Wednesday, 8 February 2017
I rise to speak on the shambolic automated Centrelink debt recovery system that this government refuses to shut down, against all advice and any common sense. I have been contacted by far too many locals in my electorate of Lindsay who are being chased for thousands of dollars they simply do not owe. It seems that no matter what advice or admissions are made, this government simply does not care—the government of not caring. Sure, if there is a legitimate debt or someone has done wrong, they should repay the money. But what we know at the moment is that thousands and thousands of innocent Australians are being accused of welfare fraud, when, in fact, no fraud exists. We know that when these innocent people receive debt notices of thousands of dollars, they are finding it painfully difficult to speak with someone from Centrelink to even sort the matter out. When they do reach someone on the 1800 phone, that staff member is usually unable to provide very basic information about the debt, unable to correct errors and unable to defer payments, and has been told to threaten the person with debt collectors. This kind of government dysfunction is simply unacceptable.
At one point, we were hearing the failure rate was 20 per cent. In other words, one in five accusations of welfare fraud were completely wrong, meaning upwards of 30,000 fellow Australians receive these debt notices incorrectly. On hearing these facts, how did the government respond? It completely ignored the concerns of those affected people and said that the system is working as it should. In relation to the people being sent debt notices, even though they do not owe a debt, and forcing them to spend days on the phone arguing back and forward with Centrelink, the Minister for Human Services, Mr Tudge, said:
This is not an 'error rate'. This is the system as it was designed to work.
To add insult to injury, yesterday the minister said that those affected should ring a 1800 number. Well, so many people are flooding that 1800 number, that it is a two-hour wait just to speak with someone. How out of touch can you be?
One single mother in Lindsay received a $38,000 debt notice just prior to Christmas, two days before Christmas. She manages severe anxiety and depression, and spent weeks dealing with Centrelink to have the debt removed. This failed program has a significant impact on people's health, and supposedly this was how the system was designed to work. Another constituent of mine was given a $2,800 debt notice early in January. After calling Centrelink to refute the claim, she was sent a new $38,000 bill. She was in tears, as you could imagine, and shaking when she called Centrelink again, but they could not help her explain the reasoning behind the $38,000 bill. Weeks later and many phone calls later, Centrelink have now admitted the bill is around just $200.