This time last year, there was an emerging scandal for the Turnbull Government – the automated letters being sent to hundreds of thousands of people who had received social security seeking repayment of supposed debts worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Based on incomplete and often inconsistent information, a significant proportion of these notices were inaccurate, with many recipients owing nothing at all.
The ‘robo-debt’ letter program was nothing short of an omnishambles. Unfortunately, despite scathing assessments by both the Commonwealth Ombudsman and a Senate Inquiry, this scheme continues to this day.
Instead of targeting many of the most vulnerable members of the community, for debts they either don’t owe or can’t pay, there is one robo-debt letter that I think should be sent.
To a group of people that have cost Australian taxpayers a large amount of money, by failing to perform their most basic duties, and who definitely have the capacity to pay.
Dear Liberal and National Senators and Members of Parliament,
We are writing to seek repayment of a significant sum you owe to the people of Australia. This debt has been incurred due to your failure to fulfil the minimum responsibilities of your employment.
In August 2017, instead of voting on legislation in Parliament – which is, after all, what you are elected to do – you decided to outsource your obligations to the general public, by holding a postal survey about same-sex marriage.
Your postal survey was unnecessary. Unlike Ireland, there was absolutely no requirement for this process, which could at best be described as a voluntary, non-binding, national opinion poll.
Your postal survey was harmful. Exactly as the LGBTI community had told you it would be: “experiences of verbal and physical assaults more than doubled in the three months following the announcement of the postal survey compared with the prior six months”, while “more than 90% reported the postal vote had a negative impact on them to some degree.”
Your postal survey was unprecedented. Never before has an optional survey, run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, been used to cast judgement on the fundamental human rights of a minority group. It must never be used again.
Your postal survey was wasteful. Originally budgeted at $122 million, it apparently came in under budget – at just $80.5 million*. This is money that could have been spent on health. Or education. Or any number of government programs that actually benefit the Australian community.
The historic events of the past fortnight have merely confirmed this monumental waste. LGBTI marriage has finally been passed in both houses of Parliament – the places where this important change should have been made all along.
Indeed, Commonwealth Parliament is the only place where it could ever have been achieved.
You are one of 105 Coalition Members of Parliament elected at the 2016 federal election. Your personal share of responsibility for this debt, of $100 million, has been allocated equally.
Your estimated debt is $766,666.67. We seek your repayment within 30 days of receipt of this letter.
Responsibility for seats currently unoccupied due to dual citizenship-related ineligibility – Liberal Senator Stephen Parry, Nationals Senator Fiona Nash and Liberal MP John Alexander – will fall on their respective political parties.
We understand a small number of you have consistently opposed your Government’s proposals to hold a plebiscite and then, when that legislation was rejected by the Senate, to conduct a postal survey instead. We thank you for your principled position.
If you fall into this category, please supply evidence of your denunciation of these policies, following its announcement by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in August 2015, and during the plebiscite debate in the second half of 2016 and the postal survey debate in August 2017, both under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Once this evidence is received, you share of responsibility will also be allocated to your party’s head office.
It is possible some of you will feel aggrieved to receive this letter. If that is the case, please feel free to lodge a formal letter of complaint.
However, you should be aware we will give it the same level of consideration that you gave to the legitimate concerns expressed by the LGBTI community ahead of your decision to hold the postal ballot.
You should also consider yourselves lucky.
Lucky you are not having your wages deducted for all the years in parliament during which you failed to pass this most straight-forward of reforms (for some of you, stretching all the way back to the Howard Government’s original ban on marriage equality in 2004).
Lucky you are not being charged for all the time and expense wasted by LGBTI Australians, and our families, friends and allies, in having to fight for equal rights during your unjust, and unjustifiable, postal survey.
Lucky you will not have to pay damages for the emotional, mental and social harms you have caused by shirking your essential responsibilities and undertaking a bitter and divisive ‘vote’.
The LGBTI community was not so lucky. We were forced to wait more than 13 years for the equal recognition of our relationships. And then jump through hoops no-one else has ever been expected to negotiate.
We paid the price for your lack of leadership. Now it’s time for you to pay up.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, our families, friends and allies
*NB An earlier version of this article used the figure $100 million as the estimate announced by the ABS on the day the postal survey results were announced. On 8 December, Finance Minister Senator Mathias Cormann revealed the final cost to the Government was $80.5 million.