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The Centrelink robo-debt debacle has only just begun

23 January 2017
Melanie McCartney
Independent Australia

Knowing that the Turnbull Government isn't finished with its five-seven year WPIT plan should send a shiver down our spines.

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In the 2015-16 budget, the Welfare Payment Infrastructure Transformation (WPIT) program was announced as the replacement for [the Income Security Integrated System (ISIS), set up in 1983 to oversee welfare payment deliveries, customer service, support and compliance activities for Centrelink]. The 2015-16 budget measure worth $60.5m is part of a $1.5 billion, seven-year program. The program was described by the Government as one of the world’s largest social welfare ICT transformations.

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On 20 March 2016, legislation was introduced to parliament to assist the Government in chasing welfare debt by Social Services Minister Christian Porter. The changes allow interest to be charged on debts, ends the six-year limit on when debt can be pursued and stops debtors from being able to travel overseas.

The new interest charge is around 9% and applies to social security, family assistance, child care, paid parental leave and student assistance debt. It won’t be imposed on those that have an approved repayment plan. The six-year limit brings it in line with tax debt and the travel ban brings it in line with child support debtors.

And by 20 March, it was reported in the media that the DHS had partnered with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in a venture called Taskforce Integrity. Welfare recipients in areas identified as high-risk, received letters with the AFP logo alongside the Centrelink logo.

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This is a first, using a police logo on a welfare letter. The first batch of letters was sent to South Queensland and will be rolled out to other geographical areas around Australia considered high risk or noncompliant.

The letters warn that the taskforce was 'currently working in your community' and that providing the wrong information could constitute welfare fraud, resulting in a 'criminal record or a prison sentence'.

The government’s new automated compliance system to detect overpayments began on 13 July last year. The system compares Centrelink information with records such as tax records, saving the government money on employing staff.

The first error to come to light was it not computing the difference between 52 weeks in a year and 26 fortnights. And in December last year, stories from the public began trickling through to the media.

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Last week, Centrelink’s new robo-public servant was introduced in the media, and it is being tested on the public next month in February. Two robo-assistants will answer questions from the public, one will focus on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, (NDIS) and the other one on student payments.

The plan is that, if the trials are successful, they will be rolled out to replace traditional public servant roles behind the desk and on the phone in the DHS. Human Service’s Chief Technology officer Charles McHardie also believes that virtual assistance will have a central role in the future of claims processing at the DHS or in WPIT.

Concerns about the right use of AI are real and there are many examples of it helping to increase inequality in many areas of our lives. Sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination are being built into the machine-learning or predictive algorithms, either intentionally or unintentionally. Machines are taught by humans and this includes any bias that may have.

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To date 230,000 debt recovery letters have been sent out to Australians. There’s been countless articles written about it and there are 350 individual stories shared on the Not My Debt web site and a false debt tally of $2,124, 501.

Thousands of Indigenous Australians have been sent letters with some just paying it off despite knowing it is wrong.

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We can take comfort in the fact that it has united us and so many are fighting for those affected. But it is bittersweet, because it feels intentional. A government at war with its own people can never end well.