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Where is Compassion and Concern for Dignity in the Centrelink Debt Collection Debacle?

19 January 2017
Kasy Chambers
ABC Religion and Ethics

In the social services sector, religious voices are significant because faith-based organisations tend to be informed by values of justice, thus informing our choice of vocation.

While we might not always use explicit language about our faith traditions in efforts to be inclusive of all, the recent Centrelink Automated Debt Collection debaclehas strongly reminded us of some of the biblical stories underpinning our advocacy.

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In the Bible, there are hundreds of passages, psalms, Gospel stories and references to debt, justice, the poor and the underdog. The most vulnerable are the favoured ones in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Matthew 25: 33-36 gives a particularly visual illustration to the human call to justice:

"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."

The Gospel of the Australian Government, needless to say, seems rather different.

Now, Anglicare Australia is not simply a naive service provider that doesn't understand how the economy works. While we wouldn't expect the government of a secular democracy to necessarily pay heed to Gospel values, the current system seems to actually be the antithesis of what Matthew 25 and other stories from ours and other traditions try to communicate.

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The problems around the Centrelink data matching project were known well ahead of the government's automated roll out around Christmas. If there is any time of the year when the poor are doing it tough, Christmas is usually that time. Christmas is also the time that some charity and advocacy groups shut down, adding an extra layer to the stress experienced as a result.

In essence, it is the failure to take the impact of these processes seriously which concerns us.

While we certainly believe that people should pay the tax they owe, and get income support and other government allowances as they need and are entitled to, we would expect government and its agents to treat the people affected with respect.

We acknowledge that mistakes will be made in these as in all complex systems. However, it reflects poorly on Government Ministers who reject out of hand the evidence of complexity, inaccuracy and distress that are the result of the adoption of this clumsy automated approach.

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Kasy Chambers is Executive Director of Anglicare Australia.

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