Robodebt and suicide

Department head stubbornly avoids answering questions on the role of Robodebt and the death of Australians and whether she apologised for those deaths.

In “The life and times of Robodebt and its victims”, I analysed a clash between the head of the Department of Social Services, Kathryn Campbell, and Labor senator Deborah O’Neill during the July 31 hearings of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee.

My article focused on Ms Campbell’s vehement denial of the accusation that “people have died over Robodebt”.

The pair clashed again on that issue at hearings on August 17. Senator O’Neill took Ms Campbell back to her July 31 denial and pressed her to accept that people were hurt and harmed by Robodebt and to acknowledge publicly the types of hurt and harm that occurred: “Last time we met, Ms Campbell, you also disputed that people had died because of Robodebt. I indicated that people had died because of Robodebt and you disputed it. Do you stand by that statement?”

Ms Campbell prevaricated and concluded by saying she had answered the question of whether people died as a result of Robodebt. Beyond saying that mental health was a really difficult space, and other words to the same effect, Ms Campbell had not answered the question.

The Senator read into the public record letters from two mothers whose sons had died by suicide.

One read: “Rhys James was a beautiful soul, loved by family, his friends, and his cats. He also loved his music and art. His love for his friends was reciprocated at all levels, including his work environment.

Rhys did suffer from anxiety, panic attacks and major depressive disorder, but he was doing well with support. He was not much of a drinker and did not do illicit drugs. Centrelink was well aware of his mental health issues. Towards mid-2016 Rhys was working successfully with a very distinguished florist in Melbourne and had secured placement with the RMIT in Industrial Design.

Prior to his inundation of letters and demands he had a Centrelink Medical Review on 12/8/16. Then with Wise Disability Mental Health Review 5/09/16.

But then the letters + phone calls started! [I have put these in chronological order]

Dun + Bradstreet Collection Services:

  • 8/11/16 Letter of Demand for $17,319.58
  • 15/11/16 Letter of Demand for $10,283.81
  • 28/11/16 Letter of Demand for $17,319.58
  • 29/11/16 Final Notice for $10,283.81
  • 29/11/16 Final Notice for $17,319.58
  • 6/12/16 Final Notice for $17,319.58
  • 3/1/17 Card in letterbox demanding contact

The above notices and continued harassment, both written + phone, is clear.

This continuing pressure ultimately caused my son Rhys to commit suicide on Australia Day 26th Jan 2017.”

On March 8th 2017, Kathryn Campbell had the audacity to state that she did not believe the stories in the media regards Rhys and blatantly said they were expressed incorrectly, in whose eyes Campbell? They then went on to release to the media all Rhys’s private information.”

Ms Campbell responded by apologising “for the hurt and harm caused to that family. That is a tragic story. No one wants that to happen.”

After a break when other senators asked questions, Senator O’Neill returned to the fray, asking Ms Campbell whether she continued to assert that there were no deaths because of Robodebt?

Ms Campbell again prevaricated, noting that the mother “considers that the death was because of certain actions”.

Pressed again by Senator O’Neill, Ms Campbell said: “I don’t think I can answer one way or the other. What we are saying is that we know that mental health is a very complex area and that issues impact on people. We apologise for the hurt and harm caused.”

Ms Campbell stubbornly avoided answering the questions whether she continues to deny that Robodebt caused the death of Australian citizens and whether she apologised for such deaths.

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Lawyer, formerly senior federal public servant (CEO Constitutional Commission, CEO Law Reform Commission, Department of PM&C, Protective Security Review and first Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security; High Court Associate (1971) ; partner of major law firms. Awarded Premier's Award (2018) and Law Institute of Victoria's President's Award for pro bono work (2005).

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