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On fairness, faults and allegations of fraud…

January 1, 2017

Over the last few weeks Centrelink, the organization tasked with issuing benefits to Australia’s most vulnerable, has been issuing debt notices incorrectly to innocent Australians because of problems with an automated system they’ve brought in to spot fraud. The Guardian has reported numerous cases of people issues with debts, often just before Christmas, and some of which Centrelink have admitted were mistakes on their part. But still our Government backs the automated system that is victimizing vulnerable and innocent people.

Why do I care? Obviously it isn’t fair to treat people like this, and fairness is something I care deeply about. But also, I myself once incurred a large Centrelink debt. I know how traumatic it is to receive that letter in the post. I know the humiliation of being treated like a fraud. I know the frustration of trying to communicate with an organization that seems to be set up expressly to treat the people they should be serving with the bare minimum of respect. I spent hours on the phone. I provided documents. I answered every question honestly, as I always had. Some Centrelink staff treated me kindly. Others not. Either way it seemed that the organization simply didn’t have the capacity to deal with my case quickly or kindly. The process was slow and gruelling. It was unfortunate that I was coming off anti-depressants at the time. Not their fault, but perhaps something they could have taken into account. But no. Stressed, anxious and depressed I quit Uni to save my self and sanity. It was the lowest low of my life. Centrelink admitted, after many months and an interview which I found more like an interrogation, that my original overpayment had been their fault. They even accepted that there was no way I could even have detected that I was being overpaid. They still insisted on repayment.

I paid as fast as I could and tried to move on. I hoped I could put it behind me quickly, and in many ways I think I did pretty well. But over a decade later I’m surprised at how much I still feel affected by this incident.

I was a young adult then, just trying to find my feet in the world. I wasn’t naturally confident, and I struggled with depression and anxiety, but I’d begun to establish myself as an artist and illustrator, and was trying to build my own business. I was trying to get a good education at uni too, and was doing very well there. I was working incredibly hard at uni, in my freelancing, in an entrepreneurial venture, and in casual work too. Yes, multiple jobs, but they were all declared. I’m one of nature’s goody two-shoes, too sensitive to try to get away with anything nefarious. But as fragile as I was, and I certainly was, I seemed to be doing really well. Great marks at Uni. Regular work as an illustrator. No problem finding other work to fill the gaps.

And then that letter arrived.

Over ten years later I’m still angry at Centrelink’s lack of care. As it happens, I’m fine. I looked after myself, (with help from good friends and family), and apart from a near phobia of dealing with bureaucracy and forms that surfaces every now and then, I think it is behind me. But it shook me hard. Confidence that I was finally beginning to build was blasted away. I went into survival mode, letting go of my uni ambitions and letting the business I’d worked hard to build slide away as I focused on just keeping myself together. At a time when I might sink or I might swim it was as though Centrelink was actively trying to push me under.

I like things to be fair, so if an automated system helps catch fraudsters I have no problem with that whatsoever. I want Centrelink to help those in need. But all too often it seems that Centrelink’s systems work against helping vulnerable people, or even actively cause harm.

We are a wealthy nation, and one with a history of priding ourselves on our sense of the “fair go”. But these days we’re lost and confused – taking care to look after the interests of the wealthy, scrambling to get what we can for ourselves, and more interested in cost effectiveness than treating welfare recipients with respect. Enough already. Centrelink’s job is to look after the vulnerable. This should extend to ensuring that welfare recipients are not harmed by false accusations of fraud or incorrect debt charges that could easily be avoided by procedures that double-check the findings of the automated systems, and which treat human beings as the fragile and precious beings that they are.

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