The Guardian • Issue #2061

Robodebt: War on public servants

Male with depression.


Workers at Department of Human Services (DHS) gave evidence to the Robodebt Royal Commission of particularly disturbing or upsetting recipient interactions in relation to the Scheme.

“[I] experienced listening to multiple suicide attempts over the phone and I have been diagnosed with PTSD since I finalised my work with Centrelink,” said one witness.

A summary of a communication from a whistle-blower to the Secretary of the DHS, Kathryn Campbell, explained that debts raised under the Scheme were frequently inaccurate. It stated:

“I am a compliance officer with Centrelink. I’m writing because I, along with so many of my co-workers, have tried to stop the wrong that is being done to thousands of our customers on a daily basis and I can no longer live with what we are doing. I spoke confidentially to my wife and she has urged me to speak out about what is actually happening inside Centrelink, before it is covered up. Both myself and my wife understand this could mean that I lose my position …

“We are struggling daily with our consciences and pushing back against our leaders every single day … I see these reviews every working day and I am horrified at what I am being directed to do. I am risking my job sending this information in the desperate hope that exposing such a corrupt and unjust system might just make a difference.”

The whistle-blower’s summary described the raising of debts that were “incorrect” and outlined the five main system errors that caused the debts to be incorrect. In particular, “Centrelink officers are not allowed to check the results of the automated system against evidence previously provided by the person or their employer …”

In a statement to the Commission, Colleen Taylor, an experienced DHS compliance officer, told the Commission of her attempts to raise her concerns with senior public servants:

“Before Robodebt was introduced I loved my job. I felt I had expertise in my area and I felt I was making a contribution as a public servant. Having tried my hardest to get something done at the highest levels of the Department to change the scheme, I felt I had no option other than to leave my position and retire from the public service.

When asked what her reason was for retiring, Taylor said:

“I just – I was just spent, I think. I just – it was just the, I guess, callous indifference, that you just thought, is that what people do to each other? And it was just so sad …” (emphasis added in report)

Taylor also noted that “the teams of social workers at DHS were being depleted, with social workers experiencing burn out or leaving the Department: I thought that our wellbeing and safety were being compromised by the work we were doing.”

Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) National Secretary Melissa Donnelly said, “The Robodebt scheme was a catastrophic failure of governance, that had devastating impacts across the country. The damage it did was far-reaching and much of it cannot be undone.

“Robodebt had very real, and still very raw, consequences on Centrelink workplaces and staff who were forced to implement it. The personal and professional impacts were profound, in many cases, leaving passionate, good-hearted, and experienced public servants broken.

“For hundreds, if not thousands, of hardworking Services Australia employees, Robodebt was the final straw. They quit the agency. Or rather, the agency lost them.”

“CPSU members want … their agency to be properly resourced so they can do the job they are there to do. They want to be safe at work – physically and psychologically. They want their experience and expertise to be valued, which means no more blanket automation and an end to the assumption that anyone can slot in and do their job. And they want an apology from their employer for what they endured.”

[If reading this has raised any issues for you, contact Lifeline on 131114.]

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