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The rule of law applies to government too

19 March 2017
Kate Galloway
Eureka Street

While the rule of law arguably does assume citizens will obey the law, it also assumes government will behave lawfully. Further, it might be argued that the rule of law encompasses the principled application of government power. In this respect, the Australian government is itself falling well below adhering to the rule of law. I offer Centrelink #notmydebt as a case study.

The government's action on 'robo-debts' is well traversed. The Department of Human Services is attempting to recover what it says are overpayments made to Centrelink customers. To ascertain who has been 'overpaid', it uses a computer algorithm to compare a person's Centrelink payments with their tax return for the relevant period.

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The hurt in the community is palpable. Stories abound, including those collected on the #notmydebt website, of people who have suffered. Those who speak out in public are finding that the government is in turn publicly releasing that person's own personal information to 'set the record straight'.

The growth in the capacity of computing power now makes it possible for government to scan vast quantities of citizens' data in just this way. We are told the Centrelink process is doing the job it was designed to do — yet it does so without regard for what might be called due process in the exercise of government power.

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It is naïve at best to suggest that the robo-debt process is an efficient or effective financial management tool. Lengthy waiting periods for calls, and hours and hours of time spent by customers and their former employers locating old records to prove something that had long ago been dispensed with, are but two examples of lost productivity. Departmental staff report being under stress, there has already been a tragic loss of life of former Centrelink customers, and community legal centres are struggling to service the many who are seeking support.

But the biggest cost may well be the loss of faith in government service delivery, and especially, in government use of citizens' data. All this has stemmed not from the fact of citizens owing money to the government, but rather from the way in which the government is obtaining that money. Government must wield its power with care, lest it disturb the compact with its citizens. This is part of the rule of law, and in the words of Christopher Pyne, 'That's how our western democracy works.'