Wagga robodebt victim backs royal commission into Centrelink program over mental health harm

Wagga supermarket worker Danielle George, who has backed a royal commission into robodebt due to be told she owed Centrelink $40,000. Picture: Emma Hillier.
Wagga supermarket worker Danielle George, who has backed a royal commission into robodebt due to be told she owed Centrelink $40,000. Picture: Emma Hillier.

A former Centrelink client from Wagga has backed a royal commission into the 'robodebt' system due to the mental health harm she and others experienced after being wrongly told they owed thousands of dollars.

Danielle George, who currently works at a supermarket, said she went down into a "spiral" when she was wrongly accused of owing $40,000 back to the welfare agency.

"A lot of people were suicidal and going back to that time - I already suffer from bipolar and anxiety and depression - I recall it did put me into a spin and could have led to one of my breakdowns," she said.

"When I look back I think maybe that's why I did spiral at one point."

Federal Labor opposition leader Anthony Albanese has called for a royal commission into the creation and administration of robodebts to "ensure a debacle like this never happens again".

... it's really gambling with people's lives.

Danielle George

Miss George said she supported holding a royal commission because many of the people accused of having a debt to Centrelink were in a vulnerable position.

"People who don't have tools or medication or aren't looking after their mental health, if they were to get that kind of news it would be detrimental and almost life-threatening in a way," she said.

"They are already impoverished by health and wealth and they you say 'hey, you owe us this amount of money', it's really gambling with people's lives."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this week that the government had "no plans" for such an inquiry.

"We are aware of what the issue is and we're fixing the problem and we're getting the payments made and we're working through that process now. We're righting the issues," he said.

"Let's not forget what this issue is about is the use of income averaging as the primary reason for raising a debt. That is the same practice that was used by the Labor Party as has been used by the government."

The federal government enacted a program in 2016 that checked reported income from people claiming Centrelink payments against tax data generated by employers.

The program, labeled 'robodebt' by activists, was designed to prevent fraud but its method of averaging incomes soon resulted in thousands of people complaining they had been wrongfully indebted.

Miss George was told two years ago to pay $40,000 back to Centrelink after the agency used her retail wages over the busy Christmas period to estimate her entire year's earnings.

Centrelink later reduced the debt but insisted Miss George still pay back $3000 after she was unable to get copies of years-old payslips from her former employer.

Miss George said she was still waiting to hear from Centrelink to confirm that her debt will be wiped out and $2800 returned to her after the federal government gave up a legal fight over $721 million in robodebts.

Mr Morrison told Parliament earlier this month "I would apologise for any hurt or harm in the way that the Government has dealt with that issue and to anyone else who has found themselves in those situations".

Miss George said she heard the apology but it "didn't make it right".

"I did hear in the news that people did commit suicide over debts so he has got blood on his hands in a way," she said.

Labor Senator Deborah O'Neill said the repayments and the Prime Minister's "lackluster apology" were "not enough".

"We need an independent inquiry into the genesis and operation of this scheme," she said. "Australians deserve to know the truth and to know that this will never happen again."

Support is available for mental health issues by phoning Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 224 636.