‘Cen­tre­link pushed him over the edge’

As Cen­tre­link con­tin­ues its cam­paign of flawed and in­scrutable debt col­lec­tion, a young man com­mits sui­cide. By Martin McKenzie-Mur­ray.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page -

His girl­friend had be­gun screen­ing his mail. The let­ters were too much. They were in­duc­ing panic. Rhys Couzza was 28 years old, a mu­si­cian and florist liv­ing in Mel­bourne. Couzza suf­fered se­vere de­pres­sion, for which he was med­i­cated. It was a con­di­tion he shared with his mother. Late last year, he be­gan re­ceiv­ing ag­gres­sive let­ters from a debt col­lec­tion agency called Dun and Brad­street.

They rep­re­sented the Depart­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices, which de­manded the “im­me­di­ate” re­pay­ment of al­most $18,000 paid to him by Cen­tre­link.

The let­ters made clear that fail­ure to do so might trig­ger le­gal ac­tion, or the “gar­nish­ing” of his wages.

He was sick and in­cred­u­lous. In a pri­vate note­book, he doo­dled a man with a gun in his mouth – be­hind the fig­ure, in­stead of blood, was a spray of dol­lar signs. His girl­friend, Brit, tried to help, en­sur­ing let­ters weren’t over­looked in Couzza’s in­creas­ing un­will­ing­ness to in­spect them. Mean­while, Couzza called his mother, Jenny Miller, who lived on the Sun­shine Coast. The two were close, and dur­ing what she called his “dark times” she had of­ten flown down to see him. “He rang me distressed,” she told me. “I told him he needed to go in and talk to them. And he did that. In the mean­time, Dun and Brad­street were mak­ing de­mands for money within seven days. Peo­ple with se­vere de­pres­sion don’t han­dle fi­nan­cial pres­sure. And th­ese num­bers didn’t make sense. He was al­ways anal about keep­ing fi­nan­cial records.”

The anx­i­ety wasn’t just with the amount owed, or the ag­gres­sion with which it was de­manded – it was the fact that the amount re­quested seemed fan­tas­ti­cal. “It made ab­so­lutely no sense to him,” Brit says.

In Jan­uary, in let­ters of de­mand seen by The Satur­day Pa­per, the debt col­lec­tion agency had re­vised its fig­ure to $10,283.81. Nei­ther Brit nor Jenny is sure why Cen­tre­link had sud­denly made a sig­nif­i­cant re­duc­tion to the al­leged debt. Such re­vi­sion has been fre­quent in the depart­ment’s so-called robo-debt sys­tem.

The debt col­lec­tion agency vis­ited Couzza’s home on Jan­uary 3. They re­ceived no an­swer, and left a call­ing card in the let­ter­box: “Need to speak to you about an ur­gent mat­ter.”

On Jan­uary 26, Couzza went out with Brit and friends to see some bands. Brit says he was a “lit­tle dis­tant” but oth­er­wise fine. When they re­turned home, Brit and some house­mates left to get din­ner. Couzza stayed home. They were only gone an hour. When they re­turned, they found Couzza’s body. “He didn’t leave a note,” Brit tells me. “It wasn’t planned. It was a flip.”

Sui­cide is com­plex. Cause and ef­fect isn’t im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous. Some­times it never is. Couzza had suf­fered se­vere de­pres­sion for many years, and The Satur­day Pa­per doesn’t pre­sume to un­der­stand his state of mind when he took his life. But in his pri­vate note­books, weeks be­fore his death, Couzza ex­pressed grave anx­i­ety about the debt. Both his part­ner and mother be­lieve it was a con­tribut­ing fac­tor.

“He was highly af­fected by the mail,” Brit says. “He was re­ally, re­ally stressed. He sort of de­nied the sit­u­a­tion. I told him they weren’t real, there’s no way you owe that much money. Rhys and I were aware it was an AI thing, but he felt the debt col­lec­tors were gonna knock on the door. It’s hard to de­scribe how he re­sponded, be­cause it was on an­other level. Rhys was a com­plex guy. But this over­bear­ing fi­nan­cial stress was mas­sive. It’s hard talk­ing to you now, but the story needs to get out there.”

In a state­ment to po­lice, Couzza’s mother de­scribed her son’s his­tory of men­tal ill­ness, and the debt no­tice’s ef­fect on her son. “Over the next cou­ple of months he was ha­rassed by con­tin­ual let­ters,” she wrote. “He then re­ceived an­other let­ter from Cen­tre­link, stat­ing that they had made a mis­take and that it was now $10,000 that he owed. Again after con­sul­ta­tion, the let­ters of de­mand con­tin­ued. I be­lieve strongly that this pushed him to his brink of despair.”

She told me: “I feel very strongly about what hap­pened, and I be­lieve this was the pin­na­cle that pushed him over the edge. He’s al­ways had men­tal health is­sues, and they were aware of that. The al­go­rithm did not pick up on that. [The debt no­tice] was not the only thing. But it was the ic­ing on the cake.”

A week after her son’s death, Jenny says she was on the phone for an hourand-a-half to no­tify Cen­tre­link of his pass­ing. “And Dun and Brad­street hung up on me, ba­si­cally,” Jenny says. “There was noth­ing cour­te­ous.”

A well-re­ported prob­lem with Cen­tre­link’s au­to­mated sys­tem of debt re­cov­ery is the gross mis­cal­cu­la­tions of debts. From July last year, the sys­tem be­gan cross-ref­er­enc­ing clients’ Cen­tre­link claims with their tax­a­tion data to dis­cover dis­crep­an­cies and over­pay­ments. Since then, al­most 200,000 no­tices of over­pay­ment have been sent to Aus­tralians. But there have been se­rial com­plaints that the sys­tem is badly flawed and is gen­er­at­ing false debts. The Com­mon­wealth om­buds­man is cur­rently in­ves­ti­gat­ing the sys­tem, while Hu­man Ser­vices Min­is­ter Alan Tudge, who has pre­vi­ously de­fended the pro­gram, an­nounced that the gov­ern­ment would no longer seek re­pay­ment for debts un­der re­view. This is not a ret­ro­spec­tive change.

Couzza was recog­nised in Cen­tre­link’s data­base as re­quir­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal help. The agency had pre­vi­ously re­ferred him to a doc­tor.

But the debt re­cov­ery un­der­taken by the depart­ment – which had al­ready gen­er­ated a false claim – did not ap­pear to take ac­count of his con­di­tion. The ap­pli­ca­tion of an artless sys­tem that ag­gres­sively de­mands fic­tional debts from Aus­tralia’s most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple has, un­sur­pris­ingly, caused con­sid­er­able mis­ery.

“I’ve now been ap­proached by a num­ber of peo­ple who’ve spo­ken about the pos­si­bil­ity of self-harm on ac­count of the angst caused by re­ceiv­ing a Cen­tre­link debt no­tice,” says An­drew Wilkie, the in­de­pen­dent mem­ber for Deni­son and one of fed­eral par­lia­ment’s most vo­cal crit­ics of the sys­tem.

In an email, Wilkie told me: “I’ve also been ap­proached by the par­ents of a man who did in­deed at­tempt to take his own life. This has shown me that not only is the debt-re­cov­ery pro­gram badly de­signed broadly, but also that it is es­pe­cially in­ap­pro­pri­ate for peo­ple with a men­tal ill­ness or other rea­son that makes them vul­ner­a­ble.

“One of the prob­lems with the Cen­tre­link pro­gram is that it fails to dis­crim­i­nate be­tween peo­ple and sends the same blunt and, frankly, guilty-un­til­proven-in­no­cent let­ter to ev­ery­one.

This is lazy and danger­ous, and en­tirely avoid­able see­ing as Cen­tre­link is al­ready well aware of the health cir­cum­stances of many peo­ple. While the whole pro­gram is a dud and should be shut down, if noth­ing else at least those peo­ple who are most vul­ner­a­ble need to be han­dled in a more un­der­stand­ing and care­ful man­ner.

“While I can’t pos­si­bly know all the facts of the mat­ter re­gard­ing Rhys’s death, I do know enough to feel deeply for his fam­ily and share their con­cerns.”

A spokesper­son for the Depart­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices gave the fol­low­ing re­sponse to ques­tions about the

Couzza case: “We express our sin­cere con­do­lences to the fam­ily. This is a ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion for his loved ones and we un­der­stand how dif­fi­cult it must be com­ing to terms with their loss.

It is not ap­pro­pri­ate for us to dis­cuss per­sonal de­tails pub­licly. It is re­ally im­por­tant that if peo­ple are in dis­tress, they let us know im­me­di­ately – we can help. The depart­ment has so­cial work ser­vices avail­able to cus­tomers re­quir­ing ad­di­tional as­sis­tance.

“The depart­ment as­sists some of the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple in the com­mu­nity. Wel­fare re­cip­i­ents who are iden­ti­fied as vul­ner­a­ble are not part of the on­line com­pli­ance in­ter­ven­tion sys­tem. In­stead, a com­pli­ance of­fi­cer works with the per­son to con­firm in­come de­tails, be­fore de­ter­min­ing whether or not a debt has been in­curred. We don’t ever want peo­ple to feel they’re in a sit­u­a­tion of help­less­ness.”

Such sup­port mech­a­nisms did not steer Rhys Couzza from despair. He re­ceived nu­mer­ous com­pli­ance let­ters from out­sourced debt col­lec­tors, and a visit from them to his home. He was no­ti­fied of a huge debt in er­ror, later re­vised. His ex­pe­ri­ence re­veals a sys­tem lack­ing nu­ance and un­der­stand­ing.

Rhys had made the fa­mil­iar pil­grim­age for cre­ative youths: declar­ing his home town cul­tur­ally arid, he moved from Cairns to the more fer­tile pas­tures of Mel­bourne. Other friends were mak­ing the same jour­ney. He was 20 when he left Queens­land.

In Mel­bourne he joined Tomb Hanx, a four-piece band that played an ec­cen­tric mix of pop, punk and syn­thy gloom. Mu­sic was a cen­tral pas­sion, around which his imag­i­na­tion and so­cial life or­bited. He filled note­books with lyrics, and his life with sweet, mu­si­cob­sessed mis­fits. His mother says that he loved Mel­bourne – even if its crowds could trig­ger anx­i­ety at­tacks – and he made many friends there. The church that held his fu­neral ser­vice had a ca­pac­ity of about 80, but about twice that ar­rived, and mourn­ers thronged out­side.

“He got dealt this aw­ful hand,”

Brit tells me, “and he couldn’t use it. It’s hard to tell you con­cisely about him.”

She pauses. “He was an ex­hi­bi­tion­ist, and by that I mean he was good at fronts to shield his pain – of ec­cen­tric­ity for friends, or smiles at work. But he could be gen­uinely hi­lar­i­ous. Su­per kooky. I don’t think I’ll ever meet some­one again who shares my sense of hu­mour. He was fuck­ing gor­geous. A com­plete di­a­mond.

“I be­came a con­fi­dent, in­de­pen­dent woman with friends and lots of things to be happy about. He had a lot to do with that. He took me out of some dark places. I’ve been think­ing a lot about him as an an­gel. He came into my life, did his work, then left.”

Couzza’s mother tells me of a gen­tle and sen­si­tive young man. She says she is aware of the glossy treat­ments the dead re­ceive. “But it’s re­ally true in his case,” she says. “He was gen­uinely loved. A gen­tle soul. Soft, kind, an an­i­mal lover. He was pop­u­lar. At work, he was con­sid­ered fam­ily.”

When we speak, Jenny is pre­par­ing to leave Mel­bourne. She’s not sure what she’ll do when she re­turns home. For the past few weeks, the lo­gis­tics of death have oc­cu­pied her. Her son’s friends have pro­vided com­fort, con­text and a link to his city. Now, the calm after the storm is fright­en­ing. “I’m shat­tered,” she says. “I’m on stronger med­i­ca­tion. When I get home, I’ll go to coun­selling. I’m not sure how I’ll cope when I get back there.”

We know that the gov­ern­ment per­sisted with its pro­gram of robo-debt col­lec­tion in the knowl­edge that its al­go­rithm was faulty, that it would pro­duce fal­la­cious out­comes. The gov­ern­ment it­self ad­mits that one in five of the debts it al­leges have been cal­cu­lated in er­ror.

There is a grim cal­cu­lus to this. The de­mon­i­sa­tion of “wel­fare cheats” and “bludgers” is a sta­ple of re­tail pol­i­tics.

The rel­e­vant min­is­ters, Chris­tian Porter and Alan Tudge, still talk about the peo­ple on wel­fare who “owe a debt to the other 99 per cent of Aus­tralians”. They talk about peo­ple who “de­lib­er­ately cheated tax­pay­ers out of hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars”.

Of course, there is wel­fare fraud.

But the gov­ern­ment has cre­ated a flawed debt-re­cov­ery sys­tem. It is in­sen­si­tive, in­ac­cu­rate and in­scrutable. Ap­peals are dif­fi­cult and time con­sum­ing. The agency is over­loaded. The ac­tions of pri­vate debt col­lec­tors are men­ac­ing and ill reg­u­lated.

If the gov­ern­ment has cre­ated this sys­tem as a form of pop­u­lar ap­pease­ment, it has made a griev­ous er­ror. It has pre­ferred pol­i­tics to the de­sign of a sys­tem that is fair and re­spon­sive. It would be wrong to sug­gest that the gov­ern­ment should not pur­sue fraud­sters or seek the re­pay­ment of debts. But what’s been made is a calamity. It is blunt and cruel. The death of Rhys Couzza is one

• tragic ex­am­ple of that.

AN ARTLESS SYS­TEM THAT AG­GRES­SIVELY DE­MANDS FIC­TIONAL DEBTS FROM OUR MOST VUL­NER­A­BLE PEO­PLE HAS, UN­SUR­PRIS­INGLY, CAUSED CON­SID­ER­ABLE MIS­ERY.

Florist and mu­si­cian Rhys Couzza.

MARTIN McKENZIEMURRAY is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief cor­re­spon­dent.

MARTIN McKENZIEMURRAY is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief cor­re­spon­dent.

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