The story of how the Australian government screwed its most vulnerable people


 In 2016, the Australian government began automating welfare back payments. What happened next was an absolute disaster.

This article appears in VICE Magazine’s Algorithms issue, which investigates the rules that govern our society, and what happens when they’re broken.

In a typical fictional dystopia, one might find a few common features: a bureaucratic government, a malevolent computer program, and an isolated and fearful public.

A version of this scenario took place in Australia between 2016, when the conservative-leaning government automated its system for raising debts against people who had received government assistance and allegedly been overpaid, and this year, when the government pledged to pay back $721 million that it stole from nearly 400,000 of the country’s most vulnerable people. In total, more than 700,000 Australians received letters notifying them that the system had identified a debt that they owed, unless they could prove otherwise.

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