she said.
The Australian Greens are backing the court challenge and have again called for the suspension of the program during the court case.
“The human consequences of robo-debt are gobsmacking in the brazen way the government threw out fairness to pick on some of the most vulnerable people in Australia,” said Greens Senator Rachel Siewert.
“We should not be subjecting people on income support to a system which has such a huge rate of error. It just wouldn’t fly in any other industry but the government thinks they can get away with it because in many cases people on income support just don’t have the means to question their debt notices.”
YourLifeChoices has repeatedly reported on the injustices wrought by the robo-debt program, and also supports the court challenge.
“The Government aims to save money by using automated services, but those savings have repeatedly come at the expense of older Australians’ dignity and peace of mind,” says YourLifeChoices publisher Kaye Fallick.
“Hopefully this court case will shine a light on the program’s legal flaws and, as a result, the Government will create a fairer, more accurate system that protects its bottom line but, more importantly, vulnerable Australians who are already struggling. Robo-debt certainly has its benefits. We don’t believe in people rorting the system, but the program needs to be fixed.”
The court case has also revived calls for increases to inadequate payments.
“Instead of making life harder for people with damaging policies like robo-debt, the Cashless Debit Card and ParentsNext, a good government would increase the grossly inadequate Newstart and Youth Allowance payments to ensure our social safety net does not trap people in poverty,” said Dr Goldie.
“Our social security safety net should provide people with the support and dignity they need to escape the poverty."
Are you surprised at this court case? Do you think more cases will follow? Should the Government take robo-debt offline until the problems are fixed?
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