Over-65s robo-debt’s next target?

Leaked documents obtained by Guardian Australia show that pensioners could be robo-debt’s next target, under a proposed expansion of Centrelink’s automated debt collection program.

The confidential documents seen by Guardian Australia reveal that thousands of pensioners and other sensitive welfare recipients could be targeted in order for the Morrison Government to achieve its promised $2.1 billion in budget savings.

The documents stamped ‘PROTECTED CABINET’, show that if over-65s and other welfare recipients weren’t targeted, the robo-debt scheme would fall $600 million short of its required budget savings unless it is expanded to include recipients originally quarantined from data matching.

Those who were originally quarantined include pensioners aged 65 and over, people living in remote areas, people who are homeless and those with disabilities.

“Estimated savings over the forward estimates cannot be achieved without undertaking sensitive cohort reviews,” states the submission.

The documents say that the department needs to undertake an extra 1.6 million income reviews over the next three years to reach the promised savings, including 350,000 debt-recovery reviews among ‘sensitive’ groups.

If Government Services Minister Stuart Robert and the Social Services Minister Anne Ruston support the plan, the cabinet will next month consider a “staged approach” to the expansion, say the documents.

A spokesperson for Mr Robert said, “The Government is not considering any proposal to commence online compliance for vulnerable Australians”, and would not elaborate on whether over-65s were being considered.

The proposal seen by Guardian Australia says the Government would conduct 40,000 income reviews for people aged 65 to 74 this financial year, checking for welfare overpayments from business income, bank interest and pay-as-you-go income, as well as other pilot programs for sensitive people and those living in remote areas.

The proposal, which would not require legislation to implement, has renewed debate over the controversial robo-debt program about to be examined by the Senate.

“Mr Robert must now categorically, with no weasel words, tell the Australian people all these groups will continue to be protected from the cruel menace of robo-debt,” said Labor’s government services spokesman Bill Shorten.

During the robo-debt scandal in 2017, the Government had initially excluded this ‘sensitive cohort’ of welfare recipients.

If this proposal goes ahead, and according to the documents it has “broad support”, 240,000 older Australians, 40,000 people in remote areas and 70,000 others previously considered vulnerable by Centrelink would be subject to the debt recovery program.

The department estimates about $430m would be raised from those aged 65 and over.

The submission is purportedly expected to be presented to the Cabinet in the 2019-20 mid-year economic and fiscal outlook.

When approached for comment on the possibility of the program being extended, Mr Robert’s spokesman said: “Income compliance for our targeted welfare system is not new. It has been in place since the 1980s. In fact, online income compliance was ramped up with data matching under the former Labor Government in 2011.”

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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