A series of “minor technical malfunctions” has left the Morrison Government red-faced over its new “robot-debt” method of collecting overpayments from the millions of Australians who are welfare sheets.
The Bug can reveal it has evidence that one so-called “malfunction” almost proved fatal in one case and has left other families traumatised and in need of counselling.
This newspaper first broke the exclusive story on Saturday when Government Services Minister Stuart Robert revealed that the controversial “robodebt” method of reclaiming Centrelink overpayments through letters threatening heavy-handed and costly legal action would be replaced by personal visits by robots programmed to recover the debts at the welfare cheats’ homes.
With the nation’s welfare bill ballooning, the minister explained the robots were allowed to “use an appropriate level of physical force” to recover the Centrelink debts.
It’s all part of what Prime Minister Scott Morrison has described this weekend as a “compassionate conservative” welfare agenda.
Compassionate conservatism is an American political philosophy that seeks policies designed to help the disadvantaged and alleviate poverty through the free market, envisaging a triangular relationship between government, charities and faith-based organisations. Former US President George W Bush commonly used the term to describe his personal views. The term has also been used by former UK Prime Minister David Cameron and former New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.
Mr Robert claimed this morning he had not heard of any such negative outcomes from robot visits to date. Indeed, he boasted on Saturday in his exclusive interview with The Bug that the robot visits had proved an outstanding success in terms of recovering claimed over-payments to help the nation’s bottom line and secure permanent Budget surpluses.
The Bug understands that the problems relate to other functions the robots undertake, including the drawing of blood and tissue samples during the interview process.
This paper understands that while it was true that on a number of occasions, the robots had successfully pinned welfare cheats against living room, hallway or kitchen walls and had obtained bank account details to recover overpayments, the robot’s extending hydraulic arm containing the hypodermic needle to obtain a blood sample and the drill head to grab a biopsy plug for analysis malfunctioned badly.
The Bug understands the collection of the blood and tissue samples is a necessary part of the government’s “compassionate conservative” agenda to ensure welfare spending is kept under control.
“Clearly we want people to get off drugs and alcohol to give them a better chance to grab one of the millions of jobs the Morrison government has created in recent times,” said Mr Robert of the blood tests.
“The tissue samples allow us to determine who might be prone to incurable diseases as they age. These bludgers are provided with details of euthanasia support groups in states that now allow assisted dying.
“We know Baby Boomers are an unselfish lot who would never want to be a burden on a society that has been so good to them and would be more than happy to ‘get in early’, so to speak.”
One robot victim was Thelma Ridgeway of Raymond Terrace near Newcastle who told The Bug a robot-debt collector had come to her door on Friday to discuss an alleged Cenrelink overpayment of $23,000.
“The robot had me by the throat, claiming the overpayment referred to a short stint I did in a local restaurant some months ago. It was only an internship and the work was far too hard for me anyway seeing I’m 64.”
Mrs Ridgeway said that as she was explaining to the robot that she had no cash to pay the arrears and was attempting to hand over the keys to her 2017 Holden Barina “this panel opened up in the robot’s chestplate and this hydraulic arm rushed out at me”.
“I felt an enormous pain below my left breast. It made a terrible drilling-type noise and I thought it was going to go straight through me. There was blood everywhere.”
The robot bolted and family members rushed her to Newcastle General Hospital where doctors told her she was lucky to still have her car.
Another family on the other side of the nation has told The Bug a robot-debt call in Fremantle turned ugly when the robot mistook a 14-year-old family member for the Centrelink client it was supposed to interview.
Senior members of the Ferryland clan said their beloved family member was badly injured during the “interview” process.
Mrs Sandra Ferryland told The Bug: “I just hope to God someone’s going to have the guts to come forward, admit liability and pay Fluffy’s vet bill.”
Mr Robert finally admitted that he may now know of these incidents and several other cases but that these “minor technical malfunctions” would be addressed and resolved quickly. The Perth incident showed that the robot’s facial recognition software obviously needed “minor tinkering”, he added.
We had more questions for the minister but he looked at his Rolex watch, shouted: “My goodness is that the time?” and left quickly through a side door.