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Centrelink robo-debt system wrongly targets Australian of the Year finalist

16 January 2017
Christopher Knaus
Guardian

A leading fetal alcohol syndrome researcher and Queensland Australian of the Year finalist has been caught up in the Centrelink debt recovery scandal, after the system wrongly deemed she owed $7,600.

Medical ethnographer Janet Hammill, 76, has spent decades researching the foetal origins of health and disease, and remains with the University of Queensland, where she works voluntarily and lives off the age pension.

Hammill received a $26,000 research grant between July 2011 and April 2012, which she fully reported to Centrelink at the time.

But Centrelink’s automated debt recovery system appears to have averaged the grant across all 26 fortnights of 2012, before deeming her to have been significantly overpaid. 

She has struggled to get on to anyone at Centrelink to explain, including using their overloaded phone system and confusing online system.

“You feel so helpless, I mean for heaven’s sakes, you can look through my CV and see that I’m not helpless,” Hammill said.

“But this puts you into another category of disempowerment. I can just imagine somebody who is not computer literate or is just managing to get by day to day, it’s just been so terribly frustrating,” she said.

“They made me feel as though I’m some sort of cheat, and I haven’t had an income since April 2012.”

Her case comes as the federal government implements changes to attempt to address criticism of its controversial automated debt recovery system.