Senate debates

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Matters of Public Importance

Pensions and Benefits

4:32 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the matter of public importance put forward today. The MPI today says:

The need for the Morrison Government to explain what happens to all those who have been victims of robodebt and what happens to the money obtained improperly by the Commonwealth.

I think that is a very, very important question. The fact is that this government's robodebt scheme has been an absolute failure; in fact, is has been a disaster. It has seen tens of thousands of recipients being overcharged or being alleged to have a debt to the Commonwealth government. This is from a government who has no plans and no vision for the country going forward.

The government has pretended that there is nothing wrong with the scheme, but we know that it has been inaccurate, it's been unfair and it's been so damaging to some of the most vulnerable people in our community. We would all expect that, if there were a genuine debt owed to the Commonwealth, people would repay that debt. But this scheme has been unfair and the system it has used has been dodgy—the effect of which has led to some serious health outcomes; in fact, mental health issues.

We have to consider that, for many Australians who have had to rely on the Commonwealth for some funds, there may have been circumstances where they have become homeless and no longer have their records. And the majority of people in these circumstances wouldn't be keeping their payslips and evidence for seven years. As I said, if there is a genuine debt then we would expect those Australians to repay that. The former Administrative Appeals Tribunal senior member Mr Terry Carney has warned that the alleged debts are in fact unlawful and that income averaging is not a proper basis on which to claim a debt. But does the Commonwealth listen to an expert? Obviously they haven't. And we've seen that displayed by this government through their arrogance on so many occasions.

Remember when we found out that nearly 200 Australians who had passed away had been pursued by this government under the robodebt scheme—and yes, those opposite are willing to go beyond the grave to try to get the money back from those individuals. Senator Kitching—who is in the chair at this moment—asked why the government were applying robodebt to the dead, and the minister, Senator Ruston, answered:

This can occur for a range of reasons, for example, where the department was not aware that the person was deceased, a delay in processing, a manual staff error or a combination of all these matters.

The government has said its standard practice is not to knowingly start an income compliance process on dead people—that's good to know—but it admits that it chased estates and representatives of the deceased customers 515 times, ultimately wiping the debt in 442 of the cases. There have been over 234,000 people attacked by robodebt. That is the number of times since 2016 that the government's alleged robodebts have been wiped or reduced because they were wrong. Chasing people down in this very ad hoc manner has led to undue stress on people and their finances. And we still don't know what the Commonwealth is going to do for those people who have paid a debt that they in fact didn't owe.

I would really like to see this government go back to the drawing board, and perhaps, in hindsight, they might want to ensure that their processes are more transparent—in fact, more accurate—and do whatever is possible to ensure that they're not chasing dead people for money they may or may not owe. As a government, our responsibility is, obviously, to chase down debt that is genuinely owed but also to treat people with some dignity and to remember that we're talking about human beings. As we know, this government have a history of terrorising fellow Australians, particularly Australian workers—as we see in the bill that's before the Senate at the moment. They're also terrorising unions because unions dare to represent working-class people, and we know that the government terrorise people on Newstart by expecting them to live on something that is not even achievable, no matter how good a manager a person might be. If this government were really genuine, they would actually put a stop to these robodebts and they would get their processes right. That's what this government should be doing. It is a matter of priority for the government to re-evaluate the incompetent, unfair and inaccurate process that they are currently using.

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