Robodebt: Australia’s illegal hunt for handouts made people feel hopeless
An important review in Australia has found that the previous government’s illegal welfare hunt made people feel like they were criminals and led to suicides.
Locals called it “Robodebt,” and it was an automated government program that made welfare users pay back benefits they didn’t owe.
Due to a mistake in the program, people got letters saying they owed thousands of dollars in debt.
The policy impacted more than half a million Australians.
The plan ran from 2016 until a court said it was against the law in 2019. It made some of the poorest people in the country pay off fake bills.
Many of them had to take out loans, sell their cars, or use their funds to pay off debts that they were told they had to pay within a few weeks. Others said that when they were told they owed money, they were called names and made to feel ashamed.
On Friday, the final report of a royal commission that looked into the scandal was released. It called the plan a “costly failure of public administration” with “extensive, devastating, and continuing” bad effects.
In her 990-page report, Commissioner Catherine Holmes said, “Robodebt was a crude and cruel system that was neither fair nor legal, and it made many people feel like criminals.”
A royal commission is the most powerful way for the people to ask questions in Australia. This one ran for 11 months and got a lot of entries from the people.
On Friday, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said that the plan of the former government was a “gross betrayal” of the people because it hurt the weakest.
The investigation found that Robodebt policy was linked to at least three deaths, and it was “confident that these were not the only tragedies of this kind.”
Two young men, Rhys Cauzzo, who was 28, and Jarrad Madgwick, who was 22, both died by suicide. Their mothers spoke to the committee last year on their behalf. The other person was not named. Kath Madgwick had told the BBC before that she thinks the government is to blame for Jarrad’s death.
Other victims told the investigation that the stress of a debt claim had made them feel anxious and sad and even made them think about killing themselves.
One woman said that having a debt hanging over her head made her feel suicidal for a few months. She said that the “lowest point” was when the debt collection took the money out of her bank account.
She told the inquiry, “I felt hopeless that day. It was so upsetting that I couldn’t pay for my daughter’s medical bills, and I felt like I couldn’t do anything to change my situation.”
Another victim who had mental illness in the past said that when he got a debt notice for $A11,000 (£6,300, $8,100), he was “completely shocked” because it would “put me back years and years and years.”
He said, “From the point of view of generalized anxiety disorder, it’s the biggest trigger you can give someone.”
The inquiry’s final report, which came out on Friday, criticized the conservative government of former Prime Minister Scott Morrison for starting the plan with “little to no regard” for the people and vulnerable groups it would hurt.
The report also said that Mr. Morrison, who was in charge of the Department of Social Services when the policy was started, “misled” Cabinet by telling them that switching to an automated system would not need new laws.
In answer, Mr. Morrison said on Friday that he disagreed with “every single one of the findings that are critical of my role in approving the scheme and are bad for me.”
He said that he had “acted in good faith and based his actions on clear and deliberate advice from the department.”
The report also said that the government kept trying to hide the plan even after it became clear that it was “unfair, probably illegal, and cruel.”
“Then it should have been scrapped or changed a lot, and a lot of trouble and suffering could have been avoided,” it said.
“Instead, the way forward was to double down, attack those who complained in the media, and keep up the lie that the system had not changed at all.”
Commissioner Holmes also talked about how welfare policy has become more political, which has made people who get welfare feel even worse about themselves.
The government also lied about how few cases of welfare fraud there were, which the study said were “miniscule” or less than 0.1% of all cases.
In 2019, the Robodebt program was suddenly stopped by the Morrison government. This was because people who were affected by it took their case to the Federal Court of Australia, where it was found to be illegal.
In its retreat, the government was also forced to give back more than A$700 million to people who had been paid. It also ended a lawsuit made by victims who wanted to be paid a lot of money.
Go to bbc.co.uk/actionline if you are feeling mentally upset and want to find out about groups in the UK that can help and give advice.
You can call Lifeline at 131114, Kids Helpline at 1800 55 18000, or go to the Beyond Blue website if you are in Australia.