Please note: this article discusses suicide and suicidal ideation. For advice and support around these issues in Australia, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or click here
In 2018 a friend of mine, K, called me to say he was going to kill himself that weekend. This was not the first time we had had this conversation, but it was the first time he’d given me a specific reason other than the day-to-day travails of trauma, poverty, and illness. He’d had a time of it, he told me, with Centrelink.
K had been targeted by robodebt, the automated debt collection scheme implemented by the Australian Government in 2016. What this meant was that the country's welfare support agency, Centrelink, had done an automated reassessment of K’s social security payments over several years, decided he’d been overpaid by several thousand dollars, and demanded immediate repayment. Either that, or he had to produce contradicting evidence dating back to 2011 to clear himself of the accusation of theft.
My friend, who had spent those seven years in and out of hospital and perpetually between jobs, was not capable of unshackling himself from the government’s irons. He kept no paperwork. His past was blurry. He is a person who has to continually move on and leave no trace of his history to permit himself to continue living.
“I’ve never seen $10K in my life,” he said over the phone, inexplicably laughing.
He could see only one way to free himself of this insurmountable debt.
Luckily, his loved ones intervened. My friend is still alive, and we are able to recall this episode with what they describe as “bemused rage.” But I can’t stop thinking of those who aren’t still alive. Those whose rage, like debt, has been transferred onto their next of kin.
On November 16th the Australian government agreed to a $1.2 billion settlement for a class action brought against them on behalf of the victims of robodebt, just as the case was due to begin in Federal Court. That comes out to roughly $300 worth of compensation per participant.
As part of the settlement, the government did not admit to any liability or knowledge of the scheme’s unlawfulness, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison denies blame for the policy’s failures—failures that were innumerable and incomprehensibly damaging.
Morrison certainly shoulders some degree of guilt, as he was the social services minister when the scheme was designed as a money making cash-grab for the-then Turnbull government. He made the scheme a priority as treasurer, and continued to do so as Prime Minister. Robodebt guaranteed a surplus, we were told. It was key to getting us “back in black.”
By the time the scheme was called off, we were back in black alright. Mourning garb.
The automated system fawned over by Morrison, Alan Tudge, and Christian Porter shot some 470,000 unlawful debt notices into the lives of vulnerable and innocent Australians, leaving violent exit wounds of grief, stress, trauma and, inevitably, suicide.
It is impossible to determine how many suicides were caused as a direct result of robodebt. According to data from the Department of Human Services and circulated by the ABC, some 2,030 people died after receiving a Centrelink debt notice. The Saturday Paper later analysed this claim, however, and concluded the number was just five.
In any case, during the Senate inquiry in July, secretary of the Department of Social Services Kathryn Campbell, who had headed the department responsible for robodebt, denied the idea that robodebt had led to any deaths.
“Chair, I do not accept those assertions that are being made, they are not correct,” she said. “We have apologised for the hurt and harm but none of us can imagine what goes on in individuals’ lives.”
That lack of imagination is the key to robodebt’s icy meanness. I can speak directly to that, because I’m fluent in the “special language” of suicide. I’ve been previously diagnosed with depression, among other things, and I struggle with suicidal ideation on a regular basis.
I have also spent the past eight or so years on and off the dole. I’ve crawled over glass for a disability employment agency. I’ve had clerical errors rob me of thousands of dollars. I’ve had the long humiliating conversations with work experts and job councillors who ask why a bright young so-and-so can’t get employed during a record-shattering recession, and I’ve replied “no” when asked if I’d consider moving six hours from my friends, family, and doctors to pick apples for minimum wage in a place I can’t point to on a map.
As a bilingual pilgrim with a passport from each of these states I am here to tell you that the languages of suicide and Centrelink share more than a few diphthongs.
Social services, as mutated by Scott Morrison and his merry band, is an exhausting slog of cruelty and inhumanity by design. It is trench warfare: slow, gruelling, and existentially grim—designed to keep you in place, and make you give up. Robodebt, then, was kind of the mustard gas to mutual obligations’ machine gun carnage. You don’t cook up mustard gas without knowing its effect, and without knowing that you’re probably, most definitely, breaking a few rules.
Robodebt left those it struck dead or maimed, and those who witnessed it terrified. I spent my past few years on the dole certain that I would receive robodebt, and in that certainty was another: that if I did, I’d kill myself.
I know I was not alone in this feeling. I had friends avoid government support entirely for fear of making a clerical error that would, in the long run, ruin their already fragile lives.
Others who were on the dole were hit by robodebt, and hit hard.
“I was living alone in a hole in the wall flat in Bathurst, fresh off a mental health episode and a trip to the ward,” M, an artist friend on the east coast, told me over messenger. “I was being given three to six hours a week at work due to my inability to function, so of course I had to make my way to dreaded Centrelink.”
M continued their story:
“Enter robodebt. My account had been flagged for ‘inconsistencies’ and they required payslips as far back as 2007. One of the bosses I was asked to get a payslip from had discharged a shotgun into his mouth circa 2010 but alas, this was not a valid reason for my inability to get the needed paperwork. I filled out a form detailing why it was impossible to track down these employers and waited. Claim rejected. I don’t know how I made it through those times.”
M’s mental health was shattered by the debt notice; the expensive gains made through treatment and medication lost in an instant.
Other friends, less vulnerable than M, were likewise brought to the brink of self destruction. G’s “debt” stemmed from her time working as a sessional academic in 2011.
“I knew it was coming because several of my colleagues from that time had also received them, but when I got the MyGov notification four days before Christmas in 2016 it was still an incredibly stressful moment,” she told me over email.
“The Centrelink offices were closed over the holiday period, cutting into the deadline I was given to pay the debt. It took roughly two months for me to ‘prove’ to Centrelink what was on face value an obvious error in data management. Two months of stress, panic, anxiety, frustration, shame and a sense of deep injustice that I still feel. It’s ruined my trust in any government run by the people who put this obviously punitive and dangerously incompetent scheme together.”
The effect of this distrust, this bureaucratic sword of Damocles hanging over your head when you are at your most vulnerable, at the mercy of a machine that is hard to grasp when you’re sane and healthy, let alone unwell and desperate, is a form of psychic shock that can’t be easily quantified or cured.
For my friend K, the debt notice became a dumbo feather. It gave him the drive to take that final leap into oblivion. He, luckily, was caught by the timeworn safety net of family and community. Others don’t necessarily share that privilege.
For me, robodebt has been a reminder of how the government sees me as a useless disabled outcast: burdensome, irritating, expendable.
These stories are just some of thousands that differ only in how the victims survived, or whether they did. Some, like Jarrad Madgwick and Rhys Cauzzo, did not. Their deaths lay directly at the feet of the government and the architects of the robodebt scheme—chief among them: Scott Morrison.
Morrison, who last year announced that he wants Australia’s high suicide rate reduced to zero, seems incapable of comprehending the fact that the government’s monumental hand is gripped tightly on the rudder of a person’s suicidal ideation.
The government applied a blanket hurt to people’s whose suffering is, in their own words, unimaginable. In that lack of imagination is a great and dangerous ignorance as to how suicide works, how it happens, and how it speaks its language.
Patrick is on Twitter
For advice and support around depression and suicide, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or click here