20 November 2019

The government has — at last — accepted that ‘robodebt’ is cruel and probably illegal. As Kate Galloway explained, a computer would scan tax office data and apply a flawed algorithm, so that “even if you earned nothing for six months while correctly collecting Newstart, the amount you earned in the next six months is averaged over the entire period to make it look as though you were collecting Newstart payments to which you were not entitled. The department automatically generates letters demanding that the former social security recipient prove the calculation to be incorrect”, and then aggressively “recovers” the “debt”, with predictably awful consequences for the innocent people trapped by the scheme. Now, with victims’ lawyers breathing down their neck, the government has abandoned the worst aspect of the system, with retrospective effect: “The department has made the decision to require additional proof when using income averaging to identity over payments. This means the department will no longer raise a debt where the only information we are relying on is our own averaging of Australia Taxation Office income data.” Lawyers say their cases will continue, but I expect the government will attempt to have them thrown out as hypothetical — they don’t want public scrutiny of the robodebt system, and especially the internal considerations that led to its callous design.