More Than 2000 People Have Died After Receiving Centrelink’s Robodebt Letters

The Greens want to investigate, but the government says there's no link.

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Remember Centrelink’s disastrous robodebt program? Yesterday, we found out a pretty sobering fact about it: 2030 people died after receiving a robodebt letter between July 2016 and October 2018.

The new data was released by the Department of Human Services yesterday in response to a question asked by Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, who described the numbers as “disturbing”. Human Services Minister Michael Keenan has stressed that the numbers do not suggest that the robodebt letters caused or contributed to these people’s deaths, but the numbers still raise some pretty important concerns.

According to the data, 429 of the people who died were between 15 and 35 years of age. As Triple J Hack has pointed out, a total of 3139 people aged 15-35 died in the year 2016. We don’t currently have the data that would tell us whether more young people than average are dying after receiving robodebt letters, but the numbers suggest that it’s worth looking into.

Also concerning is the fact that 663 of the people who died were marked as “vulnerable” in the Centrelink system, a category which includes people struggling with mental illness, addiction or domestic violence.

While Keenan is right in saying that these numbers don’t demonstrate any kind of causal link between receiving a robodebt letter and dying, Siewert has called for the department to investigate further. After all, there have been widespread reports of people feeling suicidal after receiving a robodebt notice from Centrelink. In 2017, the Centrelink Twitter account started referring people to Lifeline. If thousands of people — including hundreds of young people and people Centrelink itself has marked as vulnerable — have died after receiving these notices, it seems pretty obvious that we should be investigating.

Michael Keenan, for his part, is so far trying to insist that there’s nothing to look into. Yesterday afternoon, Keenan said that the 2030 deaths had to be considered in the context of the 925,728 robodebt notices sent out in total over that period, putting the death rate at 0.21 percent. “This rate was more than 10 times lower than the overall death rate for all of the Department’s customers during the same period, which was 3.64 percent,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Keenan’s own figures also need to be considered in context, though. When he refers to the death rate for “all the Department’s customers” he’s talking about a group that includes everyone receiving Centrelink, including a significant group of aged pensioners, who would understandably have a higher-than-average rate of death.

It’s still possible that the rate of death for people impacted by the robodebt scheme isn’t out of the ordinary, and it’s possible that the robodebt letters had nothing to do with the 2030 deaths that occurred from 2016 to 2018. It would be much better to know that for sure, though, and we’ll only know if someone looks into it further.