I'd heard about Robodebt. I'd made jokes with my friends that I'd probably get a debt letter since I'd been a Centrelink recipient, hate this government with a passion, and generally have shitful luck. I'd also stopped opening Centrelink letters as I was happily, finally, no longer a beneficiary. But the joke planted a seed so I eventually searched the house looking for unopened mail.
My first reaction to the debt was 'I KNEW IT!', followed by hysterical, desperate laughter, followed by swearing. Lots of swearing. I knew without doubt that I did not owe a cent and I had no intention of paying anything. Ever.
I did not contact Centrelink. This is why:
I am a single mother and have had years of run around with them, hours on the phone running out my cheap prepaid mobile, standing in queues, jumping through hoops with reprehensible employment providers who do nothing to help you find employment yet pay themselves gleefully every time you find yourself a job, no matter how dead end and short term it is.
There was an incident roughly two years ago when my Max Employment case manager (a 21 year old who kept me waiting for every appointment - up to two hours - while she played games on her phone) had my pension cut off because she kept scheduling my appointments during school pick up times, or on the days she knew I was in class studying. One day I just couldn't be arsed ringing them yet again, wasting my mobile credit yet again, to tell them they'd made another scheduling screw-up. My mistake. I was cut off Newstart and my rent was taken automatically from my account leaving me $300 overdrawn. How was I to feed my children? We lived a carefully budgeted hand-to-mouth existence. In that world, a loss of $10 can fuck you over.
So I called Centrelink at 10.30 am from a very accommodating friend's house. Said friend and my youngest child took turns with me staying on hold. We made it to 11.30, 12.30, 1.30... It became a challenge by then to see if we could 'beat them' by not going away. Around 3.30 that afternoon, livid, I said 'f*ck this, I'm going in to Centrelink'. Note that at that time their policy - if you went in - was to refuse you counter service unless you rang them first to make an appointment, on the telephones in their establishment, where everyone around you could hear every single word.
I asked my friend to stay on the line at home and wait until they answered – if they ever did - while I went in to their office. I arrived at Centrelink at 4 that afternoon and the queue was to the door. I got very prompt ‘service’ from the woman walking the line, "Sorry, too late to see you today, we've got too many people. Go home and ring up." I saw red at that moment but would never insult their employees. Not their fault they work for incompetent employers with almost zero resources, struggling to use a flawed, unwieldy system.
I explained the phone situation for which she apologised and offered an alternative: Come back tomorrow. Early. We'll help you then. So I returned to my friend's at 5 to find her STILL on the phone. Centrelink did eventually pick up... at quarter past five after nearly 7 HOURS ON HOLD. Longwinded story I'm sorry, but you can probably understand why I will never, ever ring Centrelink or deal with them directly in any capacity if I can help it. The thought of it makes my fists clench, my stomach churn. There is nothing worse than being helpless, treated like nothing, constantly financially penalised, left to beg for food, kept on hold for hours on end …
Other things Centrelink have done to me: Forced me on to the cashless welfare card - an issue initiated in error by Homeswest (another disgusting agency with absolute disdain for their clients). I had no debts, was not an addict or abuser and had two cared for and loved children, both excelling academically at school. ‘Someone’ was pushing for guinea pigs and I fell into the trap. I wonder if it was because I had brown skin.
Once I made an appointment with Centrelink to see a counsellor and discuss my DV situation. The 'counsellor' turned out to be a 19 year old work experience kid who went off and paraphrased our hour long session to a supervisor. It took her 5 minutes and he stormed into the room calling me a liar. I had no idea what he was going on about or why he was so angry. That was their sensitive, professional in-house 'psychologist'.
I made a complaint about him. An official complaint about Max Employment. Nothing came of it.
But I digress. I feel absolutely sick about the debt but also am not surprised. I expect this kind of shit from Centrelink no matter who’s running the asylum. I expect this level of inhumanity from the religious hypocrites and soulless c*nts in the Liberal party. Excuse my language but I have never seen such a sustained, venomous attack on the poor. I am very lucky to have been in the care of mental health professionals when that letter bomb arrived. I'm sitting here in tears right now wishing these bastards had a taste of their own medicine.
Rather than contact Centrelink I went straight to my Labor member of parliament. I made a FOI request through the Get Up site. I have now discovered that the debt is related to me not filing a tax return. The reason I haven't done that is because the job I had at the time refused to pay me wages. I was told I had to register an ABN. This involved fudging the questions from the ATO who kept refusing me an ABN on the grounds that my employer 'had to' pay me award rates with terms and conditions. What the hell do you do when you're caught between a rock and a hard place? Not get paid?
Since then I have tried to file a tax return twice but cannot get my head around the complicated questions asked regarding sole traders. I keep meaning to get on to it but am now working long hours and never seem to find the time. You would think this is a crucial moment when I should make time, take a day off, DO something, but having just been through the worst bout of depression in my life, culminating in a suicide attempt and a stint in the mental health unit, I am just not fucking equipped to deal with this. I need help. From people with clout. Or knowledge.
To conclude this sorry tale, in the financial year that I am being asked to pay back the $8,000 I received in Family Tax Benefit, I earned precisely $5,400. No lie. $5,400. The threshold for family tax eligibility is $100,000.
I wonder why Centrelink hasn’t referred my ‘debt’ to a debt collector???
I am shocked, disgusted, appalled at their calculated denial that there is no problem. At Barnaby Joyce's 'Just call Centrelink!' Had he been sitting in front of me I would've lynched his ugly, ignorant red neck. How much is 7 hours of your time worth Barnaby? I feel the same way about Tudge. What a filthy pig of a human. Every single one of those rich priviliged private school pollies should be forced to live on Centrelink for a year. No, forget Centrelink. I would kill to see the lot of them destitute, begging in the streets.
Funding cuts to health and education, cynical politicising of poor people, exploitation of unemployed youth, pointless work for the dole programmes. I work on the other side now, helping people who were once like me, watching employment providers and training organisations raping taxpayers, treating welfare recipients like cash cows, using every trick in the book to squeeze more money out of the welfare system as they target 'dole bludgers' when the real problem (or 'opportunity' as the Libs would call it) is the chain of profit organisations overseeing welfare recipients, sucking the teat, their hands out every step of the way. Fees to administer welfare cards directed straight back into Liberal coffers, politicians wives owning job network providers.
I feel angry. Really fucking angry. And really fucking depressed that they have no semblance of human decency in them. Liars, pigs, scum, the lot.