And yet, it seems, the beauty of robo-debt was that nobody actually did it. It was robo-calculated, robo-escorted though government, robo-executed, robo-f—ed up. Robo-debt, if you listened to departmental secretaries Kathryn Campbell and Finn Pratt when they appeared at the commission, came about pretty much of its own robo-volition. It was administered not by humans but by a robo-public service. The grammatical preference of all involved is the passive voice: legal advice “was produced” and “was left” in draft form because, inconveniently, it said the scheme was illegal. Documents “were not seen”. Calculated risks “were taken”. Outcomes “were regrettable” (if not actually regretted). These sentences, appropriately for a robo-scheme, are devoid of human subjects or even human life.
All it needed was robo-welfare cheats to automatically process and repay their robo-debts. But people – at the bottom end of the chain – were the weak link. They let the whole thing down. Rhys James was not a robot, just a young man suffering from depression who broke free from welfare dependence to work for a florist and attend university, yet then he received seven robo-demands in seven weeks in 2016 for a fictitious debt of $17,319.58. He died by suicide three weeks after the last letter.
Jarrad Madgwick was also a human. An “Automated Compliance” process cut off his Newstart allowance until he repaid a fictitious debt of $2000. He took his own life just before he was due for a job interview with the army. If only Rhys and Jarrad and more than 2000 other people who died while being chased by robo-debt demands were themselves robo-recipients, the system would have worked perfectly.
Labor did make a branding statement by setting up the royal commission, as if to say this kind of thing could only happen under a Coalition government (even though it was a Labor government, in 1991, that first used tax office income-matching to “catch” welfare “cheats”). If the commission has made anything clear, it is that the mechanisms (another robo-word) that enabled this scandal to occur (more passive voice) were and are deeply embedded in our systems of governance (as a robot would say).
The weasel words and the elaborate confusions Commissioner Holmes has had to listen to could be any large corporation, private or public. It is the world we live in, anonymously and autonomously “constructed” around us, and not about to vanish just because there has been a change of government.
The more the commission uncovers, the more you reach the conclusion that this is the worst dog act an Australian government can perpetrate on its own people. Yes, governments do have a responsibility to minimise welfare cheating (though they might also like to crack down on corporate welfare cheating while they’re at it). But to mobilise sophisticated machinery which bears no fingerprints against society’s most unfortunate – the gutlessness of it has to be seen to be believed, and Holmes’ job is to keep us seeing it until we do believe it.
The lack of “cut-through” is a consumerist fallacy. The robo-debt scandal did not affect middle-class people who read their mail and own computers and know how to defend their rights. The scandal did not affect companies and individuals who routinely cheat the commonwealth through availing themselves of the full menu of middle-class lurks.
When we talk about widespread cut-through, what we mean is cut-through to that middle-class audience which consumes news and offers feedback that shapes public policy. But the Australia-wide middle-class bubble, like the Canberra bubble, is exactly what made robo-debt possible in the first place. That’s because it let them think that only penny-ante welfare cheats skimming off 50 or 60 bucks a week in Centrelink payments were going to be held to account, and they probably deserved it.
This ignorance, indifference and callousness is what you would expect from robots, whose sole purpose is to shield actual persons from responsibility. They kind of did their bit in shielding us from what our government does in our name. It’s not enough to make a show of blaming politicians or other individuals who were unfit for their jobs. A robo-system has no remorse and no shame, and its robo-memory ensures that it will repeat itself until some person – some human being – has the courage to switch it off.
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