Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Matters of Public Importance
I have received a letter from the honourable member for Barton proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The Government hurting Australians with its Centrelink robo debt mess.
I call upon those honourable members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
The Minister for Human Services' robo-debt program is hurting honest Australians. The government cannot keep ignoring this matter. Rather than focusing on their jobs, they are focused on their own internal division.
It has been 40 days since I first wrote to the Minister for Human Services, alerting him to increasing public concern about the robo-debt system and asking him to suspend the program until it could be fixed. I am not alone. The leader of the Labor Party and many Labor Party members have called for this action, as have the crossbenchers in the other place, the independents in this place and a range of community organisations like ACOSS and People With Disability. I waited well over 21 days for a response to that call. That is the amount of time the Turnbull government gives current and former Centrelink clients to respond to false debt notices. The minister did not ask for an extension. I am glad he had a relaxing break over Christmas, because thousands of Australians did not. They were busy trying to find six years of old pay slips. They were worried and they were distressed and they lost Christmas.
When the minister finally did respond to my letter, he continued to claim that there was nothing wrong with the system, despite the concerns everyone in this chamber will have received from their constituents—including those on that side of the House. If you want to know whether the system is working, check your electorate office emails but do not bother taking up the talking points sent out to you last week. They will not help and they will not fool the Australian public.
This program is hurting our communities. It is causing distress and anxiety, but at every turn this minister has denied any issue at all. The stories are numerous. I have heard many firsthand—in the seat of Herbert with Cathy O'Toole; in the seat of Franklin with Julie Collins, Brian Mitchell and Carol Brown. Some of those stories are severe, and the state of Tasmania has been particularly targeted. When Michael Griffin was told he owed over $3,000—which he knew was not true—the minister said the system was working 'as intended'. Mr Griffin's debt was later revised down to $50. The minister said there were no issues at all. When Leslie Roxborough was issued with a debt notice for over $6,000, she assumed it was legitimate and she started to pay. She was devastated that she may have mistakenly claimed such a large sum that she was not entitled to receive. When she appealed, Leslie found that her debt had been inflated. She has now been told that her debt has been reduced to just $4,000, but she is still waiting for some written confirmation. Had this issue never been raised in the media, she would have just paid the full sum. How are you going to pay those people back, Minister?
The minister still said the program was working 'as well as could be expected'. Yesterday I asked the minister about Anne Foley, who had her pension cut after Centrelink wrongly accused her of owing thousands, and we had the minister stand up today and blame Centrelink staff, taking no responsibility himself—blame the bureaucrats and take no responsibility himself. His response yesterday was: 'Call the 1800 number.' Has anyone tried that recently? I do not have a few hours to spare! That is the best those opposite can do and it is not nearly good enough.
There are too many stories like this. Every member of this place will have received similar emails or calls to their electorate offices. Those opposite should hang their heads in shame for not speaking up for the people who have put their trust in them. Innocent people are being asked to go through a laborious appeals process, to find pay slips that are over six years, to contact employers that might not exist, or to prove that they were seriously ill. We now know that they might not even owe a debt. In fact, we know that the minister and his department knew long before this system started sending out 20,000 letters a week that thousands would be wrongly be accused—at least 4,000 letters a week to innocent people. Until recently, the minister was still sending those letters to addresses that were six years old. He could not even guarantee that the people still lived there. Those who never received a first letter from Centrelink automatically had debts raised against them. Some of them did not even know about this issue until a debt collector turned up on their doorstep.
These are not signs of a system working well. The Minister for Social Services himself, Minister Tudge's senior, at first told us that the false-positive rate for this program was one in five. That is 20 per cent. The government has now changed its mind. It is now saying that this is not true, but it will not tell us what the real number is. We do know that 40 per cent of those who raised their issues with the minister, or publicly, were later found to owe nothing at all. Even more, people like Leslie Roxborough owe far less than they were originally accused of. The minister will not tell us how many people have had their debts reduced or how many are disputing the debt or having it reviewed. Those opposite have no answers; all they have is smear and personal attack.
People in Barton and our electorates do not think harassing age pensioners is fair. I bet they do not think so in Aston, Wentworth or New England either. Those opposite do nothing to make sure multinational companies pay their fair share of taxes but devote their energy to harassing those on age or disability support pension for debts that they may not owe. Many of those accused of owing a debt are now teachers or working in our emergency departments across the country.
If people make mistakes declaring their income, of course that should be corrected. That is obvious. When people do the wrong thing, they should be punished. Nobody in this place disagrees with that principle, but that is not what is at hand here. But that does not mean we should assume that everyone is guilty, as this government is doing.
At every turn, those opposite have insisted that this program is working well. When hundreds of people come forward to tell their stories, the Turnbull government says they are all liars and frauds. When Paul Shetler, the Prime Minister's former IT guru, says the system is self-evidently flawed, so bad that if it were a private company it would be out of business, those opposite say he does not know what he is talking about. When Senator Abetz in the other place and the Liberal Premier of Tasmania both say the system is failing, those opposite are silent. All of you on the other side, who are no doubt about to read from notes prepared by the minister, should bear this in mind. People are watching and listening. Many of the people this system targets are those who received a payment as students, when they were sick or when they were briefly unemployed. Many are now working, they are paying taxes and they vote.
Let me be clear: Labor does not hold the people who work at Centrelink responsible for this mess. I hold you, Minister, and this government responsible for this mess, for your intransigence in not admitting there is a problem, for your intransigence for not saying, 'We've made a mistake.' I have spoken to some of the workers who are distressed across this country. They have been instructed not to assist even when mistakes have been made. You can ignore them while you stand in this place but you will not be able to ignore them when the upcoming Senate inquiry visits your state or your electorate. Let us be honest: you thought Australians would not care about Centrelink recipients. You are wrong. Australians care about what is fair. The robo-debt debacle does not just prove that those opposite are poor administrators who will not take advice from their public servants; they are now blaming the bureaucrats. It does not simply prove that those opposite have their priorities all wrong and it does not only prove that the minister is failing; it proves that those opposite are completely out of touch with the community.
The Turnbull government cannot understand why people are upset when they see those of us in this place being given the benefit of the doubt, while those in the community do not get that same benefit of the doubt and are being treated as guilty until proven innocent. In the eyes of those opposite, we are all either 'lifters' or 'leaners', and anyone who has received a Centrelink payment in the last six years is a leaner. Age pensioners are not leaners. Those caring for relatives are not leaners. Former students who received Austudy are not leaners. Those with disability who receive the DSP are not leaners. That is callous, it is a massive failure and it speaks to the complete lack of empathy on the minister's part. Accusing people of committing fraud for collecting payments they do not deserve is a serious accusation. The minister must be confident of that before smearing the name of honest people. It is time for those opposite to pull their heads out of the sand and suspend this system. Labor does not want to see individuals being overpaid or getting away with fraud, but that will never be an excuse for treating our most vulnerable like criminals. Good governments listen when they are told about problems. Brave governments admit mistakes. Empathy is the lifeblood of politics. That is all the opposition is asking for.
In my remarks on this matter of public importance, about Centrelink, I will address some of the points which the member for Barton has made, but in doing that I would like to explain exactly how the system works, because, if you were listening to the member for Barton today, you would think that certain things occur which in fact do not occur. So let me at least take you through how the system works and the history of this system, which very much originates within the Labor Party.
How the system works is that, when a person is in receipt of Centrelink payments, they have to provide their income on a fortnightly basis in order to determine what sort of payment they receive. We look back at those Centrelink records and we compare them to the Australian Taxation Office records of the income that a person has received. So we compare the self-reported income that a person has given to Centrelink to what the employer has said that person earned, and that information is held at the Australian Taxation Office.
Where there is a discrepancy between those two sets of data, a notice is sent to the recipient, and they are asked if they can explain that discrepancy. In some cases, the person can explain the discrepancy, because in some cases the employer, for example, has given incorrect dates of when that person was employed. They may have said the person was employed from June to December when in fact it was from June to September, and the person is able to clarify that and consequently the issue goes away. But on many occasions the individual is unable to clarify the situation. If they are unable to do so or do not do so, then a debt may be issued against that person. At any particular time along the way, if they have got concerns, they can call a dedicated 1800 number and talk to a Centrelink officer in relation to that.
The member screeches at me that they cannot get through on that dedicated 1800 number. Actually I myself have been calling it very regularly, as have my staff, and on all occasions we have been able to get through quite quickly. I would encourage the member to test that dedicated number herself.
How did this system come about? This is important. What are the origins of this system? This data-matching between Centrelink information and Australian Taxation Office information actually originated back in 1990, when Graham Richardson introduced what is called the Data-matching Program (Assistance and Tax) Act. That is when the process started. Since that time, essentially the same methodology has been used, where that information is compared and, where there is a discrepancy, a request is made of the recipient to explain that discrepancy. If they can, that is the end of the story. If they cannot, a debt may be raised against that person.
In 2011 it was actually the Labor Party, again, who introduced some sort of automation into the system. Indeed, the now Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition were the two people in charge of introducing some form of automation into the system. Then in the 2015-16 budget we decided that we would expand the system to cover more people, and consequently my department has been implementing that system since. But I stress that the methodology which is being used to compare the Centrelink information with the Australian Taxation Office information is essentially the same that has always been the case.
'Why do we have to do such checks?' is a question that is frequently asked. Unfortunately, we have to do such checks because, despite the fact that the vast majority of people do the right thing, it is the case that some people do the wrong thing and deliberately defraud the system, while many people inadvertently do not update their income information correctly while they are on Centrelink benefits and, consequently, receive an overpayment. Even in some of the very high-profile examples, which the member for Barton has put up to the media, that is exactly the case. The member for Barton has admitted that many of those cases that have been in the media over summer she put up to the media, but she also admitted to the media that she did not know whether they were innocent or not.
When you look through some of those cases it is quite clear that, in fact, those people do owe money, despite the member for Barton putting up their cases as being so-called victims of the system. For example, here is one of a Victorian woman—who has been in the media—who was on an income support payment for the entire year of 2015-16. That person declared income of less than $9,000, but the Australian Taxation Office record showed that she actually had a business of her own and that her business earned more than $48,000 during that time.
The member for Barton interjects and says, 'That's the best you've got.' Well, I can continue going through example after example, if the member would like, of cases she has put up to the media as being so-called victims of the system but where they have declared less than—
Here is another one: they have declared less than $4,000 in employment income while on payments the entire time, while the Australian Taxation Office suggests they earned $26,000 for that time. We think it is quite right and proper that when there is such a discrepancy that person is, at least, inquired about that discrepancy and that they are given the opportunity to explain the discrepancy if they are able to do. An inquiry is worthy of being made in order to determine whether or not there has, in fact, been an overpayment.
I should point out that the member for Barton put up more than 52 cases to the media over the summer period, but a full third of those cases had nothing to do with the new online compliance system. Even in her remarks this afternoon she mentioned a Miss Roxborough—another case that she had given to TheCanberra Times—but it had nothing to do with the online compliance system. She said that case was done through the system the Labor Party would revert to if they were back in office.
It is worth asking, if Labor were back in office, what exactly they would do to some of these very egregious cases where there is such a stark discrepancy. We have looked at many cases and I have spoken to this chamber about a case, for example, back in the Labor years where the person earned $5,000 but where the employer reported to the Australian Taxation Office that they had, in fact, earned more than $100,000 during that same period. That occurred during the Labor years. It occurred when the member for Sydney was the Minister for Human Services, the member for McMahon was the Minister of Human Services, and the member for Gorton was the Minister for Human Services.
They did not catch that particular case. They did not catch the case of $5,000 versus $100,000. They did not catch it then and now when they are asked what they would do if they were back in government today—and the member for Barton answered that question on ABC News Breakfast on 18 January. She was asked directly, 'What would you actually do to recover that money when there are genuine overpayments?' And she said, 'Well, Labor would do exactly what we've done in the past.'
I will just talk about the implications of that. In the past there were cases where people self-reported $5,000 but their employers said they earned $100,000. And Labor did nothing. Now they are saying that if they were back in government they would again do that same system, where they do not pick up cases like that. We do not agree with that. We think there should be a fair and reasonable system of compliance that is fair to the welfare recipient. We have already made refinements to the system, and we will continue to make refinements to the system, to make it reasonable. But it also has to be fair to the taxpayer, and that means we will continue to do this important work of data matching to identify cases where there are discrepancies and we will recoup taxpayers money when it is overpaid.
I too rise to speak on the issue of the Centrelink robo-debt mess. This is another great example of where this government of today is punishing families, pensioners, carers and low-income earners—people who, perhaps, rely on welfare to buy their food, to pay for their children's school and to ensure that they can get by, because this government cannot provide jobs. We saw the lowest job creation in the history of Australia in these last figures. At the same time, this is a government that wants to hand out $50 billion in tax cuts to the PM's wealthiest mates in big business. This is an important issue for people who come to see me in my electorate. Many have visited my electorate and have phoned me to talk about how they have received Centrelink letters stating that they have a debt when, in the true account, they have absolutely no debt.
Since December 2016, this government has sent out 20,000 letters a week. These letters are causing distress, anxiety and numerous problems for people who are honest Australians who have perhaps worked for the majority of their lives and have paid taxes and then they are being accused of being fraudulent. You can imagine the distress it would cause someone who is absolutely honest, has paid their taxes and is doing everything by the book to receive a letter saying, 'You have fraudulently received this money from Centrelink and we want you to pay it back.'
We heard the minister say that, in the first instance, they receive a letter saying, 'Please call us to talk about it.' I spoke to constituents who showed me letter that actually said, 'You have been overpaid.' Imagine the distress getting a letter that says, 'You have been overpaid through Centrelink,' causes someone who has been an honest person their entire life. This is not working. We heard the minister talk about the theory of how it should work—and it is all very nice, it is beautiful and it looks wonderful—but the reality is that it is not working, and we know it.
All of us on this side of the House have been following up constituent letters, constituent queries and constituent phone calls from people who are in distress because of these letters. Constituents who have contacted me after receiving such letters all tell me—without exception—that they specifically asked Centrelink for advice regarding how to declare their income beforehand. That is why so many are so surprised to receive a letter a year, two years and maybe three years in some cases after they have been doing everything by the book and giving Centrelink every bit of information that they have asked for. According to the Minister for Human Services, 40 per cent of those who raise their issues publicly are actually found to owe no debt and an even greater number have their debt reduced. Yet the minister still refuses to tell us how many of these debt notices that have been sent out are false or are being reviewed, challenged or repealed. So you have to wonder about how high this number may actually be.
This reform is distressing people. It is causing them stress and financial hardship—often having debt collectors knock on their door. These are often people who are in a precarious financial position to start off. It is certainly hurting people in my electorate. For example, I was contacted by a constituent who received a letter claiming that she had a $6,000 debt with Centrelink. She was told that this was incurred during a period of unemployment in 2014. My constituent was very surprised, because she keeps meticulous records and was in constant contact with Centrelink throughout this transition from being unemployed to working. When she challenged the fee, it was reduced to $330. This was clearly a mistake by the system that is meant to be working like clockwork—as we heard from the minister. You have to agree that that is a pretty big discrepancy. This constituent contacted me not only because she feels that the remaining debt is incorrect but also because she is enraged that this could happen in the first place. And that is what we have to consider here—this is actually happening.
Another constituent heard me speaking on the Leon Byner show on 5AA in South Australia—a radio program. I must commend Leon Byner from 5AA who has been advocating so strongly for people who have been sent incorrect debt letters. This constituent was sent a letter claiming that she owed even more than she had ever received from Centrelink. (Time expired)
I too am delighted to have the opportunity to rise to talk about this data-matching program, where this government has proven with its tenacity that it is in this game to govern for all Australians. We are not in this game to try to victimise people who are doing it tough. We do not take any great pleasure in going through the financials of some of our people who are doing it tough and are out of work. But, for the Labor Party to be trying to milk this issue for more than what it is worth again shows that they are becoming the ambulance chasers of the parliament, particularly when putting people up in front of the media without actually checking their details to see whether they do in fact have debts that need to be repaid to the Australian taxpayer.
This $170 million welfare system that we have is the envy of the world. When any of us travel to places like America and we see people in their hundreds living on the streets, it makes us all understand how lucky we are to be in a country where we have a welfare system that is fair and just and gives people an opportunity in times when they cannot find work. We have a safety net that we should be so proud of to make sure that support is available if you are not able to get work and, if you are not able to work, there is the disability support pension, a carer's allowance or whatever your support mechanism may be. This is the country that you want to be in if you are doing it tough.
However, there is an enormous responsibility that comes with that privilege, and that responsibility is that we should be honest, open and fair. We have just spent a summer talking about how careful politicians should be with taxpayers' money. This is a slightly different way of spending it, but this is another example of where we have to be incredibly careful with taxpayers' money. Given that the Labor Party instituted this data-matching process, we should, with the new technologies available, be able to take it to another level. If the data being received from the tax office gives us one story and it is at conflict with the data being received from Centrelink and you do not do anything about it, you are not worthy to be in this place, because you are not doing the right thing by the Australian people.
It is just a matter of how much courage you have to pursue what is right. How cheap do you want to be if you want to go after the mistakes that are in this system? Yes, obviously there have been mistakes in this system, but what we need to be looking at now is the way forward. As the minister said, when these contradictions arise and people receive a letter, it is not a letter saying that you owe us this much money and get a debt repaying plan. The letter is about notifying that a discrepancy has been identified and basically says, 'Here's the opportunity for you to explain why your income level, as per the ATO data, is different than what you have said.' It could be a date discrepancy or it could be a discrepancy in the amount. Therefore, I think what we have seen here—again, consistent with the Prime Minister's message in his address to the Press Club only last week—is that every policy and every decision of this government is giving more Australians the opportunity for them to be their best.
As we continue to govern for all Australians, we are trying to have a progressive tax system that is going to be fairer and give us a more equal society as a result. I think this is the leadership that we have been yearning for from Prime Minister Turnbull: that when we have to make these tough decisions we have Minister Porter and Minister Tudge prepared to make these calls. And yes, things have gone astray. However, now we find that they are able to say: 'Here is the way forward; this is why we are doing this.' All of us have to take responsibility for living in such a great country with such a great welfare system. (Time expired)
Whilst the member for Murray is delighted to speak on this matter, it gives me no pleasure—because this government is failing to protect vulnerable Australians. Whether it is freezing the Medicare rebate, cutting pensions, or targeting the wrong people for false debts through the government's robo-debt mess, this is a government with no heart. Whilst the minister cannot even be bothered to sit here and listen to this, I tell you what, Mr Deputy Speaker: I have got some doozies for him. If he was to listen to some of these stories, he might actually sit back and think—finally—'I should do something about this.'
My community are not leaners—as a former Liberal treasurer would describe them—but are strong, resilient people, who will work hard if given the opportunity. But you can imagine the disgust from so many in my community when this government issued notices of debt to them; notices we now know contained so many errors. People in my electorate are now questioning the legitimacy of these notices, and the amounts, but I tell you what: they are starting to feel like it is David versus Goliath, and so many of them are just giving in and paying up, because they do not have either the time or the willpower to take on what is an arduous process to get these debts removed. So far, my office has assisted three people to have their debts reversed, totalling $16,581.
One such person was Heather. Heather is a single mother who is on Newstart and works part-time. In December, right before Christmas, she received a letter from Centrelink stating she owed $7,200. She went to Centrelink and asked why. She finally got through and they said: 'If you do not enter into a payment plan, we will start deducting between $80 and $120 a week anyway.' So, being so close to Christmas, she had no choice but to enter into a payment plan of $15 a week. She went to Centrelink—on another piece of advice—to view her file. It was very clear on that file that she had one employer. But the debt notice said that she did not report her earnings for two employers—she only had the one! The officer could see it was a mistake but would do nothing about it. She went through the appeal process. She even went to a Liberal senator's office—who told her: 'It is $15 a week, don't worry about it. You have now entered into that payment plan, so you have admitted liability.' Then there is Geoff. Geoff contacted my office because he was quite distressed about getting a debt notice for $6,800. He also received an additional charge of $619.20 in debt recovery. He was so stressed that he had to go and see his GP. He did not want to try and reduce the payment plan that he had entered into, because he felt he had no other option; in fact, it only left him with $461 per fortnight. But my office received a call yesterday from Geoff to say his debt has been reduced from over $6,800 to $286. My office has been working on behalf of 10 constituents to resolve their alleged debts, totalling around $40,000. One such person is Erica, whose husband has been sent a debt letter. She acknowledges that they may have made an error in their reporting, but the debt letter alleges that he received income from an employer who he was not even working for at that time.
It would be great if members opposite could stand up in this place and defend their constituents—I am sure you have had people come to your office: actually stand up for them here, today—this is your opportunity to tell their stories. That is what we are doing; surely you can do the same. But it makes me question, is this government fraudulently and dishonestly obtaining funds from vulnerable Australians—$16,000 of debt that is not owed by the people in my electorate, so far? How much is being paid back because people feel helpless in taking on the fight, when in fact they owe nothing? The system is flawed. I call on Tasmanian Liberal senators today to support Labor's move to establish a Senate inquiry into this absolute debacle. Honest people in my electorate are being attacked, through no fault of their own, and the minister should spend his time trying to fix the mess he has created.
We as a nation believe that Australians should have a go and, where they need to, lend a hand. We have always believed in helping people who may have fallen on hard times to get back on their feet. As a representation of our community, this government believes that as well. But we must also accept that our welfare system is fundamentally broken. If you are on welfare and stay there, you will be subject to higher crime rates, lower income, higher health risks, lower lifespan, higher rates of family break-up and lower educational outcomes. Everything that should be up in our welfare system is down, and everything that should be down is up. And the chances of passing these outcomes on to your children are so improbably high that all of us should hang our heads in shame that we allow it to continue.
The Turnbull government, is determined to break the cycle of poverty that has been part of the welfare system for decades. I know those opposite would never, ever chase down a personal debt. I know that their generosity is renowned throughout the land. For example, there is the party of Mark Latham—a man who came into this parliament and said that it is appalling that politicians should enjoy such generous superannuation, but the minute he left he did not have one problem claiming his taxpayer funded, CPI adjusted, ongoing superannuation payments that allow him to be a perpetual commentator on Sky News. Or Eddie Obeid. Indeed, the member for Barton comes from that part of the Labor Party. Who can forget the generosity of Eddie, with coalmines being handed out wherever they need to be. Or Ian Macdonald. There was not a friend in the union movement that Ian could not find a coalmine for.
The problem is that at the back of this endless welfare system are hardworking Australian families who just want to get ahead. There is no coalmine, there is no Eddie and there is no Macca. No, it is hardworking Australians. When they have debt, they have to pay that debt, and they wonder what we are doing by spending $170 billion a year making things worse for the people on welfare. This is probably why the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, when they held positions of responsibility, introduced data-matching and the online system, because they knew that this was the right thing to do. No wonder the member for Barton is hedging her bets, telling The Australian that she cannot guarantee that in every case of the people she has put forward they are innocent. The member for Barton's generosity with other people's money is inexhaustible. Let us be clear: many of the people who the member for Barton has highlighted as being disadvantaged by this data-matching system owe over $10,000 to Australian taxpayers—that is, hardworking families. These are resources that could be directed to helping those who need help, helping the people who have genuinely fallen on hard times or paying back Labor's debt that now stands at $430 billion. But that is what you get from Labor: higher taxes, higher spending and higher debt—a war on hardworking Australian families who just want to get ahead. That is why they betrayed them in government and will do so again if ever given the opportunity.
Let's face it: Labor says one thing but does the opposite. Who will ever forget their concern about superannuants with $1.6 billion in their accounts having to pay tax? Who can forget? Members of my community were coming to me saying, 'But Labor's going to stand up for us.' They could not believe it after the election. They came and saw me and they said, 'Who can believe it? They've let us down. I was so surprised.' You have never had any credibility on these sorts of issues. I reckon that if the member for Barton owed Eddie Obeid $1 she would have paid him back $2 already.
I would like the member for Mackellar to withdraw the insinuation or the association he made during his speech. I know the member for Barton is a person of high integrity and should not be smeared in the way that the member for Mackellar did during his contribution. I ask him to withdraw.
I did listen to that and I do not believe that there was a need to withdraw at that time. I will remind members that, while this is a free-ranging debate, the member for Mackellar did range fairly widely and I would encourage people to stick to the topic at hand. I call the member for Mackellar.
The Centrelink robo-debt collection system demonises people and it is a blight on the Australian government. It does not follow our judicial requirements of being innocent before proven guilty. It is the reflection of the coalition's longstanding ideological issues with people who interact with Centrelink. The whole saga is an attack on students, pensioners, people with disabilities and those who rely on child support. It is stereotyping people who receive Centrelink benefits as criminals. My office has been contacted by many people who have been incorrectly accused of having Centrelink debts. I have seen pensioners who, after receiving the call and debt notice, have paid the incorrect amount because they were too scared about what would happen if they did not. No-one should be forced to do this.
One of my constituents, Jeanette Suffield, was sent an incorrect Centrelink debt claim for several thousand dollars. Jeanette's story started when she was forced to undergo surgery to reconstruct her wrist because of an injury suffered while she was working as a registered nurse. She had no leave built up, but, because the surgery required prolonged recovery, she was forced to take unpaid leave and take the sickness benefits for a short period of time. After being alerted to this debt, Jeanette was asked to report her income for the year and question it multiple times, both over the phone and online, which she did. Despite lodging an official appeal over the phone and on paper at a Centrelink office, she was unable to get on to anyone who could help her resolve this issue. She was told that she had to set up a payment plan to repay her debt or it would go to collections. Only after my office made contact with the office of the Minister for Social Services was Jeanette contacted to say her debt had been waived because the assessment was wrong.
This whole process has become such a mess that Centrelink is now referring any inquiries for my constituents directly to my office so that we can write a representation on their behalf. Centrelink staff are overwhelmed and the upcoming strike is a symptom of that. Whilst many people have contacted me, including many with disabilities and some with mental health issues and in severe distress, my major concern is the process and the complete disregard of what we should expect of our government.
The government has, of course, been suffering from something of a pandemic of IT-related issues over the last 12 to 18 months, but the whole system is broken. According to the Australian National Audit Office, nearly a quarter of the 57 million phone calls made to Centrelink in 2015 went unanswered, and the auditors calculated that Australians spent 143 years waiting in vain to speak to Centrelink in 2013-2014 before simply hanging up. How much of this is directly its own doing and how much is related to a general mindset, both public and private, is a matter for consideration.
Much of this can be ascribed to the mad-scientist syndrome amongst certain ministers who are relying just on IT solutions; some of them appear to be the spawn of what Paul Keating described as the 'feral abacus' some years back. Much of this is down to many years of ill-considered efficiency dividends and untargeted cuts to service delivery areas in the Australian Public Service. It is hard to believe that poor management or sheer arrogance have not played a part, and I think we have seen that today. I know that the government ministers involved are not bad people on a personal level, but the fact that they deny there is a problem despite incontrovertible evidence and that they continue to deny the extreme difficulty in contacting Centrelink—the waiting for hours on the phone and computer-illiterate pensioners being told to sort it out online—to me, is just a failure of government.
We do not live in sub-Sahara in Africa, or in Zambia or in a Baltic state before the lifting of the Iron Curtain. Many people who have contacted me have been greatly distressed, and I feel ashamed that we treat some of the most disadvantaged people in our society in this way. Labor has repeatedly asked for this system to be suspended until there is a review and until there is some human oversight. I call on the ministers to act now, before more decent people are put through this inhuman system that is reminiscent of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. A culture has been developed by this government of ill-considered efficiency dividends that damage the public and have no human input. We live in Australia, and we expect our government to care about its people. This is shameful, and we need to return to basic principles of government that support all of our population, not just the privileged few. I believe a Prime Ministerial apology should be given to all those damaged by this fiasco.
I have listened with interest to the members who have contributed to this debate. At a time when public overhead costs in developed societies are increasing at a disproportionate rate to taxation revenue, leading to budget deficits and ever-increasing national debt, not many developed and advanced First World nations are in surplus. If we want to fund essential services in health, education, law and order and defence whilst maintaining income and company tax at affordable rates, we have to create a more disciplined society with less waste and more social responsibility.
The government has a responsibility to ensure the integrity of our $170 billion welfare system, which represents almost a third of the federal budget. The Australian public expects the highest standards of integrity, efficiency and effectiveness in our welfare system, with a proactive approach to compliance and audit. The government believes that it is appropriate to reconcile the income declared to Centrelink with that recorded by the Australian Taxation Office and, where there is a discrepancy in the sum that the person concerned has declared, they should be queried. This practice of checking Centrelink records with Australian Taxation Office records has been in place since the introduction by Labor of the Data-matching Program (Assistance and Tax) Act 1990. In fact, it was the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition—as Assistant Treasurer and human services minister respectively—who first introduced the online automation of data checking in 2011. As I understand it, the online compliance intervention does not automate debt recovery—it is a system which automates only a part of the existing standard compliance review process.
The Department of Human Services always provides assistance when people request it, and this has not changed. If a discrepancy is identified in the process, it requires people to confirm or amend their information online. However, a person can call the dedicated 1800 number for assistance at any time. It is important to note that people with vulnerability indicators on their record are not included in the online process of review but are, instead, screened via the manual process. Initial letters are not debt collection letters; rather, they are a request for people to explain discrepancies between the self-reported income data collected by Centrelink and the information the Australian Taxation Office holds. No determination that a debt exists has been made at this point. It is not simply a recovery exercise; rather, the initial letter is sent to individuals inviting them to engage with the Department of Human Services to explain the discrepancy. No decision to raise a debt or otherwise is undertaken until the person has been provided an opportunity to confirm or update their information.
Centrelink currently has five million clients and, unfortunately, there are some who deliberately defraud the system, while others inadvertently fail to correctly update their income information. When this occurs they receive an overpayment, and must repay it. The government's welfare compliance system is checking the data going back to the Labor years and has discovered cases where people were overpaid. It is helping to raise $4.5 million in debt owed to the Commonwealth each day. I understand that we are dealing with real people, with real personal circumstances, but this does not displace the need to maintain integrity in our welfare system.
When welfare recipients have received thousands of dollars in payments from the taxpayer, in general, it is not unreasonable to ask them to consider and explain any discrepancy in reported income. To balance the budget the government must implement a wide range of measures which seek to incrementally achieve savings and efficiencies over time and give the public the chance to adapt to the changes and modify their behaviour. These measures include programs to increase workforce participation, to clamp down on law and order issues and to ensure that health costs are sustainable and education funding is administered more prudently.
If there was ever an example of this government losing touch with the community, the robo-debt debacle is it. If there was ever an example of this government losing faith with community, the robo-debt debacle is it. And if there was ever a way for a government to hurt the community, just as this government has done, the robo-debt debacle is it.
This government is in denial about the pain that they have caused the community. Every single one of the speakers today—and I do note they are in ultrasafe Liberal-held seats; they did not put up any marginal seat holders to debate this one today, did they, Mr Deputy Speaker?
Doesn't that say it all, member for Gilmore? Take the message perhaps about what they think of you. What I am saying today is: this minister and every single one of the speakers, you have got one shot—member for Gilmore, through you, Mr Deputy Speaker—to say one word, sorry, to apologise to the thousands of people that have been caused pain and stress. It is all very well for you to get up and lecture—through you, Mr Deputy Speaker—the member for Moore, talking about the history of Centrelink and what the 1800 number is that no-one can ring or no-one answers. What we want is an apology from this government for the pain and unnecessary harm that they have caused.
Every day that I walk through that chamber into this parliament, I am reminded of the duty that I have to speak for those people who do not have a voice, and thousands of those members of my community, just in the other 150 electorates right around Australia, were caused a summer of pain. What an outrage from the member for Mackellar, lecturing people about taxpayers' money while this Centrelink debacle was going on, with members of the government being exposed for some of the largest rorting that we have seen in travel expenses. What an absolute shame. I say: we, on this side, through the member for Barton and the Leader of the Opposition, have taken the fight up for those people who need a voice. Just today we have seen the Senate take action for an inquiry into this debacle.
I want to spend some time—and don't you love the buzzwords from the government: 'miscalculation', 'oversight'. It is a stuff-up; that is what they have done—'repurposing'. In the debate today we had the member for Murray: 'Oh, we've had some contradictions.' 'We've had some people go astray.' No, you haven't. You stuffed the system up and you have caused pain when people did not need that.
Let's talk about what is happening in the real world, as we are lectured by those opposite. I am going to read into the transcript a correspondence from a mother in my electorate. In October her son 'received notification of these alleged debts by text message from Centrelink. He contacted them to clarify their queries, explained he'd provided them with all the information they required at the time, including the letter of separation needed when his job had finished, which they had 'lost' in their data, and was assured that it was all fine and he owed nothing and to check the Centrelink account in 14 days. He did this. It didn't show zero dollars owing. He called again to sort it out and was told that for some reason the system hadn't changed it. They'd do it again and he could go in and reset it. He tried. It didn't work. He contacted them again. They tried while he was online. It didn't work. They said they would have to go to someone higher and check it in 14 days. It would then show zero dollars. It didn't, so he waited another week just in case. He then contacted Centrelink. Yet again he'd spent over five hours on the phone taking a day off work to do this'—this is someone who owes zero dollars—'all to go through it all over again. He was assured again that it would now be okay. In late November he received a text from Centrelink collection agency Dun & and Bradstreet demanding payment by 8 pm that evening or face legal action and possibly jail. He rang Centrelink and was told his review was not yet completed on the system. He owed zero, but it was out of their hands. Now it was with the collection agencies. He was then told to pay $200 for initial payment and then $20 per month, the lowest amount as advised. Just before Christmas, he received three letters from Centrelink on the same day. Two of the letters were statements on two different amounts in which he was informed he owed due to overpayment.'
On it goes and on it goes. For those opposite to lecture anyone about competence or arrogance is breathtaking. I do not know what is more shocking to me: the arrogance of those opposite or the sheer and utter incompetence that they have delivered onto the Australian people. We, on this side, will not be silent. We will continue to speak out against the cuts, the removal of the safety net that all of those opposite are trying to do, because Australians deserve much better than this government. (Time expired)
Our nation has an amazing system of welfare support, representing almost a third of the federal government budget. Things that have happened in recent times are not a generation of efficiency dividends. Sometimes I think that running a country is a bit like running a business, and I can say that after 17 years of making fudge, sending it out and collecting money for the stuff I sent out. If I sent too much or a customer owed me money, we would negotiate a payment and work out a schedule. I made a mistake. They might have made a mistake. We fixed it. I am not saying that the system is pure, but this is exactly the same as recovering overpayments from the taxpayer funded welfare support system. And it is only being done when there is an apparent difference between the self-declared income of a welfare recipient and the records held by the Australian tax office.
The system is going through some teething problems. We all know that. However, I have had a little look at the statistics that have been quoted this afternoon, and each member has stood up and said, I've had 10' in one case. Some people have said, 'I've had up to 100 constituents who have needed assistance.' I do not know about you but I have got 114,000 constituents. I have had about 14 people who have needed my help. I am sure there will be more, because I have just said to people: 'Come and ask me to help you, if this is causing you grief.'
This is my job. We are there to help these people get through a system that may not have worked for them. This is your job—the opposition—but that is not a lot in the scale of things in this system. Instead of putting their lives on the public record—I hope you got their permission to do so, because it is a complete breach of privacy, if you did not–you should have gone straight to the minister, as all of us did, and said: 'A constituent's got a problem. Can we help them?' That is our job as members of parliament. We are there to help our constituents and not throw their lives into the newspaper. Get real. Get it fixed and help sort these problems out for the people.
Opposition members interjecting—
Yes, we are in government. Guess what? We are fixing it, and this is part of the process. There needs to be a drop of reality on the other side. Running a country is like running a business. We need to be completely focused on helping our constituents at all times instead of making a public debacle of their lives. What you have done is very, very wrong. I am not happy with the way things were done, and I am sure I know how to calculate. If you have a hundred constituents that you need to help, that is less than one in 1,000 people in your electorate, and it is our job to assist them. If there is a problem, you go to the minister and you help fix it. That is our job in every aspect of what we do.
I am sure that, for every person you have represented in parliament today—through the Acting Deputy Speaker—you have permission for that particular public thing. Even though there is privilege in here, you have actually exposed their life to public criticism, particularly when that person still owes money. I personally would not like any of my constituents to be exposed that way.
I really think we need a concerted effort to work together on this situation. We are running a country. There is a debt to be paid back. There is a system in place. I want all of those in my electorate who are entitled to government income support to be able to earn that government income support and to be able to exist on it. What do I say to this person here who should be getting income support when they have a neighbour who they know should not be getting that income support? This is all part of the process of balancing the payments, making sure people feel safe and secure in their income support and that this government is doing the right thing by those who are absolutely entitled to be getting support. (Time expired)