This has been such a disturbing experience.
Recently, I wrote an article critical of Centrelink’s debt collection processes based on my personal experiences. That article is here. It was written with the intention of drawing people’s attention to how impenetrable the debt collection process can be and also, to encourage women to consider fighting against ‘sexually transmitted debt’.
Paul Malone, writing for Canberra Times, has since obtained personal information from my Centrelink file (I’m still not sure how privacy legislation allows this) in order to write an article about my story from the government’s perspective. The article is optimistically titled, “Centrelink is an easy target for complaints but there are two sides to every story”.
It seems the story most neglected is not the helpless ‘client’ of Centrelink, so often powerless in the face of an enormous bureaucratic machine, but the Centrelink machine, itself.
I am incredibly reluctant to go further into my personal details but here we are.
Among the problems I have with Malone’s article:
The agency says Ms Fox’s debt is a Family Tax Benefit (FTB) debt for the 2011-12 financial year which arose after she received more FTB than she was entitled to because she under-estimated her family income for that year.
As I outlined in my article, when your ex does not lodge his tax return for a year in which you received the Family Tax Benefit it seems your family income will be classified ‘under-estimated’, and consequently, you, who filed a tax return may be required to pay the tax benefit back. My article drew attention to the ways in which this can penalise women.
The original debt was raised because she and her ex-partner did not lodge a tax return or confirm their income information for 2011-12.
My tax returns were up to date before I learned of a Centrelink debt and said tax returns noted my new status as a single parent.
However, it is true that I filed my own tax return late that particular year, the circumstances behind this were subsequently shared fully with Centrelink. Given the nature of those circumstances, I am under the impression that my late tax return was forgiven. I will not be sharing those details, but I will note that the extreme sensitivity of factors considered by Centrelink for pardoning late returns includes such things as serious domestic violence and so, I would urge journalists to tread very carefully in this space.
Centrelink says that after Ms Fox notified the department that she had separated from her partner, the debt due to her partner’s non-lodgement was cancelled.
This feels somewhat disingenuous to me. The fine was finally cancelled by Centrelink after acknowledging that their previous decision to impose the debt on me had been a mistake. My notes indicate the process I had to go through took more than 12 months. That seems long to me, and arduous (it included insisting upon a review of my case) – it seems worthy of an article, which is why I wrote it.
But Centrelink general manager Hank Jongen says Centrelink made numerous attempts to get in touch with Ms Fox via phone and letter but many of these attempts were left unanswered.
During the process the department and I discovered they had old contact details for me. This has been a common story across many Centrelink debt stories with false debts escalating to debt collectors before people even realise they have a Centrelinke debt.
You would think a combination of my taking a day off work to visit Centrelink and following that, spending hours on the phone with Centrelink, would be evidence of a desire to both understand the debts and to resolve them. That I remain, to this day, confused about elements of both is a sign not of my disengagement but of a very complicated, demoralising and problem-ridden process.
However, I would also like to acknowledge the efforts of a couple of individual Centrelink staff members. Due to an editorial decision about word length their supportive comments were not included in my article. But I would note that they sounded almost as sad about the frustrations I was experiencing with Centrelink as I was, and in the end I couldn’t help but think we were all trapped in a kind of maddening maze.
Thank you, also, to the lawyers who came forward with suggestions after reading my article. All my love to those who work in this system and who wish for the system to work justly.
Something is going very, very wrong in government policy at the moment. But I am filled with hope because it has also brought out some very, very good people.
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“I feel I can give you everything without giving myself away, I whispered in your basement bed. If one does one’s solitude right, this is the prize.” – Maggie Nelson
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Good arguments here from Cristy Clark in Overland as a response to Deveny’s ‘financial abortion’ article.
To start with, this argument completely ignores the rights of the child. According to articles 7–9 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children have the right to know and have a connection to their parents. Exceptions are provided for situations where ‘separation is necessary for the best interests of the child’, but a man’s desire to avoid child support payments doesn’t qualify. Even in cases when separation is warranted, it is rarely permanent in nature, leaving the door open for personal growth and renewed connection.
But the main problem with Deveny’s argument is that it buys into the neoliberal narrative of individual choice by completely ignoring the broader structural issues that fundamentally constrain women’s choices. The reality is that too many pregnant women already face a stark decision to undergo a medical termination or to risk a life of increased poverty and structural discrimination. While some women will opt to have an abortion (which, by the way, is still a criminal offence in much of Australia), termination should not be the only available option for women to avoid systematic disadvantage.
Just as we should fight for the rights of those women who want access to safe, accessible and affordable abortion, we should also be fighting for the rights of women who instead choose to carry their pregnancies to term. If not, we are punishing women for not having an abortion when a man wanted them to, and that reeks of the kind of coercive control that has no place in the feminist movement.
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JF: I find it interesting you say wild behavior or irrational behavior, but you don’t say things like evil. Do you believe in evil?
HG: Yes, but I think think people have recourse to the word evil much too quickly when they’re talking about terrible behavior. I’ve given this a lot of thought, because when I wrote that book This House of Grief about the man who killed his three children, I was surprised to find how many people would ask me what I was working on. I would say I’m writing about Robert Farquharson, and they would look shocked and disapproving and say, Why? Why are you writing about him? I’d say, Well, there are obvious reasons why you’d want to write about a murderer, and people would get angry with me. They’d say, What sort of bloke was he? How does he strike you? I would start to describe his life and his formation as a person, and at a certain point the person’s face would harden and say, You’re making excuses, with this accusing gesture. I got used to that. It happened to me very often; it was a very frequent thing.
I realized that people protect themselves against thinking about stories like that by saying,This man is evil, therefore I don’t want to think about him, and nothing that he’s done is connected in me in any way. There is no darkness in me that could possibly connect with the darkness in him. People would say to me, Was he mentally ill, or was he just pure evil? There were these simple concepts you could slot into place to make it possible to contemplate such a person. And so I got less and less interested in the term evil as a way of talking about human behavior. Because it’s really a way of blotting it out. Stopping yourself from having to think about it.
From “Helen Garner on Court, Burning Diaries and Violence of Love”, in an interview with John Freeman in LitHub.
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Even airports are more relaxed on Sunday mornings. The place is full, but no one is running across from the carpark or pushing their way to the front of the queue.
‘Wish I was getting on a plane and going to Spain,’ I say.
‘Well,’ the mister says, ‘Come through Abu Dhabi on the way and we can go to Spain.’
‘Oh, no, I want to go alone.’
He laughs. It is a proper laugh and I wonder how he does it. How he loves a person who is so often absent, who so often retreats. It seems never to injure his love for me, never to bruise his heart.
Anyway, it isn’t true. I don’t want to go to Spain. The thought of that takes me by surprise, although the truth of it does not. It is time for me to be still. That’s why I’m here, isn’t it? That’s why I’ve moved back to Adelaide. To bury my roots in something more than sand.
From writer, Tracy Crisp in “Sunday” on her blog, naive psychologist.
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