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Australian government intensifies welfare “debt” crackdown

9 January 2017
Oscar Grenfell
World Socialist Web Site

In an attempt to meet corporate demands to slash social spending, the Liberal-National government of Malcolm Turnbull is escalating a welfare offensive initiated by the previous Labor government. Using an automated data-matching system introduced by Labor in 2011, it is dispatching thousands of “debt notices” every week, demanding that current and former welfare recipients repay hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dollars.

In order to intimidate people relying on pensions, family tax benefits, unemployment benefits or other welfare payments, the government is sending out corporate debt collectors. It is also threatening to jail people unless they pay the demanded amounts or produce documents to disprove any alleged over-payment.

The campaign is an intensification of bipartisan efforts by Labor and Liberal-National governments alike to victimise welfare beneficiaries and dismantle the right to benefits. There is widespread public outrage, because thousands of workers, students and unemployed people have reported receiving automated notices falsely accusing them of having been “overpaid” while on welfare.

The “crackdown” was initiated last July, but only became public knowledge after a series of media reports in December. The government is sending up to 20,000 “debt notices” per week, through an automated computer system, compared to the previous rate of 20,000 per year.

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Decades of cuts by successive Labor and Liberal-National governments have resulted in Australia having one of the most punitive welfare systems among “developed” countries. Poverty levels among those who receive Newstart—the equivalent of $38 a day for a single adult—stand at 55 percent. The unemployed are continually harassed by Centrelink and private job agencies, and in many cases, forced to perform unpaid labour for charities and business to receive their benefits.