What the Australian Government has done to Tasmanians in the last 6 months is almost incomprehensible. An erosion of trust. An erosion of human rights. An erosion of dignity. An erosion of the principles of good government decision making. Unconscionable conduct is generally understood to mean conduct which is so harsh it goes against good conscience. Conduct that is particularly harsh or oppressive. Conduct that is even more than unfair – it must be against conscious as judged against the norms of society.
It was always highly likely that this system would be particularly harsh in Tasmania. Tasmania has the highest rate of the population receiving some kind of income support payment. It has the highest proportion of the population with a disability, including intellectual or learning disability. Nearly 50% of the adult population in Tasmania have very low levels of functional literacy and numeracy. A recent national report released by Telstra shows Tasmania has the lowest levels of digital access and digital capability. Tasmanians, like many Australians living in rural and regional areas have very limited access to legal assistance and extremely low levels of access to pro-bono legal services.
Putting aside any other issues that have occurred, these factors combined mean that dealing with a system that relies on online, written communication will be fraught with difficulty. This should have been foreseen by a government.
There is no doubt that there is a power imbalance between the Commonwealth Agency of Department of Human Services and an individual citizen. Many of the people I have spoken to were overwhelmed by the enormity of what they were being required to prove and were crushed by that power imbalance. That is what I mean by unconscionable conduct. The Commonwealth Ombudsman report validates this with his finding that the system was so confusing for people to use that in many circumstances people either couldn’t or wouldn’t engage with the process or gave up and therefore were assumed to have a debt.
This point was well made by the Commonwealth Ombudsman. He states in section 3.45 of his report that “in some instances customers may have become vulnerable because of the debt raising and recovery process itself.” While that point alone is startling, what is more startling is that even knowing that was the case, the government continued. It failed to listen, it failed to consult and when continually provided with examples of this vulnerability, it still failed to take action to prevent further harm. In TasCOSS’s opinion, the government breached its duty of care to protect Tasmanians, to protect Australian citizens.
In closing, can I remind the committee that humanity is messy, it is surprising, inspiring and it is hopeful.
And good government, when led by bold, humane people, reflects this in its systems, processes and long-term vision.
Where is good government in the treatment of our most vulnerable friends, family and community members by this online debt collection process?
This is the question we ask the Committee to consider in its deliberations. Where is good government, good decision making, and leadership when a system is failing? Where is the leadership that is bold enough to say, we got this wrong, we will pull back, rework, review with stakeholders to get it right.
Where is good government in understanding and taking seriously its duty of care to its citizens, to protect the most vulnerable, to not cause vulnerability and harm to its own citizens?
At the foundations of both government-led and locally-led safety nets are the agreement we make with each other to represent the common threads of our humanity – compassion and a fair go for all.
After four months of listening to and speaking with countless Tasmanians touched by the distress built into the Centrelink robodebt system, I find myself wondering how our government has become so detached from these values.
Through this system, Tasmanian mothers, fathers, young people, grandparents, community leaders and many others have experienced the extreme anxiety and stress of being presumed guilty and given no support and no system to prove otherwise. It has eroded the trust of our citizens in one of the foundations of our country – our safety net.
It is our hope that this committee has the wisdom in its findings, to document what was and still is, an absolute failure of government administration, government duty of care and Ministerial leadership on a scale which we have potentially never before seen. That the committee will find that the government has overstepped its powers and is harming its citizens.
In line with the Ombudsman’s recommendations, this program must be stopped immediately and redesigned to ensure the harms identified are mitigated completely.
And the Government must acknowledge its duty of care to the people who they represent and pledge to restore humanity to its systems in an effort to rebuild trust.