The roots of the robodebt crisis

Nadine Flood is National Secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union

If you’ve tried to get through to Centrelink recently, on the phone or in person at one of their offices, it’s probably cost you a good couple of hours of your life and masses of unnecessary stress. The dubious upside of this frustration is that the wait at least gives you time to think. You might be thinking about all the other things you could be doing if you weren’t stuck here, doing this. You might be wondering why the hell this system is such a mess. You might not be thinking about how you’re witnessing the slow unpicking of the formidable and hardwon Australian social safety net. But you are.

Social security is a foundation of our community. It holds us together, makes sure that no one gets left behind, and helps people through the times that we all pass through – old age, disability, unemployment, sickness. Less tangibly, it is an institution that we all have a stake in and will all need over the course of our lives and as such it is a vital public expression of our belief that we can come together to solve common problems.

But Centrelink (and its parent Department of Human Services) is an institution in crisis. It’s a slow-motion catastrophe for clients – 42 million phone calls unanswered in less than a year. Robodebt letters piling up across the country and driving blameless citizens to despair. It’s also a disaster for staff – they’re under incredible pressure from their bosses; they can’t offer the kind of service they would like to clients; they are fending off Liberal Government attacks on their basic workplace rights and had their pay frozen for four years as a result. The IT systems are old, underfunded and struggling and staff are boxed in by a system that prevents them from addressing and responding to peoples’ individual circumstances. Basically, the humanity is being hacked out of Human Services. The heart of the crisis that spawned robodebt is repeated funding cuts that have replaced capable, well-trained people with broken computers spitting out incomprehensible correspondence. There’s no one to call for help and policies that would prevent staff from helping even if you could get through to one.

This crisis has its roots in attacks on the public service, lack of investment in public institutions, and deliberate undermining of government’s ability to solve problems for us. Fixing it is central to Labor’s mission to mobilise the capacity of the state to reduce inequality. And we must fix it in a Labor way – that is, by offering good jobs and decent lives for the people who work there. For their own sake and also for the communities spread across the whole country who host DHS offices and benefit from the jobs that stay in those places.

Although getting a social security system right is hard, the immediate fixes we need are not that complicated and have recently been canvassed by the Senate’s Community Affairs References Committee report into Robodebt. 5000 permanent jobs have been cut from Centrelink’s parent department, Human Services, in the past few years. Just in the last couple of weeks, CPSU members won 2000 permanent jobs in DHS which will be filled over the coming months. This will make a difference to service standards at Centrelink and we can keep campaigning to win more. We should halt the proposed outsourcing of social security call centres to a private company. We should fund IT systems that properly serve the staff and through them the customers. Most importantly, we should restore the human to human services – provide enough staff to deliver the service and then offer them enough autonomy and responsibility to do the job they need to be doing, to genuinely address the circumstances of the people they are serving.

More broadly, we should consider recasting social security as a safety net not just for the vulnerable but for all of us. We all have moments of vulnerability – some of us will get sick, some will live through natural disasters, face a period of joblessness or care for a child with a disability. All of us will get old. By drawing in people who are no longer on social security, robodebt drew attention to how much we all have a stake in social security.

We all need a social safety net to support us during those times – and we need it to be fair, just and accessible. But we also need this system to have heart. If you have delivered a still-born baby, you need a person who can grasp your circumstances and help you quickly and accurately. You don’t need a robot pumping out letters or three hours of hold music.

The Labor Party must lead the public debate that public services should be able to serve the public. As a social democratic party, Labor stands for using the power of government to secure the full economic and political rights of all citizens. We can’t do that without excellent public services offered by fairly treated public servants. 

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