Riddle Me This: Why Does Centrelink Get To Look Down On The People It’s Supposed To Serve?


Alex Vickery-Howe chronicles 21 years of failed government bureaucracy, or successful government tyranny.

It’s 2002. Cargo pants are big and so is wearing jeans under dresses. Harry Potter is battling Frodo Baggins at the box office, East Timor has gained independence, the International Criminal Court is shiny and new, George W. Bush is the worst US president in living memory (God, if only…), and Alex Vickery-Howe is getting shafted by Centrelink. Again.

The issue at hand is that my partner is British and receiving payments from home, which will affect my payments in Australia if we are in a de facto relationship. Centrelink decides that we’re not – we don’t share accounts, we don’t own property, we only live together a few days a week because my housemate is gloomy and creepy (a long story) – so all is well.

No, of course it isn’t….

Having decided we’re not a legal couple, due to her finances Centrelink nevertheless starts deducting money from my payments. I visit Centrelink just in time to watch a distraught teenage mother punch a staff member. Alarms ring. Security intervenes. I’m the next person in line. I smile as the staff member presses an ice pack to her jaw. I explain my situation. The staff member is not in a sympathetic mood.

Luckily for me, I have precisely one gift: snark. I type a letter explaining the law as haughtily as I can and post it around the corner, avoiding the dodgy guy up the street who always offers to give me lifts to uni (another long story).

Centrelink caves in. To this day, I argue that posted letters are their kryptonite.

It’s 2006. Neutral tones and ‘60s coats are in. I’ve got one. I look like Paddington Bear. Little Miss Sunshine has hit the box office and Bond is back in Casino Royale. Fidel Castro is losing his power in Cuba, Tony Blair is losing his power everywhere, North Korea is celebrating its first successful nuclear test (um, yay?), Saddam Hussein is about to be executed, and Alex Vickery-Howe is being shafted by Centrelink. Again.

I’m single now. Studying a master’s degree. I’ve decided that this might be an intelligent step in one’s life journey, as being a freelance actor in Sydney is… not an intelligent step in one’s life journey.

The guy behind the counter explains that I’m ineligible for a student allowance because a master’s degree is not covered by the government and I’m therefore not a student in their eyes. “Great,” I say, “… then I can be eligible for standard unemployment benefits, right?”

He shakes his head. “You can’t be unemployed. You’re a student.”

“But you just said I’m not a student?”

He nods. “You’re not.”

I try again. “So… I can be unemployed? I am unemployed!”

He stares. “No, you’re not… you’re a student.”

This man is The Riddler. Kryptonite won’t work on him.

After 20 minutes, he advises me solemnly that the smartest choice I can make for my future is to give up my master’s degree, go on unemployment benefits and look for a position at McDonald’s or Kmart.

I don’t do that.

Instead, I take part-time work in childcare while completing my master’s and living in a Housing Trust flat with a paranoid schizophrenic who thinks he’s an Italian maestro on one side, and a violent meth dealer on the other. Vandals start a fire in our bins, our building goes up in smoke, every major news station is called and I’m at work the next day – helping a bunch of kids who can’t swim stay afloat by climbing on my head – when a friend rings to say “Alex, did your flat burn down last night? I saw you in your pyjamas talking to some Italian guy…?!”

Admittedly, I can’t blame Centrelink for all of that.

It’s 2023. Barely. I find myself reading an article in The Guardian about Eve (a pseudonym), 74-years-old, working as a carer, who has recently discovered that she is dead. Legally, she’s deceased. Centrelink hasn’t gotten any smarter. They’re still dangerously dumb.

As I read Eve’s story – which begins as an absurd tale, bordering on comedic, and quickly becomes harrowing – I first roll my eyes (I’m told I do this too much) and then start clenching my fist. Surely, over 21 or more years, Centrelink could get its act together?

Don’t get me wrong, I feel we should all be grateful for the social safety net that living in Australia gives us. When I was working with performers from Japan in 2008 and invited them to watch Centrelink: The Musical they had a good time, but the main plot was lost on them: “Why does the government give you money?”

I don’t claim to be an expert on the Japanese welfare system circa 2008. My assumption is that it differed from what was being satirised on Australian stages at that time. It certainly gave me pause.

We’re lucky. It’s overused. It’s a cliché. But we are lucky. Australia does its best to protect its people. But Eve’s story is a reminder than the system needs reform.

Or take Phoebe Autumn’s story of suffering heatstroke in 34°C weather as she travelled for over an hour to attend a Centrelink appointment knowing a failure to comply would lead to her payments being revoked. This was following a heat spell where temperatures in Phoebe’s home city of Perth reached as high as 37°C. Young people must feel particularly aggrieved knowing that the governments that bully and chastise welfare recipients are the same governments that have failed to adequately address climate change, directly leading to these insane heatwaves.

At the risk of piling on the Boomers, I remember finding it – as a Gen X/Millennial cusp – really, really irritating that older people who’d enjoyed free education and comparatively breezy housing prices would expect my generation to lick kitchen scraps from their hands and thank them for such an honour. Even more irritating was the sight of the same pampered older people shaking their heads and calling me a ‘professional student’ and a ‘drain on the system’ while enjoying their pensions, or their favourable superannuation schemes.

Well, I earned my master’s degree without Centrelink, I paid off my undergraduate debt, I got a university scholarship in recognition of academic achievement, I completed my doctorate and I’m typing this while looking down on the city from the balcony I bought… so, look, McDonald’s is a perfectly respectable job – even though they need to bring back a vegetarian burger ASAP – but taking the government’s advice and giving up my ambitions would’ve been a pretty solid dead-end. In an ideal world, nobody else would be faced with these semi-comedic absurdities. Young people should never be told to aim lower.

In fairness to Boomers, the so-called ‘bank of Mum and Dad’ places undue stress on families too. Some families are poor. Some are fractured. Some are violent. It’s an utter nonsense – perpetuated by the economically and therefore truly privileged – to imply, let alone recommend, that parents should be obliged to step in because the system has so magnificently failed. I’ve said this before and I’ll keep screaming it until someone gives me a cookie.

My parents are fantastic. I’ve said this before too. Better get it in here or risk a stern phone call. They’re great. I mean, some of their friends dispensed awful advice (“Hey, give up uni and try a paper run!”; “Hey, don’t buy property when you’re young, you’ll regret it!”), but Mum and Dad have been enormously supportive, and I wouldn’t have been able to break into the property market at all without them acting as guarantor on my first loan (they’re risk-adverse, so it took some proper whinging from me, but we got there in the end). A lot of fortunate people have solid bonds with their parents. Lovely. That doesn’t mean the whole nation should run on this premise.

Robodebt was the pinnacle of Centrelink negligence and stupidity. Well, I’m crossing my fingers… it could get worse. After a Royal Commission into the Coalition’s (frankly, evil) fiasco, after a greasy ex-PM refused to show genuine contrition, after suicides and widespread mental anguish, you’d hope that Australia has learned to stop punishing the next generation and start encouraging them instead.

I’m not a Christian, but I was raised in a Lutheran Church, and I remember something about Jesus suggesting that treating others as you’d like to be treated, showing generosity, helping your fellow man etc was all good stuff. He put it in the instruction manual. It’s weird to me that Scott Morrison wasn’t reading the same book. Then again, he wasn’t exactly across the parliamentary system either. Morrison is a profoundly unqualified man.

But it’s surely Christian – as it is surely human – to want to see the unemployed supported and guided towards their next career, to see the elderly cared for, to see those struggling with their physical or mental health given the assistance they need, and to see the young – the future – given at least as much opportunity as we who have come before. Surely.

Or forget charity and kindness. Forget it. Let’s all be selfish bastards. Even then, a robust welfare system is in our personal interest. Crime rates go down where the welfare systems are strong. Look at the Scandinavian countries where education, welfare and public health are thriving and where they’re literally shutting prisons down for lack of demand. Wouldn’t it be nice to get some of that action?

Conservatives will talk about ‘common sense’ and ‘our Australian values’ in the ‘fair go’ society, as though helping people could somehow be offensive to their character. This is cruel class warfare disguised as national unity. Remember ‘common sense’ and ‘values’ used to be arbitrated by people like Alan Jones. Enough said.

For those who are currently supported by Centrelink, I say this: these politicians have no right to punish you. The failure is theirs. Politicians are the biggest ‘dole bludgers’ of them all – we give them handouts to make this a safe, prosperous, and, yes, fair country. I don’t think Centrelink is worth the price we’re paying, do you? The investors want more.

I don’t wish to imply that all public servants have forgotten their duty to serve the public who (metaphorically) sign their cheques, yet there is an institutional hypocrisy at play here just as there is an intergenerational one. It will take politicians of good conscience to address the imbalance. What’s clear – judging by 21 years of failed policy and mutual hostility on the frontline – is that a culture shift is needed, regardless of which party is in control.

Typed letters are still the silver bullet.

If you’re having any issue with Centrelink, don’t wait for years by the phone while they play that obnoxiously upbeat classical music. Hang up. Pull out your laptop. If you don’t have access to a word processor or you don’t feel confident writing a letter yourself, find the snarkiest friend you have. If you know someone who can write in really neat, really florid, passive-aggressive cursive – I wish I had this skill – then go that extra mile and make it a handwritten letter.

Post the letter to Centrelink. Address it care of the Minister. Tell them exactly how fed up you are and how seriously the system is letting you down. Don’t be impolite. Be extra polite. Be annoyingly polite. Be… disappointed.

Remind them that the Australian people pay their salaries, and the Australian people deserve their kindness and support.

Sign it with a smiley face. Or a big green question mark.

Riddle me this.

Dr Alex Vickery-Howe is an award-winning screenwriter, playwright, social commentator, rambling podcaster and emerging novelist. His work spans political satire, environmental polemic, dark comedy and fantasy fiction. He holds a PhD from Flinders University, where he is a senior lecturer in creative writing.