JACK WATERFORD. Punishing the ‘undeserving’ – the robo-debt fiasco

Heaven knows how the ultimate costs of the robo-debt fiasco will pan out. So far the Commonwealth has announced that it is paying back about three-quarters of a billion to nearly 400,000 people whose rights were trampled upon.

But that is merely a repayment of money improperly taken. There is a class action in progress — as an added bonus, apparently, the defence is under the supervision of Christian Porter’s department, whose handling of the case has been lamentable. It would be easy to imagine that every person involved could receive $5,000 or more in return for being wrongly accused, stuffed about, in many cases put well out of pocket by peremptory but (as it turns out, illegal) agency actions — and all without the benefit of any apology or so much as a statement of regret, whether from politicians or bureaucrats.  If that were to be the sum received after the class-action lawyers have had their whack, it would be an extra $2 billion. It could well be more, given that the agency had been in the process of extending the smashing success of the robo-debt system into other areas of welfare payment, including aged pension, student entitlement and disability payments.

Some of the money to be returned should be paid out in this financial year, although the greater amount should be in the next financial year. That suggests that the once-much-vaunted budget surplus of 2019-20 was already cactus before routine budgeting was upset by fire, coronavirus and unemployment crises. At least, provided that it had been brought forward into this financial year — a matter of political choice for ministers. The existence of the debt, once the Federal Court declared the scheme illegal, has been known  for nine months, but it was for the government to decide when to crystallise it. It was no surprise that capitulation was announced late on a Friday afternoon, by Stuart Robert in Brisbane — the classic public relations attempt to avoid scrutiny. Other ministers involved felt unable to comment much. From the prime minister down they have been studiously “looking ahead, not backwards”, are pre-occupied with Covid-19 management, the new Commonwealth-state arrangements, or the tactical need not to compromise ongoing negotiations for compensation.  Handily, parliament is not sitting.

The government can, and has, said that Labor bears its own share of responsibility for its fiasco, since schemes to combine annual Tax data with social security data began in its time. That’s true, a reason that it has been Greens and independents who have led the charge. But it must be acknowledged that the class action was facilitated by Bill Shorten, whilom Labor leader, who could recognise a dog when he saw one. The flaw was not in wanting to cross-check entitlements, or in wanting to reduce fraud, but in the mismanagement and injustice of the way the coalition government went about it.

It is very interesting to note that the government’s capitulation to beneficiaries occurred during a period in which government has been generous to, and empathetic with welfare beneficiaries, particularly those suddenly unemployed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Payment rates, including to existing unemployed receiving starvation levels of Newstart, were increased, and the onerous, and often arbitrary and punitive work-testing and compliance regimes were suspended. And, (if belatedly) recognising that the system would break down immediately if those affected were to be forced to wait on the phone to Centrelink, or to queue there for services, measures were taken to smooth the path of getting access to and payments from Centrelink.

It was logical, of course, from the point of view of the mindset of all too many in the government, even sometimes in the Labor Party. These new recipients were not scroungers, no-hopers or the effectively unemployable, after all. They were instead ordinary decent Australians, thrown out of work through no fault of their own. They should not be treated with hostility. They should not be forced to submit to phony tests of job-seeking activity and complete subservience to the will of random bureaucrats, or to cruel and arbitrary  punishments for alleged compliance with extra-strict rules, ones designed to intimidate and annoy. The government would instead acknowledge the popular will that welfare, in the situation in which shutdown victims found themselves was to be done with alacrity, fairness and recognition of the rights and dignity of those involved. With, in short, just the sort of treatment that was denied the existing “welfare class”.

If Morrison and his bureaucratic advisers were quick to recognise the need for a whole new approach, if through existing channels of payment, it was plain from the start that he was reluctant to surrender the whip hand with which successive governments have beaten and cowed the welfare classes. His announcement of a new system included provisos of a return to the old normality, including reduced payments, by September. (By then, he expected the economic crisis would be over and the economy back to normal again. That now seems more uncertain, and the government is now admitting the possible need for a staged return to the past. It is no longer, moreover being as dogmatic about plans to revert to starvation Newstart allowances.)

He also signalled an early return to work-tests, and Michaelia Cash, a reliable attack dog when it comes to outright war on the underclasses, has already begun putting plans in place. There must, it seems, be no let-up in the punishment of the feckless, the workshy, and the cheats. The Australian welfare system is increasing based on the presumption that most beneficiaries fit into this category, and on cold, inhumane (and, increasingly computer-based) harrying of them

I strongly suspect that it is that mindset — and disrespect and disregard for the underclasses —  that is responsible for the many fiascos in the implementation of government welfare, as well as crackdowns on fraud and overpayment. No doubt the fraudsters — like the poor — will always be with us, and no doubt they should be dealt with. But government has never shown the same zeal with abuse of schemes working to the advantage of other classes of citizen, including companies and party donors, even in the face of evidence that the problem is much bigger there.

About thirty years ago, an ideological struggle about the role of government, was successful in creating strong resentment towards welfare recipients dependent on welfare. It was not merely a matter of making people suspicious of the legal or moral entitlements of people receiving unemployment and disability pensions, or single mothers benefits. It was a matter of inspiring resentment that beneficiaries were idlers and scroungers, taking hard-earned taxpayer money without contributing to society. Rights were removed; payments became discretionary, and added extra coercion was thrown in to comfort decent hard workers being put upon by no-hopers. Labor, afraid of being accused of favouring the welfare class at the expense of the working and resentful working  class, became as zealous a policeman and punisher.

It is not impossible that the economic shutdown has made more Australian citizens aware of the precariousness of employment, and thus more compassionate for those trapped in welfare dependency. If that has happened, it does not seem to have been perceived by politicians.

Thank heavens that Morrison, the policeman’s son who encapsulates the need to segregate those he regards as undeserving from the deserving, has the power to prevent any public examination of conscience on how most Australians maltreat our most disadvantaged fellow citizens.

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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