Robo-debt reax: Class action looms


Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

The government’s robo-debt about-face was made just two weeks before the legality of the scheme is set to be tested in Federal Court, and the day before the writ was filed for a class-action lawsuit against the program.

And while the major changes to the controversial automated debt recovery program addressed some of the main concerns with robo-debt, pressure needs to be maintained for the punitive measure to be abandoned entirely, according to digital rights experts.

On Thursday the writ in the class action lawsuit against Centrelink’s robo-debt scheme was filed with the Federal Court, the day after the federal government announced a series of major changes to the debt recovery scheme.

The class action is backed by the Opposition and led by Gordon Legal, which has had more than 4000 robo-debt complainants registered with it.

Centrelink’s practice of using an automated algorithm to issue debt notices to welfare recipients it believes were overpaid is also the subject of a test case at the Federal Court, which will be heard in early December.

On Tuesday, Government Services Minister Stuart Robert announced a series of major changes to Centrelink’s Online Compliance Intervention scheme, with debts no longer issued based just on the averaging of income data provided by the ATO, and welfare recipients no longer required to prove they don’t have a debt.

Centrelink workers would now review all debts issued based on the averaging of income data.

Robo-debt was launched in July 2016 by the Coalition and has since issued more than 800,000 compliance notices, with about 20 per cent of these not leading to a debt being recovered.

Dr Monique Mann, who specialises in technology, human rights and surveillance, said that while the changes are positive, focus should instead be on abolishing these tech-focused punitive measures in welfare.

“There’s been a lot of celebration and so forth, but the key thing is that they’re not abolishing or abandoning robo-debt. They’re looking to optimise and strengthen the system through more comprehensive data-matching and collecting of information,” Dr Mann told InnovationAus.com.

“That’s more concerning – the argument is never to abolish the system, it’s about how to improve it,” she said.

“The worst element of it isn’t the fact they were doing dodgy averaging, it’s that the project exists at all. By tweaking it and fixing the errors, in one sense that’s very good that they’re making the system more accurate and comprehensive. But what’s the consequence of that?

“That’s building the perfect welfare surveillance system that targets the most marginalised people in the community.”

Digital Rights Watch chair Tim Singleton Norton agreed that the entire robo-debt scheme needs to be re-evaluated by the government.

“Whilst it’s certainly welcome to see the government finally stop the automated process of ‘income averaging’ and instead require more manual forms of confirmation before issuing debts, they should be moving to replace the entire welfare benefits system with one that is properly resourced, humane and accountable,” Mr Singleton Norton told InnovationAus.com.

The government’s back-down is widely believed to be in anticipation of the looming legal challenges to the robo-debt program. The announcement came just two weeks before the Federal Court is set to hear a test case being run by Victorian Legal Aid, and a day before the writ was filed for the class action lawsuit against the scheme.

The test case being run by Victorian Legal Aid involves Deanna Amato, who was issued a robo-debt of $2754 by Centrelink, and had her tax return taken in full earlier this year. After the legal case was filed, Centrelink wiped the debt and recalculated the over-payments to be just $1.48.

The announcement is a “significant change” but doesn’t amount to an admission of the potential illegality of the scheme, Victorian Legal Aid economic and social rights program manager Joel Townsend said, and this is what the legal challenge is aiming to achieve.

“It doesn’t of itself change the case in that we are seeking a declaration that the debt raised was not lawfully raised. In terms of whether this constitutes an admission as to the unlawfulness of raising debts of the robo-debt processes, we’ll look with interest to see what the Commonwealth’s legal position is,” Mr Townsend told InnovationAus.com.

“The announcement yesterday, while it has helped to address some of the concerns we have in relation to the lawfulness of robo-debt, is not an acknowledgement by the Commonwealth that the use of averaging does not lead to lawfully raised debt under the legislation.”

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