Centrelink Rockhampton.
Centrelink Rockhampton.

OPINION: COVID-19 is no excuse for Centrelink failure

The Government's claim that coronavirus broke MyGov and other Centrelink services will strike anyone who's had to use them as a massive misrepresentation.

Whether for reasons of unemployment or parenting, disability or age, a significant percentage of Australians rely on Centrelink and other, related job seeking or disability services which have been demonstrably broken for ages.

I spent four, scary years wavering between under and unemployment and I can say, hand on heart, that dealing with Centrelink and the JSAs was more traumatic than dealing with the bully bosses who forced me out of full-time work in the first instance.

It would only be a slight exaggeration to say the very sight of those buildings along Musgrave Street in North Rockhampton brings me out in hives.

Unless you've been living under a rock of inordinate privilege, you would know that clients often spend upward of an hour waiting for a government employee to answer the phone.

(In the bad old days when I had a prepaid mobile, there were times I ran out of phone credit I couldn't afford to renew because I was waiting to hear from Centrelink regarding a missing payment.)

What you might not know is that the rot runs much, much deeper.

Take the people who are required to work for the dole, for example. They receive SMS alerts they are to attend a meeting at their jobseeking agencies at a given time and date.

I stopped counting the number of times I was alerted to an appointment the next day which simply didn't exist, but they would have averaged once a month or more.

Having taken a bus across town on a day when I could have been sending job applications from the local library's computer pool, I was informed I wasn't in the calendar so I might as well just go home.

On half those occasions, I was later deemed negligent for having missed the same meeting that didn't exist in the first place and my payments were suspended.

I was also deemed MIA for meetings which I did attend.

There were other times I was told to take a seat and wait for someone, and sat there for an hour before I was told I was supposed to be in a meeting in the next room over, a meeting about being "job ready".

And there was the time I attended said "job ready" meeting in which some tradies who'd driven down from Mount Morgan and I were subjected to an hour's lecture by an emaciated Goth who kept twiddling her nose ring, on how "youse" should wear decent clothes and "youse" should sit up straight during a job interview.

(Presumably, if "youse" wanted to make a decent impression, then "youse" wouldn't say 'youse"?)

There is a jobseeking agency on Musgrave St which didn't have toilet access for clients. Staff told anyone who asked that they should walk across the highway to Northside Plaza.

Now, I can't speak for the gentlemen but I know of various reasons it's ideal for us ladies to have easy access to the loo, and scampering across a busy highway isn't the safest way to get there.

And the toilet at Centrelink, last time I looked, has to be unlocked by a security guard which I guess has something to do with preventing 'outsiders' from accessing it.

Where I worked in Asia 20 years ago, the Government required the owners of every building over two storeys high to provide the public with free, clean toilet access.

Surely, if there's one place in Rockhampton to offer the same, it would be the building supposedly dedicated to serving the social good.

Then there's the whole sticky matter of reporting whatever income you do receive while on the dole that's at the heart of this Robodebt fiasco.

Every fortnight, a Centrelink client has to go online and report their previous fortnight's earnings. Actually, what the form said was "how much money did you receive for working the last fortnight?" which, when you think about it, is an entirely different question.

When you accept casual work or a short-term contract, you often do so without knowing your precise hourly rate while the employer sorts your paperwork out. Casual rates can vary widely depending on whether you work weekends, for example.

Centrelink also demands that you enter your gross earnings which you don't know if you haven't received a pay statement yet.

So in the event I got paid for the first fortnight of a contract after its reporting date, I did what I considered the logical thing and declared no money received during that fortnight.

Obviously, that would "come out in the wash" the fortnight after I concluded the contract when I declared two weeks income despite having finished going to work.

In other words, my declared income was entirely consistent with my banking records.

But the problem is, Centrelink conflated hours worked with money received. Their system demanded I enter income commensurate with the number of hours I'd been employed the last fortnight, regardless I didn't know the amount and hadn't yet received it.

And that, I suspect, is how they arrived at the conclusion that hundreds of thousands of Australians like me were essentially lying to them about their earnings, and decided to claw the money back.

But, strangely, I was docked precisely the same dollar amount as about a dozen other people I know regardless we all reported different earnings over different periods of time.

It was almost as if someone decided to slug as many of us as they could get away with an unemployment tax.

I completely understand why this Robodebt drove some people, already far too ­marginalised, that final step over the edge.

The same thoughtless, illogical system - the crappy software which scheduled bogus meetings, the under-resourced staff who can't get to the phone, the lack of basic amenities - which has caused so many Australians to come so close to having a full-blown public meltdown has not, in fact, had a recent meltdown in response to the pandemic.

What's happened is the people it claims to serve have swiftly swelled in number and those people stretched around the block, at precisely the time they should be safe at home, are experiencing, perhaps for the first time, what it's like to be treated like second-class citizens.

People who go through this regularly have been screaming for years that our social services are broken and Australia's most vulnerable are rendered doubly vulnerable because it takes far too much effort and energy to dredge from the Government the pittance they are entitled to.

The only thing that's changed, in recent days, is that people who deem themselves "decent" and "hardworking" have joined their numbers and are frankly shocked to face a Government system which they can't reconcile with the notion we live in a first-world nation.