Of course the Liberal gov’t knew Robodebt was illegal

February 8, 2023
Robotic hand with centrelink logo. Background is a pile of gold coins
The assault on the self worth of workers is extremely valuable to the employing class as a whole. Image: Green Left

As the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme rolls on, it seems like no government official or senior public servant realised the scheme was completely illegal — despite numerous reports, commissioned by the department, saying it was.

The fact that the Department of Health and Human Services was instructed not to appeal debts being quashed by the first round of reviews — which meant that no legal precedent showing Robodebt was illegal could emerge from within the Administrative Appeals Tribunal system — is apparently just a coincidence.

Half the corporate media commentary is deliberately naïve. “Gee, how could they make such a silly mistake, and not realise it was illegal? Oops!”

The other half goes along the lines of: “Yes, they knew it was a bit dodgy, but they did it anyway to try to improve the budget bottom line.”

The idea that the Coalition government didn’t know exactly what it was doing when it introduced the illegal Robodebt scam is preposterous. The whole campaign was very calculated. It was constructed and rolled out by right-wing lawyers, in parliament and the bureaucracy, who had a detailed and clear understanding of the laws they were working within, or working around.

Improving the budget “bottom line” was an added bonus, but it was never the Coalition’s main purpose. The primary use of Robodebt — just like every other act of bastardry inflicted on welfare recipients — was to exert downward pressure on wages.

Low-paid workers — or anyone on the median wage or less — do not need to be on Centrelink to know what that means.

Everyone knows that being on the dole is hard enough. For the long-term unemployed, locked out of the capitalist job market, the insulting hoops they are asked to jump through are bad enough without the periodic assaults on their sanity, such as the Robodebt scheme.

Making scapegoats out of the unemployed serves to make millions of other low-paid workers fear that this is what they can expect if they quit their jobs. So they put up with being bullied, underpaid, harassed or working in unsafe conditions.

Others endure the drudgery of being on Centrelink, but manage to get work. This includes many who first reach working age, go to university and receive Youth Allowance or Austudy or who are part of the longer-term unemployed youth in their late teens and early 20s.

Eventually they find work, but the experience taught them to undervalue their own worth as a worker for years, or even decades after. They are taught to fear losing their job to the point that they may be less inclined to join a union and take industrial action or speak up about workplace rights.

This assault on the self-worth of workers is extremely valuable to the employing class as a whole.

Some who have been through the Centrelink meat grinder might eventually turn to self-employment, or variations of it, like the gig economy.

This might only pay slightly better than the dole — and substantially less than the insufficient award wage — but at least they don’t have to go to mind-numbing meetings about how to write a resume. At least they don’t have to work for the dole. At least they don’t arbitrarily get cut off a few times a year. And, at least, they won’t get a Robodebt.

After five or 10 years on the dole in your 20s, if you enter the workforce, perhaps by your late 30s you might have deprogrammed yourself from the experience enough to value your labour as much as someone in their mid-20s who was able to bypass the drudgery of being on the dole and who learned to value their labour from early in their working life.

There are many complex factors that affect the extent to which the patronising poverty of Centrelink will harm a person’s self-worth. While not every welfare recipient will be scarred by the experience, many will.

The Liberals and Labor (which refuses to raise the JobSeeker rate) know this. They know that just as night follows day, kicking the utter heck out of unemployed people and rubbing their faces in the dirt is a good way to exert downward pressure on wages. Crucially, it is effective, not just in the immediate term, but in the long term.

Creating long-lasting damage to people’s sense of self-worth, which can take years or even a lifetime to undo, is of far greater value to the capitalist system than the revenue collected by Robodebt (which had to be refunded anyway). Reports allege several people committed suicide after receiving the Robodebt notice.

For the Coalition MPs and a few bureaucrats in charge of this disastrous scheme, what is a slap on the wrist from a royal commission? With profits at a record high and wage growth stagnant, the system — including the illegal Robodebt scam — is working as intended.

We still need to fight for justice for the victims of the Robodebt rampage, and reverse the harm from decades of scapegoating welfare recipients. That will require more than a royal commission: it will require deep political change.

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