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Alternative facts in the Centrelink debacle

2 February 2017
Kasy Chambers
Eureka Street

Over Christmas 2016 and the early weeks of 2017, Centrelink's new policy of automated online debt collection has been subject to conflicting reports, making us wonder what version of truth we might best believe.

The Minister and the department head are sticking to the assertion that everything is working fine. It would be surprising if these assertions were deliberate lies.

Yet there is another version of the truth, and it is compelling. It is seen in the growing list of people talking publicly about the distress caused to them by being falsely tageted. The journalists who are prosecuting this side of the argument are not fools, and it is hard to see that the Commonwealth Ombudsman would start an investigation if there weren't some reasonably sonorous alarm bells.

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Until now humans have raised the debt notice after looking at the individual situation of each case. Automatic systems to date have been good at repetitive and routine decision making, leaving the humans to the more complex and individualised cases. The irony is not lost on us in the social services sector that the Department of Human Services is one of the first to step so far into automation.

Another difficulty with the process is that the adversarial manner that it set up is unlikely to allow Centrelink to learn from the cases it reviews.

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It may be that Centrelink has tried to run before it could walk in terms of technology and system design. It may be that in this culture of never admitting a mistake it will be difficult to back down and build a better process. Those facts and alternative facts will wash out in the next few weeks as Parliament returns, as Senate Inquiries are called, and as the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman publishes its findings.

In the meantime we are left with a fracture in the way we treat each other in this country and a lack of respect from a government to its citizens. And yet there is a swing in public sympathy towards those caught up in the mess: that offers some cause for optimism in what we can expect of our communities.

Kasy Chambers is Executive Director of Anglicare Australia.

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