New statistics showing the increase in the number of debt notices sent out by Centrelink, as well as the astronomical increase in the amount of debt raised, come at the same time as the department responsible continues to dodge transparency over the program.
Online compliance intervention, or robodebt as it has come to be known, involves the department checking someone's declared earnings against what was declared to the tax office, and if the two numbers for any given year don't match, the person is sent a please explain letter.
The following process has been described as stressful by current and former welfare recipients, some of whom have been made to find pay slips from jobs worked years earlier. The system has since been changed to allow people to submit bank statements as evidence of their earnings, but the onus is still on the average person to prove they don't owe a debt, rather than on the department to prove they do.
On Friday this newspaper showed that despite the questions surrounding the "averaging" of an annual income across 26 fortnights, the number of debt notices handed out this year has already surpassed last year's total, meaning this financial year will be the biggest year for the program yet.
Statistics showed that fewer people were having their debts reduced or waived, either partially or in full, and an advocate in the sector said they had seen a spike in demand for their legal services in the past six months.
While it is right that people who defraud the government are required to pay back money they should not have been paid, the current program appears punitive and seems to unfairly target those who didn't set out to receive more money than they should.
The department hasn't given the public, advocates in social services or the media the assurances needed to have confidence the government is acting in good faith.
In a recent test case, where a woman assisted by Victoria Legal Aid challenged the validity of her $4000 debt in the Federal Court, the department wiped the debt suddenly before a hearing.
For any debt recovery program to be respected, it must be transparent and appear fair to the outside observer.
While the department's lawyer said the debt had been recalculated because of new information, it still shows the difficulty a member of the general public has in navigating an opaque system that is difficult to access in the first place.
It is now unclear if the case will continue, despite Victoria Legal Aid lawyers arguing it should, meaning another chance could be lost to test the legality of averaging a person's income in order to raise a debt.
For any debt recovery program to be respected, it must be transparent and appear fair to the outside observer. Even with the improvements made since it was first introduced in 2016, this program doesn't pass those tests. Instead it is seen as punitive, ruthless and all-encompassing, treating someone who can't find a five-year-old pay slip in the same way as someone who purposely set out to take money.
Scott Morrison has pledged to overhaul the way citizens deal with the government, rebranding the Department of Human Services as Services Australia and promising more efficient and easier transactions with government.
This announcement was met with scepticism by many of our readers, who found it unlikely the same agency would actually serve Australians better.
The rebrand must come with a change in internal culture, and it is a chance for the government to turn over a new leaf with this program. It must be allowed to stand up to legal scrutiny, and if it fails, should be removed.