Thursday, 3 December 2020
Matters of Public Importance
Pensions and Benefits
Thanks to the member for Maribyrnong for raising this debate. I note that this week for me has been bookended by speeches on motions brought forward by the member for Maribyrnong. The first on Monday praised the workers of Services Australia for their hard work over the chaos of this year. In turn, I opened by praising the member for bringing forward such a heartwarming and bipartisan bill. Unfortunately, I cannot end the week with the same sentiment. This motion makes an assumption: that the government is shirking responsibility with regard to debt recovery. I don't think that's fair.
Obviously, all policies have consequences, but some policies have unintended consequences. I wish they didn't, but they do. Foresight would be a wonderful gift, but, sadly, neither party has it. When there are painful consequences, we must adapt to redress where those have happened, and the government has done just that. As of Monday, 406,889 people have had their refunds completed, with a total value of $707.7 million in refunds paid. That's about 95 per cent of people and about 95 per cent of refunds by value. The remaining five per cent is made up of a number of people who need tailored solutions owing to different conditions, like incarceration, and around half are simply waiting on people finishing their applications for the refund to be triggered. Aside from the responsibility to make this right, which we are doing, there is also a responsibility to acknowledge what has happened and apologise for any harm caused.
Both sides of the aisle here agree that the government shouldn't be defrauded and legitimate debts should be repaid. That is not a controversial statement and not the issue here. But, if the government has caused harm, hurt or pain to anyone, we sincerely apologise for that. On this point, I would like to quote our Prime Minister, who said these words in this chamber:
The business of raising and recovering debts on behalf of taxpayers is a difficult job, and it deals with Australians in many very sensitive circumstances, and of course I would deeply regret—deeply regret—any hardship that has been caused to people in the conduct of that activity. The government has many difficult jobs that it has to do, dealing with Australians in very sensitive circumstances, and that is true particularly at this time. It is our instruction that we would hope that all agents of the government, when pursuing the debt recovery option, would be sensitive to people's circumstances.
In relation to the particular gentleman that you referred to, that is a very distressing situation that you've raised. And I would apologise for any hurt or harm in the way that the government has dealt with that issue and to anyone else who has found themselves in those situations.
But the issue is the one of ensuring how the government can best do this, and, where there are lessons to be learnt here, they will be learnt, and that is what the Minister for Government Services is employing now. I'll ask the Minister for Government Services to add to the answer.
I would like to echo these words and sentiments of the Prime Minister today.
It's worth noting here that the government has taken a sympathetic view to debt recovery in this debilitating of all years. The government acknowledges the pain that many people have undergone this year and knows the impact this has had on the bottom line of many families' budgets. Recognising how financially difficult this year has been, the Australian government put in place a temporary six-month nationwide pause on Services Australia's debt-raising and recovery activity on 3 April 2020. On 25 September 2020 the government announced that this pause would remain in place until 30 October. Debt-recovery activity will now not recommence until February 2021. Delaying debt recovery until February 2021 will provide time for people to consider their circumstances and engage with Services Australia about their options, so they can understand these in a transparent way and have time to plan for the future.
To conclude, I would like to again reiterate our sympathy and deep regret to anyone who has been caused hardship, but the government is working to fix this and working hard to ensure that, in this most chaotic of years, Australians are supported by this government and the assistance schemes that we have created.