I became aware that Centrelink were trying to pin a cooked-up “robo-debt” of $5558 on me through a text message from the aptly named Probe group debt collection agency.
There resources about how to dispute a Centrelink debt letter, including GetUp! which has a page that sends a bunch of letters to key places in one go.
But given the large and growing number affected by this $4.5 billion heist, I thought I would share my experience of disputing the debt in 10 not exactly easy steps.
1. Keep a diary of interactions with Centrelink
Centrelink staff is caught between two worlds: their managers are trying to make them implement the robo-debt policy but in many cases, the staff themselves are opposed to it. The Centrelink staff union, the CPSU, is against the policy.Anyone who has ever had to deal with Centrelink will know that every staff member you speak to seems to tell you a slightly different story. It is not uncommon to be told that they have made an appointment or are sending you a letter, or fixed some problem, only to find out later that they did no such thing.
Centrelink whistleblowers have also reported that staff have not been properly trained in how the robo-debt system works, but have been explicitly told by management not to fix any obvious errors that they can see themselves. Instead they will only correct errors that the debt victim points out to them.
For all these reasons, it is important to get the name and staff number of the Centrelink staffer you are talking to every time you speak to them. Jot down notes on what they have said and keep this diary handy.
2. Get a myGov account and Centrelink linking code
Going to a Centrelink office in person can be a big waste of time. They will not give you any extra information and will tell you to get a myGov account and request a review from there.
MyGov is a problematic website. It is extremely difficult to actually link Centrelink to your myGov account because it asks you for all these obscure pieces of evidence that you are who you say you are.
The easier thing to do is once you set up your basic myGov account, call 132307 and get a linking code so that you can link your Centrelink account to your myGov.
Once you are in there you can see a bit more information about how your robo-debt was cooked up. A key thing to look for in this initial phase is whether Centrelink’s robot has duplicated your income.
For example, say you worked casually at a 7-Eleven and declared income to Centrelink, but the actual business name of your particular 7-11 is something like “Offshore Tax Haven Pty. Ltd”. Centrelink’s robot will add your declared income to the income data it has got from the tax office under “Offshore Tax Haven Pty Ltd.”
The robot will also add any work income for that financial year that you got when you were not on Centrelink.
Using the Centrelink online portal you can request a review of your debt. From then you will have 21 days to get old payslips.
3. Ask for a review by calling Centrelink Compliance
If you have trouble with starting a review using the Centrelink/Mygov online system, or even if you did successfully request a review using the website, you should call Centrelink Compliance on 1800 086 400 and double check that the review has been triggered.
The compliance officer you speak to can trigger the review from their end if you have had trouble doing it on the website. As mentioned, be sure to get their name and staff number and record the date and time of the call. While you are on the phone, you should request a printout of your ADEX schedule (see point 5 below).
4. Get legal advice and formally dispute the debt in writing
To be triple sure that Centrelink are in absolutely no doubt that you want to dispute the debt, send a letter by registered post to Centrelink Compliance. Address it to: Centrelink Compliance, Reply paid 7800, Canberra BC ACT 2610.
Frontier Law Service has made a template letter for people disputing robo-debts, but have also said that the letter “does not constitute legal advice, should not be perceived as legal advice and is in no way substitute for legal advice tailored to your specific situation.”
The #NotMyDebt website has an extensive Australia-wide list of Legal aid and welfare rights organisations from you can get legal advice.
You should also send you letter to Centrelink Chief Executive Grant Tidswell (Grant.Tidswell@humanservices.gov.au) and Department of Human Services Secretary Kathryn Campbell (Kathryn.Campbell@humanservices.gov.au).
5. Request a copy of your ADEX debt schedule
When you call Centrelink Compliance it is essential you make them send you a printed copy of your ADEX debt schedule.
This is basically a spreadsheet showing the income you declared, payments you got from Centrelink, and then the fabricated extra money that they say you got paid using their fraudulent robo-accounting methods.
These are the “smoking guns”, as they give specific examples of the debt-robot working its foul accounting sorcery.
When I asked for records of my income declarations the staffer I spoke to tried very hard to get me to agree to write down numbers from this spreadsheet as he read them out over the phone. Do not agree to this. Once you get your printed ADEX schedule you will see why the idea of copying one down over the phone is ridiculous.
If the staffer refuses to mail you a printed copy of your ADEX schedule, it is extremely important you get their name and staff number.
It is a very serious no-no in the eyes of the law for someone who is chasing you for money to refuse to freely and openly supply you with supporting evidence for why you supposedly owe them cash.
Either Centrelink send you your ADEX schedule, in which case you have an excellent piece of evidence, or they do not send it to you, in which case they are acting in an illegal manner.
6. Do a Freedom of Information request for case notes from the disputed period
Anyone who has ever had any interaction with Centrelink is entitled to do a Freedom of Information request to get copies of case notes and other relevant documents. It costs nothing and the Freedom of Information Office are required to get the requested documents to you within 30 days.
Be sure to use a template to make sure your request is worded correctly.
There may be case notes in your Centrelink records that relate to your income reporting that help you get your robo-debt overturned.
7. If the debt has been sent to a collection agency request that it be sent back to Centrelink
If your robo-debt has been sent to a debt collection agency before you knew anything about it, once you trigger the review process with Centrelink contact the debt collection agency and tell them you want the matter passed back to Centrelink.
Again, be sure to get the name and staff ID of the person at the debt collection agency. If they tell you the matter is being handed back to Centrelink, record that in your diary and if they tell you they can not or will not hand the debt back to Centrelink, tell them you want this in writing.
If they refuse to pass control of your debt back to Centrelink when it is under review, it is illegal.
8. Tell your story and link in with allies
The Australian Unemployed Workers Union and #NotMyDebt are places to speak with others in the same boat and to get advice. It is worth writing to your local MP, although depending who it is they may not be much help. Tasmanian Independent MP Andrew Wilkie has been a vocal advocate for people targeted with the debts.
You are not alone. Many current and former Centrelink recipients are being targeted by this rotten system. Power in numbers is key.
9. Write to Slater and Gordon about being involved in a class action lawsuit
Law firm Slater and Gordon has stopped short of committing to launch a class action lawsuit, but has said it is doing initial investigations into the legality of what Centrelink are doing. It has a form on its website where you can express interest in being involved in a class action, and there is also a public Facebook group.
The administrators of the “Centrelink Class Action” group have recommended people write to Slater and Gordon and also email firstname.lastname@example.org so that they can keep track of how many people are interested in participating in the case.
10. Get active
If you see a rally coming up, help get people along to it. Centrelink offices, bus stops and train stations are prime locations to put up posters and hand out leaflets. If there is no rally coming up in your town get together with some friends, make a Facebook event, print some posters and get going.
Your local Socialist Alliance branch will assist if you want help organising, and there are other progressive groups organising to take down the debt robot.
Back when the Coalition government handed down its first budget in 2014 (which is where the idea of robo-debt revenue fishing was born) there were rallies against the government in cities and towns across the land.
Getting mobilised can increase pressure on the government to scrap the robo-debts.
Moreover, winning a universal basic income or similar so that unemployed people, disabled people, students and pensioners can live comfortably and with dignity will require a powerful ongoing social movement.