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Be Heard! How to make a submission to the Senate Inquiry into ROBODEBT.

image of NMD submission template. it looks like the start of a letter.



Inquiry Update: Call For Further Submissions!

The new submission deadline is 17 September 2020.

The Senators still want to know about the original Terms of Reference; but a lot has changed, and now they really want to hear about:

  • the legal basis of the online compliance program;
  • Services Australia's progress in implementing the changes announced in November 2019; and
  • the impact that these changes have had on individuals, the community sector and Centrelink staff.

If you have already sent something in to this Senate inquiry but now have more to say, you can make a supplementary submission.





The Inquiry's title is: Centrelink's Compliance Program.

On 31 July 2019, the Senate referred an inquiry into Centrelink's compliance program to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee for inquiry.

The terms of reference for the inquiry are available here.
Submissions are sought by 20 September 2019 and can be uploaded herecommunity.affairs.sen [at] aph.gov.au (subject: submission%20to%20Senate%20Inquiry%20into%20Centrelink's%20compliance%20program) (emailed), or sent by snail mail.


Okay, so what is a Senate Inquiry – and why me?
And what do I do?


Step 1: Introduce yourself
Step 2: What do you want to say? Make notes.
Step 3: Get your notes to tell a story.
Step 4: Check it’s easy to read.
Step 5: Check formatting.


What is a Senate Inquiry - and why me?

A Senate Inquiry is a committee made up of Senators that sets aside time to investigate and discover the facts about an issue. They don't want it to get all waffly, so they decide in advance what topics it's going to look at, and no others: these are called the ‘Terms of Reference’ - which are framed as a series of questions. 

Anyone who has knowledge or experience relevant to the topic is invited to make a submission to the Inquiry: if you know something about the questions they’re investigating they need you to tell them about it so that they can understand it properly.

Contributing to a Senate Inquiry is much easier than you probably expect, but because it is a formal process you just have to make sure the t's are crossed and the i's have dots, so that your contribution will be accepted.

Your submission doesn’t need to be long — 4 pages is the absolute maximum length, and the shorter the better — but it must address the inquiry’s Terms of Reference. The Senators need to stay very focused on only those specific questions, so you do too.

Your submission can be public (published online so anyone can read it, with your name attached); anonymous (anyone can read it, but your name and other identifying info is taken out before it goes online); or confidential (only the Senators and their support staff will read it).

If you want your contribution to be anonymous or confidential, make sure you put that in big letters at the top of your first page. You’ll find a template at the end of this guide to use for some formatting when you’re finishing up; it’s for a confidential submission, but you can change that.

You can talk to the Committee’s support staff, the Secretariat, if you have any questions or concerns. They’re very kind and friendly on the phone, and part of their job is helping people get their submissions in.
Their number is 02 6277 3515.

Above all else be honest, and be aware that you are going on the record.
Be serious and careful, but not afraid.

Step 1: Introduce yourself

The Inquiry needs to know what qualifies you to advise them about this issue — if you have direct experience of Centrelink’s compliance program &/or debt collection practices, then you are very qualified to participate. 

You don’t have to put your name in the main part of your submission, but you do need to include it with your submission, and you need to tell them how you came to have your knowledge. You also need to directly mention the inquiry. If you’re not sure how to do that it’s okay to copy this sentence below.

I have knowledge of Centrelink’s compliance program because I…

Then tell them a little bit about your robodebt. If you’ve shared your story on our website, that’s a great place to start — but this bit can be as brief or as detailed as you choose; you might just decide to list the payment type and date range of your alleged overpayment and leave it at that.

Step 2: Work out which of the inquiry’s questions you will be giving information about, and make some notes

That’s what “addressing the Terms of Reference” means, really: answering one or more of their questions. You don’t need to answer all the questions, but you must answer at least one of them. 

Below are the Terms of Reference for this Inquiry, in everyday language. You can read the original version here.
Read through them, and when you get to one you know something about write down the question’s letter (a, d, e, & k seem most likely), and make some notes.

a    What impact does robodebt have on people who have received income support payments in the past? What impact does robodebt have on people who still receive income support payments?

b    What data-matching techniques are used by Centrelink to create robodebts? What are the limitations of these data-matching techniques, and what can’t they be clear about? What processes do these data-matching techniques use to manage errors?

c    What happens if someone was underpaid? How many times has the robodebt data-matching system found an error that was a credit not a debt? What happened?

d    Would it be better to prevent overpayment in the first place? When overpayments do happen, why do they happen? What would help? Will the new system for importing real-time wages data help?

e    Do Centrelink and the Department of Human Services have enough staff to run robodebt properly?

f    What is the error rate of the initial letters? What is the error rate of the debt notices? What causes these errors? When errors are found, what is done about them?

g    Is anything being done to prevent future errors?

h    How many initial letters have been sent out? How many debt notices have been sent out? How many debts have been recovered?

i    What is the review process for robodebts? What is the appeals process for robodebts? How many reviews and appeals have been carried out?

j    How do Centrelink and the Department of Human Services use debt collectors? Is this legal?

k    Did debt collectors come after your robodebt? What happened? What was that like?

l    How much has robodebt cost? How much money has it brought in, and how much money is it expected to bring in?


Step 3: Get your notes to tell a story

You’ve made notes of things you think the Senators need to know about Centrelink’s robodebt compliance process and debt collection practices. Now you just need to give it a bit of shape — not as hard as it sounds! Headings are a good idea.

First, divide the things from your list into groups based on common themes - such as: “problems reporting income to Centrelink”, “managing my budget”, “mental health”, “time off work”, “debt collectors”, etc.

Under your introduction, write a sentence or two describing your first topic. For example: 

When I found out about my robodebt I felt…

Asking for my robodebt to be reviewed was…

The impact of this robodebt on my mental health was…

The financial impacts of this robodebt were…

Then list or outline things from that topic. 

You can leave it as a simple list if you need to, or you can expand on some or all of your points under separate headings and give more detailed information.

Then do the same thing for your next topic… And the next… Until you’ve run out of topics.

Finally, you may like to wrap up your Submission with a broad concluding statement - perhaps with something like: 

In my experience, the Centrelink compliance program…

The ongoing impact of the Federal Government’s automated debt collection processes on Australians like me who are... is……

Or whatever fits what you’ve been talking about.

That’s your Submission! 

Now you will just need to tidy it up a little bit and do some double checking, so…


Step 4: Make sure it’s easy to read and touches the Terms of Reference

Read back through your story and make sure that it says what you want it to say. Check for any mistakes, and that it goes through everything in a logical order, from beginning to end.

If you have a friend or family member you trust and who is good with words, it’s a very good idea to ask them to help you with this part.
Even just a few (gentle) comments like “I’m not entirely sure I know what you mean in this bit, can you explain” or “I think you already mentioned this thing” can help you see it with fresh eyes.

Is it clear how your story connects to the Terms of Reference you’ve chosen?
Again, ask a friend!

You can also talk to the Committee’s support staff, the Secretariat, if you have any questions or concerns.
They’re very kind and friendly on the phone, and part of their job is helping people get their submissions in.


Step 5: Check formatting

  • have I used black writing on white paper? (for handwritten, typed and printed, and electronic submissions)

  • is the whole document typed in the same font or written in clear plain handwriting?

  • have I given my full name, address, and telephone number at either the top or bottom of my submission?

  • have I started with the name of the enquiry, and listed the terms of reference I'm addressing?

  • I want to remain anonymous — have I written CONFIDENTIAL at the top in big letters?

  • did I double check all the addressing details? 

  • have I saved it as a PDF, DOC, DOCX, or TXT document with a clear file name? (for both email and online portal)

  • Is my supporting documentation complete and either printed out clearly (if posting) or saved as a PDF, DOC, DOCX, or TXT document with a clear file name (for both email and online portal)?