News National Paul Bongiorno: Skewed thinking doesn’t stop at Robodebt

Paul Bongiorno: Skewed thinking doesn’t stop at Robodebt

The Robodebt shambles is not an isolated incident for the Morrison government, Paul Bongiorno says. Photo: TND
Twitter Facebook Reddit Pinterest Email

If you thought the almost billion-dollar Robodebt bungle would change the Morrison government’s prejudices towards millions of vulnerable and unemployed Australians, think again.

Social Services Minister Anne Ruston says it’s time for the one and a half million Australians receiving their incomes entirely from the government through JobSeeker payments to show their good faith.

How? By registering with their employment services provider as the first stage of a return to the mutual obligation requirements.

Ms Ruston puts it in the most benign terms.

She says the government is particularly focused on “people who are newly unemployed” because “they have never ever had an interface with the system before”.

The New Daily investigates: JobSeeker program

Ms Ruston told ABC radio it’s good for them to get in touch “because then they can find out what that service provider can do to assist them to make sure they are job ready”.

That first contact will certainly provide income for the 65 outsourced employment agencies.

It’s a $1.5 billion-a-year industry completely funded by the taxpayers and they get paid for every client they sign up.

One of the main roles they perform is compliance police.

Job providers can withhold welfare payments if a jobless person fails to meet application benchmarks or fails to show for appointments.

The assumption is non-compliance is a sure-fire indication the “client” is a “dole cheat” or a “dole bludger”.

Furthermore, in 2018, these job providers were given the final say to make this determination with no avenue of appeal to Centrelink.

That was an extremely problematic move in light of the fact that in the 2015-16 financial year, Centrelink rejected nearly half of the two million penalties the providers had dished out.

What it exposes is the same skewed thinking that saw Robodebt based on the assumption that everyone who had received a welfare payment was guilty of fraud unless they could prove their innocence.

Ms Ruston says penalties won’t be re-introduced until stage three.

Minister for Families and Social Services Anne Ruston

God only knows when that will be as the unemployment rate is forecast to rise to at least 10 per cent in the next two years.

Labor’s Bill Shorten says mutual obligations clearly do not apply to government ministers in the wake of the cruel Robodebt fiasco.

Taxpayers will now have to cough up close to $1 billion as illegal debt notices are repaid with interest and likely compensation for harm done.

Yet, not one minister has lost their job.

The authors of the 2016 Liberal election manifesto outlining “Better Management of the Social Welfare System” were none other than Scott Morrison as treasurer and Mathias Cormann as finance minister.

A key element of the foreshadowed $2.05 billion clawback of  overpayments was income averaging based on tax office data fed into  the computer with flawed algorithms according to the government’s then head of the digital transformation office, Paul Shetler.

On Monday Mr Morrison was refusing to say sorry and claimed previous Labor and Liberal governments had used income averaging.

Mr Shorten says under Labor it was only ever used as a “red flag,” all  “automated interventions” were followed up by human beings in Centrelink.

In 2016 when then Social Services Minister Christian Porter expanded the program, the number of notices leapt from 20,000 a year to 20,000 a week.

The government then spent $63.5 million on private debt collectors to harass people whose “debts” it had literally only guessed at.

Mr Porter on Sunday said the debts had now been reduced to zero but on Monday Mr Morrison said “it doesn’t mean those debts don’t exist. It just means that they cannot be raised solely, on the basis of using income averaging”.

Mr Shorten suspects this is a sure sign the government will come again.

Although he supports mutual obligation as a way of protecting the integrity of the system, it should not be a way of supplying what Guardian Australia’s Katherine Murphy calls “the magic billions” to the Budget bottom line.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics