(Image: Unsplash/Melissa Walker)

What is robodebt?

Robodebt is the common name given to the Online Compliance Intervention, an automated debt recovery program that was introduced by the federal government in mid-2016.

The robodebt system was originally introduced in an attempt to ensure recipients of Centrelink benefits were not under-reporting their income and, as a result, over-receiving welfare payments. 

The Department of Human Services, which is responsible for Centrelink, holds a computer system that compiles data from the Australian Taxation Office alongside the details submitted to Centrelink by those claiming payments.

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The system is designed to cross-check individuals’ reported earnings with the amounts reported by a recipient’s employer. Ultimately, the system exists to calculate the benefits that people are entitled to. 

The robodebt system that was introduced in 2016 really came into action when the automated process detected a discrepancy between the income reported by a Centrelink recipient and the income reported by their employer. 

Before the automated system was initiated, a Centrelink Officer would carry out an investigation before sending a letter to the person in question asking them to provide further details with their activity statement.

However, from July 2016, the automated system meant that a computer generated and sent debt collection letters requesting further details from recipients. Before the robodebt system began in 2016, there was an average of 20,000 interventions per year; with the introduction of the robodebt system, this number increased to 20,000 interventions per week. 

There have been calls to halt the automated system since December 2016, due to the number of errors and misjudgements found within, and by, the system. The Department of Human Services stopped a key part of the scheme last year — the controversial ‘income averaging’ process — and last week, the government said it would repay at least $720 million to welfare recipients affected by the controversial scheme.

Read: What public servants knew — and when they knew it — needs robodebt inquiry

How do you know if you have an unlawful robodebt?

As explained by Victoria Legal Aid, not all Centrelink debt is an unlawful robodebt. A Centrelink debt may be an unlawful robodebt if you: 

  • were told there had been a data match with the Australian Tax Office in relation to your income;
  • were asked to provide payslips or bank statements
  • did not provide that information (or all of the information requested).
(Image: Victoria Legal Aid)