Who does, you reply. 
Yet, as anthropologist David Graeber explains, most of us believe it is our moral responsibility to repay our debts.  We are even more fervently convinced that others should pay them. There is a strange, largely unexamined tension between these two positions and it is a tension we will be forced to reconcile in the near future.  As members of the second most indebted households in the world, Australians will have plenty of moral responsibility to address. We will also develop a growing intimacy with friendly collections agencies.

I don’t like debt collectors because they offend my social sensibilities. The person that comes to your house demanding money with menace has come to a strange place if you welcome their arrival.  If you don’t think there is veiled threat behind such a relationship, try not paying and see how it works out. Happily, with the arrival of the mobile phone, the notion of home and your personal space has taken on a much wider dimension. The debt collector can reach you anytime and anywhere. 

I Am A Felon

This was made clear to me over the past week through a number of interactions with Milton Graham.  Who is Milton Graham? It’s a clever name for a collections agency. A call from someone named Milton is unlikely to bring on a bout of tremulous dystonia.  It is more likely to have the effect of chamomile tea.  In the film world, the Miltons are always the gormless, harmless, bumbling types that suffer at the hands of Jacks and Barrys;  the fellow who never gets the girl.  However, before changing his name by deed poll, Milton had operated under the name Dun & Bradstreet. Get a call from them and you certainly sit up straight.

Anyway, it seems I owed the Graham family some money and they were going to collect it one way or another.  I had received advice from the Australian Tax Office three weeks earlier telling me I owed them $3,021 in back taxes.  I made a note that it had to be paid and promptly forgot about it.  It didn’t appear to be urgent.  There was no sense that this was going to stop Scott from achieving his surplus.  You know, the one that forces the rest of us into debt. So I waited, confident that I would receive another gentle urging somewhere in the future. 

The urging came in another letter but it wasn’t the friendly reminder I was expecting.  The Government had already called on Milton and the Yubitsume boys.  I’d been sold. In another age it would’ve been into slavery. I had one day, that day, to pay or the collection process would start at 8pm that night. It seems from one minute past that deadline my tardiness would become Mlton’s profit.  That also seems to be reason for dispensing with the reminder letter. If I pay on time, Milton doesn’t get his money.  There is a moral in there somewhere but it’s being strangled.  You have to pay your debt. I paid.  I know it was an act of cowardice but I paid. 

Milton the Shape-Shifter

That’s enough of Milton for another year or so I thought.  Sitting in a Katoomba café last Saturday around 1pm my phone buzzed with a text message.  Yes, it was Milton. 

“Hi Warren Lachlan [including my middle name in the greeting was a nice homely touch], please call Milton Graham (Previously Dun & Bradstreet) 1300 663 834 to discuss an important matter. Please quote [reference number] when you call. Thank you.”

I called back. Imagine my surprise and pleasure at being told I was number 3 in the queue.  Who were 1 and 2? Some poor woman on the Federal Government’s “Parents Next” program who hadn’t been told that four kids gave her an exemption, had been bumped off her support pension and been overpaid or some bloke with a Robodebt from 1964, 65 years old and on NewStart.  An automated promise to call me back allowed me to skip the queue. 

A few minutes later Sharon called me.

She wasn’t from Milton Graham but from the ATO.  Strange, I thought, they must be sharing a house.  What was more surprising was that Sharon didn’t know who I was.

“My name is Sharon from Australian Taxation Office.  Can I start with your name and date of birth?” 

My answers proved satisfactory and to progress the conversation I proffered the reference number that came in the text.  Within seconds of sharing this information and in an astonishing act of shape-shifting, Sharon now advised me that she was no longer a representative of the Australian Tax Office and had become Milton Graham.  I owed her some money. 

I told her that it was paid last Wednesday to which she replied something to the effect:

“Very good.  Our system is only updated once a week so that may be the case”.

She was then able to verify through some equally strange magical invocation that the debt had been paid. 

There are no system problems

Even now have I seen the end of Milton Graham?  What if the processing of my payment last Wednesday did not hit ATO records and finally Milton Graham’s records until Thursday or sometime after that 8pm deadline?   In this age of financialisation a debt can hinge on something as morally dubious but legally enforceable as a bureaucratic delay. Whose fault is it? It’s yours. It’s mine. In this neoliberal age there are no system problems, only personal ones.  So the massive debt held by Australian households is not a sign of system failure.  It points to millions of personal failures.

Meanwhile, debt recovery is a huge and growing industry.  As local Councils are bled by higher levels of government, collections on rate arrears have become such a ferociously successful business that collectors forego public holidays and weekends to deliver late notices to local residents.  Fees and fines increasingly fill the gap in state government revenues so that neoliberal Federal Governments can play their surplus and deficit games.  These have to be collected too. This lovely story is testament to true entrepreneurialism in the industry.

Reports of increasingly favourable conditions for debt collection are reinforced by regular articles in our financial press.  However, the celebration of these favourable conditions plays down our moral failure that organisations such as Milton Graham fight so heroically to stamp out.  Their efforts might seem akin to merely collecting stamps as opposed to shaking debt from real people.

The Debt Collectors Collective

There are dangers. In an act of collectivism that would send Jordan Peterson into apoplexy, collections agencies have joined a lobbying organisation that represents their interests to government.  Weak governments are always in danger of buckling to public opinion and this must be resisted.

The Australian Collectors and Debt Buyers Association (ACDBA) “was established for the benefit of companies who collect & buy debt.  ACDBA’s work in improving the collections environment (legislative and regulatory) provides appreciable benefits to members, clients and other practitioners.”

In a further act aimed at promoting their members’ goal of instilling moral responsibility into the public, the ACDBA joined with Mortgage and Finance Association of Australia (MFAA), Customer Owned Banking Association (COBA), Association of Securities and Derivatives Advisers of Australia (ASDAA), Association of Independently Owned Financial Professionals (AIOFP), and Australian Timeshare and Holiday Ownership Council (ATHOC)  to resist the formation of an Australian Financial Complaints Authority. This must have proved an unreasonable burden to many of these organisations who were already resisting the threat of a Banking and Finance Royal Commission investigation into financial corruption. 

In closing, so many people devote commendable efforts to ensuring that we pay our debts. Milton Graham, increasingly, will become a much loved household name. He is already spoken of fondly wherever there’s a Robodebt. Meanwhile, many of the smaller operations will go about their work unnoticed by any other than their victims.  They‘ll work quietly, assiduously and effectively to ensure we meet our moral responsibilities. In the service of God and Country we must send our young to meet the martial challenges that rise against our treasured western tradition of democracy, freedom and personal liberty all trimmed to meet John Howard’s and now Scott Morrison’s Judeo-Christian values.  In that same moral responsibility lays the duty to pay our debts however they are foisted onto us. We must pay our debts.

Still, I don’t like debt collectors.

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