Would robo-debt be a bigger scandal if its victims weren’t on welfare?

No one defends the robo-debt scheme any more. Indeed, as you watch witness after witness – no, victim after victim – recount their stories to the royal commission, how would you even begin? The verdict is clear. It destroyed many lives, and took others. It was always on shaky legal ground, then a court decisively ruled it to be illegal. It was ostensibly a money-saving measure that has ended up costing the Commonwealth billions. There really is nothing to commend it.

So, let’s recall that it was initially something the then-Abbott government wanted to trumpet. Here was a welfare crackdown, in which computers would identify welfare cheats, recouping $1.5 billion. It’s hard to conceive of something better suited to a headline. It helped the budget, it promised to restore integrity to the welfare system, those targeted were presumed to deserve it, and it was being done by technology. Objective, efficient, lucrative, just.

The robodebt scheme was intended to help the budget and crack down on welfare cheats.

It’s therefore not surprising to hear that cabinet ministers never really gave a great deal of thought to whether the scheme was illegal, and that any legal advice warning of this possibility seems to have fallen by the wayside so easily. There are many scandals associated with robo-debt. Among the least noted is that it felt like such a natural, frictionless thing for the government to do.

To that end, let’s consider what the scheme did. It relied on “income averaging” to assert someone had been overpaid. This method simply presumes that whatever income someone earned over a year was evenly spread across it. In this way, someone who was unemployed for, say, three months might be presumed to have been employed all year, and therefore ineligible for the benefits they received. This approach might allow the government to send out as many overpayment notices in a week as they previously did in a year. But it’s also often inaccurate, a fact known to the Department of Human Services, according to what a former senior lawyer told the royal commission.

Despite this, robo-debt presumed guilt, requiring the accused to prove their innocence. And because the process was so automated, it was very difficult to plead your case to a human. This was literally automating the judgment of people as welfare cheats, often incorrectly, then depriving them of a human ear to whom those people could complain. It relegated people – often quite desperate ones – to the unaccountable calculation of machines.

If we’re honest, the unemployed aren’t treated as part of our political community. They’re more an unfortunate adjunct.

As this saga unfolds, two questions suggest themselves. How was such a manifestly unjust scheme conceivable? And why is this not a bigger scandal, even now? Alas, I suspect these two questions have the same answer: that the victims of this scheme don’t really count. In the public imagination, welfare payments are roughly synonymous with the dole. And if we’re honest, the unemployed aren’t treated as part of our political community. They’re more an unfortunate adjunct.

You don’t have to look too far for evidence of this. Recall only that – aside from a temporary pandemic lift – governments of both stripes have steadfastly refused to increase the unemployment benefit in real terms since the Howard era. Since that time, we’ve seen the Rudd government sweep to power on a platform of workers’ rights, pitching incessantly to “Australian working families”. We’ve seen the Coalition scream when a Labor government tried to reduce the family benefit payments. We’ve seen the Abbott government collapse quickly after its first budget because it was deemed so drastically unfair to lower-income earners. We’ve seen Labor campaign repeatedly in opposition on wage stagnation and penalty rates.

In short, we’ve seen a frequent line of attack in Australian politics on grounds of “fairness”, and siding with battlers. That doesn’t always determine our policy, but it’s an indispensable political pose to strike – as long as the battlers in question are workers. Thus, even stage 3 tax cuts for the wealthy had to be preceded by stages 1 and 2, which targeted lower brackets because anything else would be completely unsellable.

Governments of both stripes have steadfastly refused to increase the unemployment benefit in real terms since the Howard era.

We’ve also seen everyone from the Business Council to social services organisations, and even John Howard himself, support the idea of increasing the unemployment benefit. What we haven’t seen is a major political party pledge to do it. Labor refused ahead of last year’s election, even as it campaigned hard on the cost of living. This can only mean that no decisive votes are there to be won on this. And that can only be a reflection of the lack of solidarity our society has with the unemployed.

There are, crudely speaking, two broad ways of considering these people. The first is as a burden: a drag on the public purse who make no meaningful contribution to society. This has unemployment either as an invalid choice, or a reflection of some kind of character defect. The unemployed are part of us in a technical sense, but not in any deeper way; something more akin to a regrettable acquaintance. This takes us to a punitive place, where an unemployment benefit that leaves people below the poverty line makes perfect sense. It is this vision that sees the dole bludger as a representative of sorts, and which makes robo-debt possible.

The second way of considering these people sees the unemployed as a potential version of ourselves in only slightly altered circumstances. In this vision, welfare isn’t a gift, but an obligation: an expression of social and even national solidarity. It is not only about subsistence, but membership. That doesn’t mean such payments should be overly generous. But it does mean they should be conferred willingly, and with a sense of dignity.

Clearly, there’s no dignity in robo-debt. It denies even the dignity of procedural fairness. But there’s no real dignity in forcing people below the poverty line, either, which for now at least is a matter of bipartisan consensus. That doesn’t mean the Coalition can escape its singular blame for the robo-debt mess. The Coalition must own that completely because it invented the worst aspects of it, then persisted with it even in the face of warnings and clear political opposition.

But it is to say that robo-debt is less scandalous than it should be because its underlying logic is not alien to us. It offends in degree more than in essence. And that will be true for as long as the unemployed remain essentially aliens.

Waleed Aly is a regular columnist.

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