In the wake of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme, there has been discussion about the scheme’s cruelty and its illegality. However, the deliberate demonisation of the unemployed has been overlooked, writes the St Vincent de Paul Society’s Mark Gaetani.
Robodebt was premised on an attitude that those on social security were unworthy. At different points in the Robodebt era, the Australian Federal Police, Australian Tax Office and Centrelink all worked together. If welfare recipients had taken one dollar of taxpayer’s money that they did not deserve, they would be made to pay. And pay they did.
The costs as we now know, are tragic. Commissioner Catherine Holmes concluded that Robodebt had been “responsible for heartbreak and harm to family members of those who took their own lives because of the despair the scheme caused them”. However, none of these deaths prompted “a substantive or systemic review of the problem of illegal, inaccurate or unfair debt-raising”.
Throughout the four years of its operation (2015-2019) it did not matter that there were consistent concerns about illegality and about the method of income averaging used to calculate debts. What mattered was that the unworthy were being held to account. This is the most troubling aspect of Robodebt – it lays bare that the dignity of vulnerable people is of little importance. This attitude needs to change.
As an advocate for those without a voice and on behalf of the victims of Robodebt, the society expects the full force of the law to be brought against those responsible.
As noted by Pope Francis, how a society treats its poor and vulnerable is a better way to measure “economic success.”
The dignity of the poor, the vulnerable, the homeless and the unemployed should never be denied. When dignity is denied to these people, we are all diminished.
Mark Gaetani is the St Vincent de Paul Society’s national president.
A bigger picture (St Vincent de Paul Society)