It all started when I began receiving calls from a debt collector, which I initially ignored. I knew I had no debt and that any request for personal details from a stranger was cause for suspicion. But after some time I gave in to the harassment – my curiosity got the better of me, and by then the calls were interrupting everything from work meetings to putting the children to bed.
And that was how I discovered I had a Centrelink debt.
I soon found out that to even ask the simplest question about a Centrelink debt requires you to throw yourself into a vortex of humiliating and frustrating bureaucratic procedures. Initially, I tried calling Centrelink during my lunch hour, but I would end up wandering the streets around work with the phone pressed to my ear, on hold, and be no further advanced in the phone queue by the end of the hour.
Eventually, I took a day off work to go into a Centrelink office, and there I discovered the full extent of its armoury against personal contact.
Terrorised by Centrelink, I began to behave as the bureaucracy saw me: angry, emotional, confused, dependent and idiotic. It does not matter that I am a full-time employed economist with several degrees, published books and articles, and security clearance for giving economic policy advice on secret government documents. Now, I was a welfare cheat.
The debt recovery operation currently being run by Centrelink using data matching has the extraordinarily high error rate of one in five. I doubt any private enterprise would be allowed to get away with these error rates for debt collection.
You would like to think that my story means at least the one in five errors are all being identified and eventually resolved, but it doesn't. Many of my fellow Centrelink "clients" will lack the assertiveness, confidence, energy and literacy I used to fight for my case. The errors in their debt will not be found. Money will be taken, wrongfully, from some of the very poorest people in this country. I guarantee you they are terrified.