There is a sinister techno-dystopianism about Centrelink’s controversial ‘robo-debt’ program that is reminiscent of the best of science fiction. Experts have decried this high-tech war on the poor as illegal, extortionate, and morally bankrupt, yet it was expanded in the 2018–19 budget and shows no sign of abating. The program originally began in mid–2016 and employs state-of-the-art machine-learning-based algorithms and big data – the same technologies used to teach cars to drive themselves, and robots to write and play music – to seek anomalies in the matrix of information the state has amassed on its citizens through tax, welfare and other records. These anomalies and a raft of false assumptions are then used to claw back welfare payments.
Like an army of terminator bots, the software programs traverse the data matrix looking for kills. If you forgot to tell Centrelink about that casual cleaning job you did to pay the rent in 2012 as a student living on Youth Allowance and two-minute noodles, the bots will find you. If you made some errors in your paperwork while unemployed and living on the streets in 2013, the bots know where you live and are coming to take your Newstart payments back.
The bots do not even need to uncover actual anomalies in order to snare you. A well-known issue is that the program assumes that your annual income is spread evenly over the financial year. For example, if you earned $2,600 from a job one fortnight and the same again another fortnight but nothing for the rest of the year, you should lose only two fortnights’ worth of Centrelink payments – roughly $1,118 – without the payments in other periods being affected. The system, however, would calculate that the income is a constant $200 every fortnight throughout the year, resulting in a forfeiture of $95 in Centrelink payments each fortnight. This adds up to a loss of about $2,470 – or, in this example, an ‘overpayment’ and therefore ‘debt’ of nearly $1,400. As social security law expert Professor Terry Carney has explained, ‘the so-called ‘debts’ raised in this fashion are nearly always entirely false (in fact, there is zero debt) or [they are] greatly inflated in size’. Despite the methodology being so obviously wrong, the bots have not been modified and continue to manufacture false ‘debts’ in this way.
The reason the austerity-minded Coalition Government has unleashed this technology is that its boa-constrictor-like death squeeze on the welfare state must get tighter in order to fund tax cuts but it has hit a hard limit: welfare payments are as low as they can possibly go. Newstart, for instance, is a miserly $275.10 per week for a single person without children, amongst the lowest in the OECD, and well below the poverty line of $518 per week. Newstart is also only available for job seekers whose savings are virtually exhausted. Robo-debt has allowed the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Government to nevertheless claw back a cool $2.1 billion from 200,000 past welfare recipients (for payments dating as far back as 2010) to fund tax cuts for corporations.
In perhaps the best science-fiction film ever made, Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), the planet’s resources have been so exhausted by war that an agent must be sent back in time to steal more. Similarly, in the era of robo-debt, the social welfare state has been so eviscerated that there is nothing left to strip, so corporate tax cuts must be funded by stealing welfare from the past. Think of it as the Coalition Government’s austerity time machine.
When Centrelink’s bots find their target, they automatically generate a bill and post it out, along with the threat of court proceedings, without human intervention, the presumption of innocence, or consultation: shoot first, ask questions later. The burden of proof is shifted to the victim to disprove the ‘debt’ and, if unchallenged, the debt is sold on to private debt collectors. Even autonomous military drones have greater human oversight.
In late 2017, my friend Alex* received a robo-debt notice for $3,500 with a note that she would be prosecuted if she didn’t pay or respond within 30 days. Alex is a freelance copywriter and musician. She is thirty-five and, like much of the forty per cent of the workforce now in insecure work, gets by on fixed-term contracts. The robo-debt notice hit her at a particularly vulnerable time, when she was between contracts and staying with a friend, looking for a share house. Her new contract fell through at the last minute and she found herself looking for work over the quiet Christmas period. Unable to afford rent in Melbourne, she started house-sitting on the coast. ‘I was so ashamed of the financial situation I had found myself in at almost 35 years old that I couldn’t tell my parents and I borrowed money from my younger sister.’
The robo-debt bill was about payments made so long ago that she didn’t have the requested paperwork. ‘It took several conversations before I was finally able to convince Centrelink they’d made an administrative error. I was so stressed and anxious, I almost had a breakdown. There is no safety net. It is an illusion. You spend days filling out application forms for Newstart and then it’s so low you can’t get by, and then on the flipside they’re trying to make you pay back debts you don’t even owe them.’
Another friend, Kylie*, works on film shoots, sometimes with significant gaps between gigs. If the gaps are long enough and her savings run out, she has to fall back on Newstart. She received a robo-debt notice in 2016 for $1,000. The first she heard of it was a call from a rather insistent debt collector. Her impulse, like many others’, was to panic and just pay it, even though it was probably false.
James*, who works for the health department, tells me he has been fighting Centrelink for months over his robo-debt notice and that every time he submits more information, the debt only seems to go up. It is a common story on Not My Debt, a site run by volunteers to try to help victims of the program. One person hit with a $6,500 ‘debt’ writes: ‘[Centrelink is d]emanding money but they can’t even tell me a correct figure, or give me details of how they worked out the debt (I am feeling so sick about this … I am now at the stage where I must request the calculations through a FOI request)’.
In the one publicly available legal case in which Centrelink was compelled to provide evidence of the ‘debt’ it claimed, it conceded that it had no such records.
The ‘debt’’ at the heart of the robo-debt program is based on a contrived assumption, but the ‘debt’ at the heart of the austerity ideology driving it is built on an even bigger fiction. The austerity obsession with ‘balancing the budget’ and cutting government spending and services to reduce the ‘deficit’ to avoid ‘debt’ in fact only hurts economic growth and ultimately State revenue. The Government shutdown in the U.S. is an illustrative example. Withholding Federal Government employees’ wages dampens spending and slows the economy. The mechanism also works in reverse. As any student of Keynes knows, government spending is stimulatory and operates via a multiplier effect. It ripples through the economy, increasing economic activity, jobs, and growth, and returns revenue to government in the long-run through increased tax revenue. What the Coalition decries as ‘deficits’ and ‘debt’ are in reality government investments that will more than pay for themselves. They are not debts at all.
Robo-debt and austerity are not about economic management. As economic anthropologist David Graeber points out in Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2012), the words ‘debt’, ‘guilt’, and ‘sin’ have the same etymological roots, and the concepts have always been intertwined. They have been used throughout the ages as a means of subjugation and control. The debtor is marked by society with a moral stain of metaphysical proportions. Cast out and unclean, the debtor is policed by society into serving the interests of the subjugator.
Hence, the fear of being labelled a ‘welfare fraud’ or ‘dole bludger’ is a persistent theme amongst people’s robo-debt stories that are shared online. One former Newstart recipient writes on NotMyDebt: ‘[I’m] currently working to earn a living [and] unlike all the drugged up dole bludgers, [I’m] paying off a mortgage, trying to live a decent honest life, this makes it very bloody difficult.’ Such sentiments are precisely what the program is designed to engender, pitting worker against welfare recipient and seeking to break our collective support for the welfare state.
At about the same time as people began receiving robo-generated threats in the mail, far above our letterboxes the second of the two Voyager spacecraft was hurtling toward the threshold of our solar system. It finally crossed the heliopause last November and now, along with its sister craft Voyager 2, is hurtling into the great expanse of interstellar space. The probes were launched some 40 years ago, just before the age of austerity commenced, in those giddily innocent times when we still believed that the state should and could provide basic welfare for all its citizens. Perhaps born of such a naïve conception of humanity’s goodwill, scientists placed on board the craft a golden record containing music from different cultures, human laughter, and greetings in 59 languages. It was a different vision of a time machine: a message, to any alien intelligence in a far-flung solar system that should receive it, probably long after the human race has expired, of who we had been and of what we had been capable.
A film professor once remarked that a copy of La Jetée should be aboard those spacecrafts as an example of the best art that humanity could produce. Yet the film would also serve as a warning to its recipients of the cruelty this species is capable of inflicting; of the human tendency for one group to exploit and extract all it can from another. Perhaps a robo-debt notice should also be aboard, just to reinforce the point.
*The names may have been changed.
Image: A still from Chris Marker’s La Jetée