The longest-serving member of Australia’s government review tribunal has offered a withering assessment of the Department of Human Services’ automated debt recovery program, describing it as a form of extortion, ABC News reports.
Terry Carney served as a member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal’s social security division for 39 years until his term ended in September 2017.
As part of his work he heard some of the first cases about the Federal Government’s online compliance initiative, dubbed the “robo-debt” scheme by some.
Since leaving his position he has become an outspoken critic of the scheme.
Mr Carney told 7.30 that Centrelink repeatedly refused to offer any clear legal defence of the program.
“The [Human Services] Department’s conduct is abysmal,” he said.
“At no stage does Centrelink ever seek to defend the unlawful basis on which it’s raising those debts.
“[It’s] a bit like the Mafia saying, you know: ‘You owe me money. Do I have to prove that you owe me money? No I don’t.’
“That … is what we usually say is extortion.”
The robo-debt scheme matches income data from the Australian Tax Office with income reported to Centrelink by welfare recipients.
If a discrepancy is detected, people are automatically sent a letter asking for further information such as payslips and bank statements, often from years earlier.
Since 2016 some of those receiving payments such as Youth Allowance and Newstart have been asked to verify their income dating back as far as 2010.
Victoria Legal Aid executive director Rowan McRae, who is leading the team of lawyers in the court challenges, told 7.30: “We’re asking a court to scrutinise the scheme and determine whether or not it is in fact lawful.
“We know it’s unfair. We know it’s having a terrible impact on our clients. But we also think the scheme is unlawful and we’d like a court to test that.”
Terry Carney / ABC News