Centrelink Robo-Debts are Killing People. Make Them Stop.

Bureaucracy is a snaky bastard. The no-named nobodies where nothing takes accountability for administrative errors. It’s why the dole queue snakes out the door of the local Centrelink office, and people work to avoid standing in it at any cost.

Australia’s social security system isn’t human. It’s a jumble of messy, illogical algorithms coded by I.T. contractors. The human workers carrying out commands on their computer screens are desperate to hang on to their ever decreasing pool of jobs. It’s a collection of offices filled with people trained to act less like humans and more like robots, carrying out computer-issued commands programmed by outsourced labour that simply does not give a shit for outcomes other than the money lining their own pockets.

Up to 90% of Centrelink debts are allegedly incorrectly calculated. An astronomically high statistic, a mind-blowing number of fuck-ups from a system that could not give a rats-arse about human collateral. ‘Project NEIDM: Non-Employment Income Data Matching’ is frankly a flaming train-wreck.

The NEIDM debt collection projections provided in the MYFEO 2015–2016 are based on bad maths, maths that has been conclusively proved to be faulty, maths that doesn’t make sense. Rather than reform the system, the Turnbull government baked debt collection targets into its budget. Australia has maintained a AAA credit rating based at least in part on welfare debt recovery that simply should not exist.

No human incurred these debts. These debts exist only due to faulty algorithms and debt collectors willing to chase people into the ground, regardless of whether those debts are real or not. This is a system of false debt generation via algorithm, a government-perpetuated fraud against the Australian people.

As Legal Aid Victoria states in it’s submission to the Senate inquiry into Centrelink automated data matching: “Even if the initiative is lawful, in our view, it should not be.”

Successive governments have known for years there’s a problem with the Centrelink algorithm for assessing potential income debts. Rather than fix the problem, the Turnbull government chose to remove human oversight and automate the disaster completely.

“I’m sorry, I’m just going by what the case-notes on the screen tell me,” says the Centrelink officer. “I don’t control the system raising the debts. That’s all done by computer.” No one takes accountability. No one in government or the public service takes responsibility — but charities and legal centres get stuck triaging a government-made disaster with ever-decreasing public funds.

Responsible governance requires governments to be held accountable for their actions. “I’m sorry, computer says no,” should never have been more than a sick, sad comedy skit. But Centrelink and the Turnbull government has made “computer says no” a life-threatening reality for goddamn countless people.

Centrelink’s indiscriminately terrible robo-debts are destroying people’s lives.

We’ve all seen the stories on the tv and in the newspapers recently: people missing limbs or dying of cancer whose Centrelink claims are rejected; First Nations people in remote communities who can’t get to an office and can’t get through on the phone line being placed in debt because they can’t report their details; people with intellectual disabilities allegedly menaced by debt collectors acting on behalf of the government; single parents with small children getting hit up for debts because their ex-partners haven’t lodged tax returns.

But we don’t see the worst moments on the current affairs programs and in the tersely-worded news reports.

The worst moments are hidden: the time at the kitchen bench wondering if you should eat your last packet of two minute noodles or save them in case the next payment doesn’t come through. The 3am panic attack inspired by a middle-of-the-night text from Centrelink requesting you lodge further documents.

The Foodbank line of the working poor, where even a job and Newstart doesn’t cover the groceries for the week.

The evenings when you turn the heating or aircon off to save on power costs, and shiver or freeze.

The weeks without internet or phone service.

Over the last few months I’ve talked to countless people stuck with Centrelink debts and administrative errors.

I’ve intervened and called police no less than half a dozen times when distraught Centrelink users have made attempts on their lives and self-harmed — sometimes publicly broadcasting extreme distress and crisis incidents.

Nothing prepares you for the sight of a young person on live-webcam attempting to slice their throat with a knife after they spent weeks unable to resolve a Centrelink claim because of “administrative confusion.”

Poverty and fear kills people. The inability to buy quality food, pay medical bills, afford heating and aircon, and proper housing: these things kill people. Depression, anxiety and trauma: these things kill people.

There’s no nice way to put it: the Australian government’s automated data-matching programs are killing people.

The Turnbull government knows their automated data-matching systems are killing people and they just. don’t. care. If they cared, they’d turn it off. If they cared, they’d reform the system and apologise to people whose lives have been hurt and pay back money erroneously collected. But successive governments have placed the most socio-economically vulnerable people on welfare into billions of dollars of debt. These aren’t parties fit to hold mandate to rule.

By allowing a system of fuck-ups to rumble onwards, by crushing lives, and leaking details of the Centrelink files of people with potential erroneous debts that have been highlighted in the media, the Turnbull government has threatened the security of every Australian.

Governments that raise billions of dollars by generating false debts are governments that should be chased out of Canberra, and never, ever allowed to return to power.

The government is perpetrating large-scale welfare fraud. It’s killing people. It’s time to make it stop.

Lifeline provides all Australians experiencing a personal crisis with access to online, phone and face-to-face crisis support and suicide prevention services.

Find out how these services can help you, a friend or loved one. For support call 13 11 14 (24/7.)