On Wednesday, the Federal Court declared a robodebt of $2500 raised against Deanna Amato wasn't lawful because it relied on income averaging. It ruled the order to garnish Amato's tax return was also invalid. And there was definitely no basis on which to add a 10 per cent penalty to the debt. By the way, Centrelink still owes her $480, but she will never get the money back because there's some weird time limit.
Robodebt. This government's punishment of those on welfare is endemic, and now one of its worst initiatives has been overturned by the courts. In the case of Deanna Amato, run by Victoria Legal Aid, the federal government was forced to settle.
And that's the great news for a particular sector of Australians who were victims of this pernicious attempt at revenue raising by the Coalition. This was a group of people too frightened to speak. Thousands and thousands of Australians never challenged their debts. Instead they received a demand from Centrelink, with the government's imprimatur; and that was enough. These were obedient citizens who didn't for one minute imagine Centrelink could get things so grievously wrong. Sometimes their tax returns were garnished, just as was planned for Amato.
Now one cohort of Australia's punished poor will have a chance to get its money back. If you or someone you know did not challenge the debt and did not supply payslips or bank information, there is a good chance you can retrieve your money. That's because Centrelink relied on income averaging. It relied on an algorithm to make a judgment, and that algorithm was fatally flawed. What makes this worse is the way that senior public servants tried to pretend these were decisions made by humans.
No human is sitting there with calculator at hand, sending out false note after false note. This system began in 2016 and relied on data matching, the sharing of information between Centrelink and the Australian Taxation Office. It removed human judgment and then generated letters to victims of the scam. When those victims didn't respond (because people were frightened, or they'd moved, or they didn't think it could be right), letters were generated along with the debt, using income averaging. Nearly 7000 letters were sent to the wrong address.
Let me remind you that successive public servants and politicians said it wasn't fair to call it robodebt. Apparently, people were involved.
Now people of all kinds must be involved. Lyndsey Jackson, a #NotMyDebt co-ordinator, urges those who paid their debts without question to revisit them. Ask Centrelink, in writing, for an authorised review officer to look at your case. Ask in writing how your debt was flagged. She's not sure whether the department will have the capacity, and doesn't have a lot of faith in the department's newly outsourced call centre staff to provide information.
"It should be unacceptable for any Centrelink employee to be coercing anyone for payslips before an authorised review officer proves they are needed," Jackson says.
Too many people were told they didn't need the specialist help of an ARO when they engaged with the whole dire system. They were pushed to pay unlawful debts.
"It just got too hard for so many people," she says.
And of course some people who wanted to question their debts could see what happened to Andie Fox, the young mother whose details were shared with the government in an attempt to discredit her. Terrifying. Vile.
Darren O'Donovan, a law academic at La Trobe University in Melbourne, remembers exactly when he knew the system was stuffed. It was the end of semester in 2016, and he had more than a fair few students asking for an extension. Some were in tears. They'd received letters with terrifying debt figures.
Since that time, he has argued income averaging isn't accurate or fair. Now we know it's not even lawful. Often those who work and receive welfare have multiple small jobs and don't earn evenly across the year.
"They trusted what they'd been told by Centrelink. The government asserted a right it did not have and some people were scared into handing over documents and giving up," says O'Donovan, who became an outspoken critic of the system.
Trust in government is being destroyed.
Asher Wolf, a robodebt activist from the outset and a determined digital rights campaigner, says Australia needs a policy on the fair use of algorithms in governance.
"Robodebt was not just an averaging mistake - the government fought for three years to continue the program after concerns were raised and false debts struck down," she says.
"It was a deliberate policy of algorithmic cruelty, instituted on the orders of human bureaucrats. If we want to fight off automated punishment of the poor long-term, we have to stay human: work together, with unions, lawyers, journalists, academics and technologists to pool not just expertise but collective kindness."
So who should be having another look at their robodebt? Women under 35. They were the ones who were targeted. The jugglers, the carers, those in three poorly paid casual jobs. It's time for quiet Australians to ask for their money back. Loudly.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.