The Guardian • Issue #2061

Robodebt: War on welfare recipients

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2061
Male with depression.


Rhys Cauzzo took his own life on 26th January 2017. In the days after his death, his mother went to her son’s apartment in Melbourne and found “debt letters hanging on the fridge along with a drawing of a person shooting a gun in their mouth, with dollar signs coming out of the back of their head.”

Cauzzo had a Robodebt hanging around his neck.

Witness Felicity Button told the Royal Commission into Robodebt: “Each time I considered making an application I have decided against going ahead with it because I fear that if I am a Centrelink recipient again another debt will be raised against me …

“I couldn’t sleep because I was going to bed at night and racking my brain trying to figure out what had happened … and what was going to happen. How are they going to get this money from me? And it was these threats of taking money directly out of my pay or out of my bank account, from my tax return. And it was just a weight on my shoulders. But I do remember driving home at night just beside myself with worry about this money and thinking I could just drive my car into a tree and make it stop …”

“I felt suicidal for a period of months in 2017 with the ‘lowest point’ being the occasion when ARL (debt collector) debited money from my account,” Button said.

“I felt desperate on that day; it was so upsetting that I could not afford to pay for my daughter’s medical expenses and I felt powerless to improve my situation.”

Ricky Aik lived rurally and gave evidence that he found navigating the Robodebt Scheme especially difficult given his remote location: “I recall attempting to telephone Centrelink to provide Centrelink with the amounts recorded on those payslips. I was unable to do so. Again, I recall being left on hold for hours and giving up. Because I was often working during the day, I was not in a position to be on the phone for long periods of time.”

Matthew Thompson, who had experienced mental illness previously, told the Commission that upon receiving a debt notice totalling $11,000 he was in “complete shock,” because it would “set me back years and years and years.” He explained that “from a generalised anxiety disorder point of view, it’s just … the biggest trigger you can give to somebody.”

Another submission to the Commission from a person advocating on her daughter’s behalf after her daughter received notice of a debt owing, said they had written to various ministers about the shortcomings in the debt review process. The debt was eventually waived; however, the “stress of false accusations” had a long-lasting effect:

“The impact on her mental and physical health was enormous. The repeated stress of false accusations on her integrity and the threats made, eventually lead to her having to leave her employment. She spent 6 months in no state to work. She spent her savings and mine over this time as she was too frightened to engage with Centrelink for financial help. She was prescribed medication for her mental condition. We both spent countless hours and days proving her innocence.”

Katherine Prygodicz described feeling “bad and distressed” when her partner’s family did not believe the alleged debt raised against her was incorrect: “they suspected that I had done something a little bit dodgy and that I had lied to the government.” To the contrary, Prygodicz knew herself to be a “very honest and diligent person.” She explained:

“My feelings of anxiety and distress were exacerbated by the fact that in the general community, people who are thought to have received social security benefits they are not entitled to are considered to be frauds or to be ‘bludging’ off the system. This environment contributed to the negative impact that the Asserted Overpayment Debt had on my mental health.”

Catherine Eagle, the principal solicitor at Welfare Rights and Advocacy Services in Perth, told the Commission about their experience with people who first learnt of their Robodebt when tax refunds had been garnished during the Scheme:

“… because people weren’t getting notices if they were no longer on Centrelink payments, because they probably changed address, so the first that they would know is when they had lost their tax refund … they were expecting to get.”

Some were threatened with Departure (going overseas) Prohibition Orders if their “debts” were not paid.

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

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