Senate debates

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Matters of Public Importance


5:31 pm

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I inform the Senate that at 8.30 am today Senators Gallagher, Hinch and Siewert each submitted a letter in accordance with standing order 75, proposing a matter of public importance. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Siewert:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

The Government's disastrous and inaccurate automated debt recovery process and its refusal to abandon the system.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

5:32 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to convince the Senate that the government's disastrous and inaccurate automated debt recovery process, and its refusal to abandon the system, is a great matter of importance. I also rise to convince the Senate to support that particular contention.

The Turnbull government's disastrous and inaccurate automated debt recovery system has resulted in misery, concern, frustration and anger for a great many Australians. While it may be a new year in parliament, we see no change in the government's ongoing attack on Australians relying on the social safety net. Many of us here in this chamber were lucky enough to have time off with family, friends and loved ones over the holiday period. However, many Australians—who are not represented here today but who we are supposed to be representing—were not so fortunate. The Christmas holiday period is already stressful for many Australians who do not have a high and significant income. It brings on issues of ongoing financial stress and affects people's mental health, and this is reflected in the statistics. But during this time, which is stressful for many vulnerable low-income Australians, the government chose to launch its worst attack of late on income support recipients. It is certainly the worst attack and the worst-timed attack that I have seen during my time in parliament—and I have seen many attacks during that time.

I know that many Australians save all year to enjoy the Christmas period with their families and to make sure that their children have an enjoyable time. Yet, due to the actions of this government, many Australians have been in a state of panic and distress about the debt notices that they have been receiving, demanding payments of thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, without explanation, just days before Christmas. The government may play around with some of the words around the debt notices, but, when they got those letters, that is how people read them—as debt notices. Recipients of these notices were, and are continuing to be, assumed guilty. They are directed to start making payments virtually immediately or to prove that they have made the correct reports through providing pay slips from, in some cases, many years ago—sometimes where businesses are no longer operating—despite the Centrelink website advising until recently that they only needed to keep pay slips for six months. Who in this place still has pay slips from previous jobs, jobs from five or six years ago? When people have attempted to do that, they have been directed to talk to Centrelink, but it is nearly impossible to get hold of Centrelink via phone or online. Try using the myGov website to resolve a situation, particularly when you are frustrated and scared about these debt notices. Many people have told me about the long waiting times, and I have talked about those waiting times in this place on numerous occasions. The government's response was, 'You can phone Centrelink,' and they say the average waiting time is a relatively short amount of time. It is not. If you have tried, you know that it takes a very long time to get through to Centrelink. In fact, people have been sending me screenshots from their phones showing how long they have spent waiting on the line, trying to get through to Centrelink. Because of troubles with the system—there were 29 million missed calls last financial year—we know that the fundamentals of the system are flawed.

I have heard many accounts of the flaws that are occurring, so let me talk about a few. They have been averaging out the wages that somebody has earned over a year, matching it to Centrelink or ATO records for the year and then saying that the debt is owed. There are varying types of records that are being matched up by the computer. This is a recipe for disaster, as the records simply cannot be properly matched, as we have seen. Payments have been averaged out that were short-term and have then been calculated over a period of a year when the person was not, in fact, employed for the whole year.

I have also heard of school teachers on short contracts receiving debt notices of over $10,000 because the automated system has not recognised that the payslips they received with the name of the school on them at which they teach were in fact the same records as those the ATO had saying 'Department of Education'. So the system has assumed there were two different incomes there and, therefore, said to teachers, 'You owe a debt.' This is from the system that the government was trying to defend during question time, saying that it was working fine. How could it be working fine when one wage is being counted twice because the system does not recognise different names for the same employer! I have heard people have received debt notices saying that they owe $10,000 for overpayment while on WorkCover. And people are having to fly interstate—this is one of the accounts that have I got—to try and retrieve documents from five years ago. And then they cannot be uploaded to the Centrelink website!

Many people have started paying debts despite having records to prove that they have been paid correctly simply because: they cannot get into contact with Centrelink; their internal review is taking so long that they do not want to be opening a door to a debt collector; they are scared—they get these notices and they are scared; and/or they cannot access their records. And, so, they start paying.

Some overpayment notices have been out for quite a while. In fact, people have now contacted me saying, 'I've started paying this debt because they thought they must be right. I thought they were wrong but I thought I must have done something wrong.' It was not until they started hearing all the other people getting errors in debt notices that they realised something was wrong.

I have been contacted by Centrelink workers who have told us that even when the paperwork has been uploaded as requested it simply sits there as there is no-one to process it, and people's erroneous remains and gets sent to the debt collectors. Those on the inside say that delays in processing are literally getting longer by the day to the extent that things are getting completely out of control.

Some of the so-called overpayments are a result of system or administrative errors by Centrelink. When I asked a question on notice about this—Centrelink does not even count, the department does not count, the number of errors that they have made. So we have no idea how many of these so-called overpayments are a result of errors by the agency. And then, even when they do identify that it is as a result of an error by the agency, there is no grace period for people. It is not their fault that they have been overpaid. All of these are problems with the automated system creating debts that people do not, in fact, have. The government is so focused on trying to undermine our social safety net. They are so anxious to put blame and to victimise vulnerable Australians that rely on our social safety net when they are letting people get away with millions and millions of dollars in tax avoidance. They are negotiating with people that owe millions and millions of dollars, and letting them off millions of dollars. Yet, they are chasing the most vulnerable members of our community with a system that is totally flawed and that needs to be abandoned.

Government senators are trying to stand here in this place today and defend a flawed system which is having a direct impact on people's lives. The system ruined people's Christmas. People are stressed. It has resulted in mental health. We are getting phone calls into my office with people that talk about taking their own lives as a result of this process. We of course have been referring them on to the appropriate advice, such as through Lifeline. But when you get to a situation where people are talking about literally taking their own lives—they are scared witless about how they are going to pay the bills; you could open a bill and see a debt for $10,000—this system is broken. It needs to be abandoned. They need to scrap it now.

5:42 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Families and Payments) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, rise to speak on this MPI about the Centrelink debt recovery debacle. It has absolutely been a debacle. The start of the year has been marked by many failures from this government, but none have had a greater impact on so many vulnerable people than the Centrelink debt recovery debacle. By any measure, it has been an epic failure.

What is most concerning about this debacle is the trauma that has been inflicted on thousands of Australians on low and fixed incomes who have done nothing wrong other than to access the support that they are entitled to. To receive a debt recovery notice with virtually no explanation of the circumstances surrounding the alleged debt would be shocking for anyone. But for people on low and fixed incomes this sort of notice from the Australian government agency can be devastating.

We have to have a look at exactly what has happened. We are talking about people that have accessed Centrelink—whether they have at one time been students who have then moved into paid work, casual workers that have been supplemented by Centrelink payments who have then moved into a higher paid job, or pensioners or others that receive a Centrelink payment that have also supplemented their income through paid work. So we are talking about people who have had paid work, had jobs and have, most likely, paid some income tax. This is what we are talking about. We are talking about the ATO and the Centrelink records being married up together. But they are two systems that are completely different. This system that has been put into place, the Centrelink system, does not match the ATO system. The requirements of the Centrelink system do not match those of the ATO system. What has happened is a fundamental failure of this government to protect its own people. That is what has happened. We have heard here today, and also during question time, stories about people who have thousands and thousands of dollars worth of debt notices that have not been correct. We have heard today that up to 40 per cent of debt notices have been incorrect. Seriously, that needs to be fixed. The government needs to suspend its issuing of debt notices, see what the issues are and fix them. Because until it does that it is putting upon its own people stress, distress and an absolute inability to pay debts that they do not actually owe.

In Hobart a rally was organised by a northern suburbs community action group, and many people turned up to express their anger. The following day we had the honour of having Linda Burney, the shadow minister for human services, come down and talk to people who have had debt notices sent to them. In Tasmania we have heard many people who have received incorrect notices. We have also had every single Liberal senator from Tasmania say, 'There's a problem.' Senator Abetz has been on the radio saying, 'There's a problem. Let's fix it'. We have had not only the Premier of Tasmania but the Minister for Human Services in Tasmania saying, 'Stop what you're doing. It's wrong. It's not working. You're targeting people with incorrect debt notices. Stop it now.'

There are consequences of these debt notices for people: they are being sent to debt collectors. That means they now have a bad credit rating that is not of their own making. That is what is happening. Stop pretending. Do not stand up and protect the government. It is wrong. Think about the people that you represent in your home states. It has to be suspended and it has to be suspended now. (Time expired).

5:47 pm

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We have seen a great deal of media coverage on the Centrelink debt recovery situation, a number of protests and even a couple of trending hashtags. In emotive situations such as these it is very easy to get caught up, and that is why it is always imperative to examine the facts.

Australia prides itself on having a welfare system—a social safety net—that is the envy of much of the world. It is generous, it is fair and it provides for those who need it. But welfare is not and never has been obligation free. There is a quid pro quo. Those receiving welfare have a moral and societal duty to let Centrelink know about changes in their financial and personal circumstances that might change the amount or the type of welfare that they receive. Welfare recipients have this societal duty to report changes to their personal circumstances to Centrelink because the welfare they receive is the redistribution of taxes. Welfare payments come from the hip pockets of ordinary working Australians. Taxpayers understand this. Indeed, it is an integral part of our society's compact. We help those who cannot help themselves. We provide a hand to those in strife. We look after our vulnerable. And we do so willingly and generously.

For a number of years now Centrelink has matched its data with that of the tax office to ensure that people are being paid correctly—the right form of welfare and the right amount. This is not new. The only difference now is that the system is automated rather than manual. If a discrepancy between the two sets of data is identified it is the best indicator that the welfare recipient's personal circumstances may have changed. A letter is then sent to the welfare recipient asking them to confirm or update their financial details, and they have 21 days to respond to the request. During this 21 days the welfare recipients payments continue. If the welfare recipient does not respond or if they respond in a manner that indicates changed circumstances, Centrelink will ask for the money to be repaid. Centrelink is not the bad guy. Centrelink, as a custodian of taxpayers' money, is well within its remit to ask for taxpayers' money to be repaid when it has been wrongly received. This is how Australia's welfare system remains fair.

What concerns me most is the despicable political opportunism of the Labor Party on this matter. Once again the opposition have met our low expectations. Labor's Centrelink scare campaign has been exposed as a fraud. The Leader of the Opposition's rhetoric of 'the summer from hell', of 'hounding ordinary Australians' and of 'cruelty' is mendacious in the extreme. Trading integrity for headlines, the ALP's response has been a seamless continuation of its disgraceful and deceitful Mediscare campaign. Perhaps this behaviour might have been okay in the union movement, from which so many of them have come. Maybe such a demonstrable lack of integrity for the sake of ideological expedience is even admired, but in the corporate sector and the private sector—where I have spent most of my working life—such deceit would be a sackable offence. In the real world good people do not tolerate deceit.

However, it does not stop there. This time the Labor Party have reached a new low. The ALP have not just exposed themselves; they have unscrupulously used unsuspecting welfare recipients as media patsies to further their political objectives. A thorough review by Centrelink has shown that the majority of people who have been featured in the media alleging mistreatment by Centrelink's compliance system actually do owe money to the Australian taxpayer. According to The Australian newspaper reports of 27 January, one of the young people Labor were parading in front of the media as a victim of the big bad coalition had in fact received $12,000 in youth allowance to which they were not entitled, because they had not declared income from several jobs. Another had been working for a whole year and yet still drew welfare payments, leading to a debt of $4,000. Another woman who claimed to be wrongly pursued by Centrelink had failed to declare $37,500 in income from a small business.

How dare Senator Brown accuse this government of failing 'their own people'. The ALP exploited these people. You exploited them. You held them up to be poster children and victims in a ruthless, political and ideological pursuit. But you did not do your homework. You were sloppy and you were heartless. You made fools of those people in the public domain. You paraded them in front of the media and you sacrificed their privacy. I would be interested to know if you have apologised to those people for that public humiliation. Have you apologised to them for such public humiliation? Did you do any fact checking at all before you paraded them on talkback radio and before you paraded them in front of the media?

Did you know that one-third of the cases raised actually had absolutely nothing to do with the online compliance system? Did you also know that many of these debts that the welfare recipients had accrued were accrued during a time of Labor government? The debts accrued under your watch. What were you doing back then? Obviously, not much. Evidently, nothing. They accrued under your watch. You did not pursue these cases on your watch and now you have the audacity to have a go at a government for doing the job that you should have done.

We all know that money to pay welfare does not grow on trees; it comes from taxpayers, from taxpayers' hip pockets, and taxpayers have a right to know that their money is being distributed accurately and to those most vulnerable, to those most in need, to those who cannot look after themselves, not to those who do not meet their societal obligations, not to those who do not recognise that with welfare comes obligations. With welfare there is a quid pro quo. This is what governing responsibly is all about—making sure that taxpayers' rights are as paramount as those of welfare recipients.

The opposition is right in one thing. This deceit, this unscrupulous, opportunistic posturing, and this unprincipled exploitation of ordinary Australians who are unused to media scrutiny is indeed—

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

Really? Don't you listen to your community? Heartless.

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Heartless, you are absolutely right. Exploiting welfare recipients for political opportunism is heartless and it is indeed a matter of public importance. So thank you very much for raising this issue, Senator Siewert. Thank you very much for allowing this government to shed light on the issue. Thank you very much.

5:57 pm

Photo of Brian BurstonBrian Burston (NSW, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise as well to debate this MPI on the debt recovery process. I have previously said that this debt recovery system is malicious and bordering on criminal, and I stand by that assessment. The daily disasters that we hear about this process are more than just a series of innocent mistakes. Of course, it is important that our welfare system is carefully administered and guarded to prevent rorting. One Nation has proudly been the strongest voice in terms of cracking down on the exploitation of the system by the lazy, greedy and dishonest. This system does not do that. It is a deliberate shakedown of the most vulnerable by a government that wants to squeeze every bit of blood it can out of people, with little regard to whether those payments are genuinely owed or not.

The people receiving these debt notices know that they are unjust and unfair. The people with the job of administering the system know it is unjust and unfair. The whole community knows this system is unjust and unfair. The government's refusal to back down on this process in the face of the obvious errors and the huge distress they have caused just goes to further prove the ugly indifference to injustice that they showed when they implemented it in the first place. The issue is that it does not matter if you are right. If the government insists you are wrong then you have a massive problem.

Every government program will have errors of some kind, but in this system the errors are the whole point. It is a system for generating debt claims and then harassing people into paying up, whether those claims are justified or not. In my view, this is deliberate. The reason I say that is that the system has been designed to frustrate attempts to clear up discrepancies. Centrelink staff have been prohibited from leaving file notes on individual cases, so every time a person calls to try to sort out their issue they have to start from square one and do it all over again. Why would this be the case if the goal was to reconcile debts to payments?

The new system ignores limiting points which were put in place to establish that all debts to payments had been reconciled. Instead, it trawls back through old data and throws up alerts based on issues that have already been dealt with, but these are often so long ago that people no longer have any of the records they need to prove it. Why would this be the case if the goal was to reconcile debts to payments?

Centrelink staff are required to direct complainants to an online form, despite the fact that these issues can be resolved without the manual help of a Centrelink officer. Why would this be the case if the goal was to reconcile debts to payments?

The truth of the matter is that the government simply wants more money, and it has set up a system to create false claims through the deliberate disregard of limiting points, and to frustrate attempts to correct those false claims. The goal is not to reconcile debts to payments. The goal is to harass people into paying what they do not owe. This so-called debt recovery process is a disgusting abuse of power, and it is one for which the government must be held to account.

One Nation will certainly support a Senate inquiry into this issue. If this process is as deliberate as I fear and believe, those responsible will definitely seek to hide their guilt. It is necessary for the sake of good governance and for justice that they are exposed and held to account. Thank you.

6:02 pm

Photo of James PatersonJames Paterson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Welcome back, colleagues. Great to see you all after a clearly restful break over the summer. I am sad that Senator Dastyari is no longer in the chamber, because I was going to compliment him on his haircut. He is looking very sharp, in contrast to the way he finished the end of last year.

I thank the Greens for raising this important matter in the Senate. They are right that the efficient administration of government programs is a very important issue and they are right that bureaucracies must be as careful as possible to administer their payments in the most sensitive way. But the Turnbull government makes no apologies for ensuring the integrity of our welfare system. It is a $170 billion welfare system which takes up nearly one-third of the budget, and its integrity is of paramount importance. People deserve to be paid exactly what they are eligible for, but they do not deserve to be paid $1 more—

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

No-one disagrees with that.

Photo of James PatersonJames Paterson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

and overpayments, whether they are through error or fraud, must be recovered.

Now, the Labor Party—and I hear Senator Polley interjecting—pay lip service to this idea that of course overpayments should be recovered and of course people should only be paid what they are owed, and what they say they care about is an efficient and fair process. Well, we all care about that. There is nothing which distinguishes you from us on that. Centrelink should be recovering these debts in a fair and transparent way. But the truth is that Labor's time in office left a legacy of overpayments that they did not resolve, that they failed to resolve—billions of dollars of overpayments—which this government now, regrettably, has to deal with.

If we are being completely honest, a significant undercurrent of the Labor Party campaign and the campaign that their allies in the media have been running over the summer, is that it is somehow unfair or unreasonable to recover these funds. The question that they are clearly seeking to leave people with is that, if they were overpaid, somehow that is okay; if they were overpaid, it is not really their fault; if they were overpaid, it should not really be recovered.

It is a very sad state of affairs when the so-called party of workers reveal themselves to really be the party of welfare. I will not bother addressing my comments to the Greens because they at least have the decency not to claim to be the party of workers. But the Labor Party has claimed and does claim to be the party of workers, and let us remember that what we are talking about here is working-people's money. It is their hard-earned money raised by us in taxes, which is done to provide a necessary safety net for Australians but nothing more than that. If we do not stop the overpayment of welfare, we are in effect taxing people more than we need to, taking more from their family budget than we need to, in order to pay people welfare that they are not entitled to. That is wrong.

The Labor Party have been badly exposed by their own campaign. Many of the cases that they have brought to the media's attention have been ones that appear to constitute fraud, and others that may have been the result of genuine error but are nonetheless still overpayments that must be recovered.

The Australiannewspaper has published a number of revealing reports on this issue, and I want to quote from one by Joe Kelly, published on 26 January. He says:

As revealed in The Australian, an assessment of 52 cases of people publicly claiming they were being harassed by Centrelink with automated debt notices found that 18 people had in fact been identified under a manual system established by the former Labor government.

So we can take those 18 out. He says:

Of the remaining 34 cases subject to the new system, 60 per cent had been found to have been overpaid for failing to declare other sources of income.

We can take those cases out. He says:

A further 12 per cent who had been found to owe money had asked for a reassessment while the remaining number of aggrieved welfare recipients had not bothered to contact Centrelink.

You have to doubt somewhat the sincerity of someone who goes to the media first without even attempting to contact Centrelink to resolve their case. So, even among the tiny number of 52 cases that had been revealed in the media—the supposedly shocking cases which reveal the failure of this process—only 12 per cent of people were who had been found to owe money and had asked for a reassessment. It is their right to ask for a reassessment. They should ask for a reassessment, and it should be carefully and fairly assessed by Centrelink to ensure whether they in fact do owe the money that they had initially been found to owe. But 12 per cent of 52 who had applied for a review and who will not necessarily be found to be in the right in that review is a very small proportion indeed and nothing like what the Labor Party has suggested.

Sadly, there are some good, concrete examples of this in action. These have been de-identified for obvious reasons to protect people's privacy. There was a recipient—who has been identified in the media; a male from Victoria—who had received Newstart for all of the 2013 and 2014 financial years. During that time, they declared that they had received less than $12,000 in employment income. In fact, Australian Taxation Office data showed they had earned more than $16,000 during that time. The customer had accrued a debt of approximately $3,000 in those financial years. It is good that this new system has identified this debt to the Commonwealth—it has identified this instance where someone has been paid welfare to which they were not entitled—and the system is now seeking to recover that debt. A second customer, also a male and also from Victoria, had received Austudy for all of the 2014-15 financial year. During that time, they declared less than $15,000 in employment income. However, ATO data showed that they had earned more than $25,000 during that time. As a result, they owed a debt of approximately $3½ thousand to the Commonwealth for those financial years. Again, I am pleased, personally, that that has been identified by the new system. I am glad that it has been identified.

Alan Tudge, the responsible minister, was addressing this issue in the House today. He talked about two further extraordinary examples of even greater sums. A Queensland male had been receiving Newstart for all of the financial years 2011-12 and 2012-13. During that time, they declared less than $5,000 of employment income to Centrelink. In fact, ATO data showed they had received more than $100,000 during that time. So, if someone has received $100,000 in two financial years and declared that they had only received $5,000, it is likely that every single dollar of Newstart that they received was received under false pretences and should be repaid.

Alan Tudge talked about another example, again another Victorian male and again a recipient of the Newstart allowance. Over three financial years, they declared less than $11,000 in income. Again, the ATO data showed they had earned more than $65,000 during that time. This is something that the new system identified and picked up. I think that is actually a very welcome thing. If it were not for these new processes, if it were not for the reforms brought in by this government and recovery sought for this money, then these may have never been uncovered. These people who had received welfare which they were not entitled to receive may never have been identified.

Labor is asking the government to scrap this successful process, which is successfully identifying cases of overpayment. In effect, what Labor is trying to protect is people who have defrauded either deliberately or inadvertently through error the welfare system and received money that they are not entitled to receive. They have asked us to stop a system which is recovering taxpayers' money—money that should never have been paid, but nonetheless has been paid. The coalition government will continue with this process because it is successfully identifying cases of overpayment and identifying cases of fraud, and it is acting appropriately to address it.

The government is recovering those funds because, at the end of the day, the Australian people do not go to work, working long hours to support their family and pay a reasonable share of that income to the federal government in taxes to support the services that we all enjoy, unless they know that those dollars are going to be used wisely and fairly. They do not go to work with the expectation that we are going take more money than we need to from them in order to give it to someone who is not entitled to it. These are working people whose family budget depends in part on how much money the government takes from them each year. If we take less of it, there will be much less strain on their family budget. If we take more of it, there will be more strain on their family budget—and it is morally wrong to take more than we need to to pay someone who is not entitled to it. That is what this system addresses. That is what this system has identified. There are potentially billions of dollars of funds involved in this, and it is entirely appropriate that the government is using the latest technology and data matching to achieve this end.

6:11 pm

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

The performance of the coalition on this issue today, both in question time and in this MPI, has been nothing short of pathetic. It shows why they are so incompetent. It certainly demonstrates how uncaring they are, and it shows what a cruel government they are. They really are pathetic. No-one in this Senate, no-one in the parliament, wants anyone to receive one cent that they are not entitled to, but you do not deal with that by incompetent management of the Centrelink system and by hounding innocent members of the public and making claims on them. If a private company had done this, that private company would be the ones engaged in fraud. It is Centrelink that is carrying out the fraudulent exercise here on behalf of an incompetent, uncaring and cruel government. That is the bottom line here.

This is about revenue raising at the expense of innocent Australians. Some of them do not owe the government one cent. For Senator Hume and Senator Paterson to stand up here and give us a couple of examples of where there has been fraudulent activity in the Centrelink system, in the welfare system, shows nothing. Fraud has been taking place for many years, and there have been strong checks and balances in place through any number of governments over a period of time to deal with this issue. But this is not about Minister Tudge coming in and saying, 'Here's a couple of examples of fraud,' and then trying to tar everyone else with that brush, but that is what Senator Paterson has done here this afternoon. He has been trying to tar everyone who has been wrongly accused of defrauding the system with the same brush as someone who has defrauded the Commonwealth. That is not acceptable and it shows why this government is so far out of touch.

You only have to look at what has happened to the government today to see how out of touch it is. It is in absolute crisis in the Senate, with a member of the Liberal Party, Senator Bernardi—who, I think, has been your national vice-president and state president of the party—resigning from the party because he does not want to be part of an incompetent government. He does not want to be part of a government that does not care about the real issues in this country.

You are so out of touch with Australians who are battling to maintain their living standards. You are so out of touch with the realities of Australians who fall on tough times and need the support from government in their time of need. To simply send out 20,000 letters a week—the government accepts that 20 per cent of them are not accurate. That is, it is sending out 4,000 letters a week that are not accurate. Is there any wonder that the polls are telling you that the Australian public have had a gutful of this incompetent government? This government will not have a royal commission into the fraudulent behaviour of the banks but want to crucify ordinary Australians when they are simply falling on hard times and are seeking the support from government when they need it.

You want to send them a letter. If a private company did that it would be seen as a fraudulent letter trying to extort money from an individual under false pretences. Yet all these great libertarians on the coalition side are arguing that is okay. It is not okay. These citizens are innocent. These citizens do not have a problem. The only problem they have is when they get letters threatening them with recovery for a debt that they do not owe.

The other situation was that you had a minister, Minister Tudge, who went to the media—talking about the media—on 5 December and said, 'We will find you. We will track you down. You will have to repay those debts and you may end up in prison.' He was talking to something like 4,000 Australians a week, who were getting letters saying they had a debt but who had no debt, and threatening to put them in prison. What an incompetent minister this guy is. It is no wonder he disappeared off the scene soon after that. We then had Minister Porter come in on 3 January when this all blew up. He said he did not even know that there was a 10 per cent recovery fee. So we had one minister threatening with prison ordinary Australians who have done nothing wrong and another minister who did not even know that the government had set up a recovery fee. What an incompetent mob you really are.

I was on call during the early period when this blew up, and my office started getting phone calls from ordinary Australian citizens, who had done nothing wrong, saying, 'I've got this bill for a debt that I don't owe. What can I do?' I had people coming into my office in tears saying that they were being told they had a debt. They had no money to pay the debt. They did not think they had a debt but they could not get their local Centrelink office to answer the questions. They could not get their local Centrelink office to help them, because this dirty rotten government had told the Centrelink officers that you are not allowed to help these citizens who were under threat by your government. That is what you were doing. It is absolutely outrageous.

Is it any wonder you are going to lose the next election? Is it any wonder you have a weak Prime Minister? Is it any wonder you get chaos within the Liberal Party? Is it any wonder members of your party are leaving? You are so incompetent. You are so cruel.

You will not take on the banks. You will not take on the big end of town. But what you will do is attack the poor and defenceless in this country. You will attack them. You will come after them. You will threaten them with jail. But you will not go near the people who put the money in your pockets for your election campaigns. You will not go near them. What a hypocritical mob you are. It is absolutely outrageous behaviour—behaviour that the public know is unacceptable. That is why you are in the position you are in: with a Prime Minister with no credibility, a party with no credibility and a party with members deserting the sinking ship. That is where you are at the moment. It is absolutely outrageous. Your conduct is absolutely unacceptable.

I can go through example after example. A solicitor with the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions contacted my office. He was previously a prosecutor and legal advisor with the New South Wales Police Force. He had a $3,400 debt reduced to zero, but he got a bill for $3,400. Ian, a disability worker, had an $8,000 debt reduced to $1,300 but he is still challenging the amount. Annabelle, a retired academic currently receiving treatment for cancer, had a debt of over $14,000 when she was doing casual university lecturing. It was being reviewed, and on and on we go.

This is a botched job from a botched government with ministers that do not deserve the title 'minister'. This is bad policy, bad implementation, from a bad government— (Time expired).

6:22 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution in relation to this disastrous, inaccurate automated debt recovery process and this government's refusal to abandon the system. Today would have been a good opportunity for the Turnbull government to act on the Centrelink robo-debt debacle that has been devastating thousands of Australians over the summer. The government has issued more than 170,000 debt notices as part of the robo-debt system, and we know that there is at least a 40 per cent inaccuracy rate when these debt notices have been sent out to people. Many of these people received the notices prior to Christmas. If you have a debt being allocated to your name—whether it is tens of thousands of dollars, $10,000, $2,000 or $1,000—what this government has failed to acknowledge is that these people who have been receiving these notices take those letter very seriously.

We know, because we deal with these sorts of issues every day, how difficult it will be for those people and how long it will take for those people who have received a letter and thought 'Heavens, this is something that I'm going to have to repay,' because they did not know how to go about appealing it. Because there is so little support within the legal centres around this country because of the cuts that have been made to them, they have struggled to get advice. We know on this side of the chamber—and others from the crossbenches have made a contribution—that people have been ringing our electorate offices in tears. They are utterly devastated to think that they would owe this money, and at least 40 per cent have had a debt put against their names without any foundation.

What we have seen in Minister Tudge is an incompetent minister who failed to recognise that the government have botched this up, just as they have done on so many occasions. It does not seem to matter what the government touch: they stuff it up. That is the purest and simplest way to describe the shambolic, dysfunctional government, who cannot even admit when they have got something so basically wrong. It is time that Mr Turnbull and his government accepted the responsibility for this scandal, rather than trying to blame everyone else. This is their mess. This is Minister Tudge's mess, this is Malcolm Turnbull's mess and they have to take responsibility for that—no-one else.

I want to turn to the effect that this shambolic government has had on my fellow Tasmanians. Thousands and thousands of letters that have been sent out have been blatantly incorrect. They have been sent to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, and this government needs to take responsibility for this debacle.

It is not just us on this side. It is not just the Labor Senate team and our House of Representatives colleagues from Bass, Braddon, Franklin and Lyons. We have all experienced the devastation of these people making contact with our offices, but even the Liberal Senate team have said that they have concerns. But they are not prepared—as Malcolm Turnbull was to buy his own election—to put their money where their mouths are. The Liberal Senate team have paid lip service to that, but where is Senator Duniam? Why isn't he in this chamber supporting us? He has had representations to his office. We have even had Senator Abetz make comments to the media about the debacle that this government has undertaken with this policy, but what they say in their electorate and what they do when they come into this chamber are two different things. That is what it is: 'I will pay lip service to the local media, but when I come to Canberra I'm standing firm with Malcolm Turnbull and the debacle that this policy has created out in the community.'

I would like to talk about just one case that has come across my desk—and I have spoken to the individual. A woman received a notice that she owed the department a couple of thousand dollars—$3,000, I think it was. But when she spoke to the Centrelink staff she challenged them, and what they said to her was, 'Oh, we've made a mistake: we've double-counted what you have advised us.' So she had quite clearly done nothing wrong, and she said, 'Well, then, withdraw your letter,' and what was she advised to do? 'You have to go through the process. You have to go through the appeal.' I was speaking to her again at the weekend, and she said to me—she was very proud of it, and so she should be—that she is not going to be bullied by this government. She is not going to be bullied by the debt collector's letter when they come knocking on her door, because she has always done the right thing. She is honest as the day is long. What an insult and affront to a woman who, as a single mother, has made something of herself, gone back to work and advised the department, as she should. She has to go through this debacle because of this incompetent, dysfunctional, shambolic government.

Those opposite come in here, say, 'Oops!' and talk about two cases where two people have done the wrong thing. There is not a person in this chamber that does not agree that, if you have been overpaid, of course the taxpayer would expect that that money be repaid. But, when you have at least a 40 per cent rate of inaccuracies and you have basically got it all wrong, that is not good enough.

That is why the government are in so much turmoil, because they are not listening to the community. They are so arrogant and out of touch. That is the only way you can look at it. We have seen a demonstration of it here in this chamber today, and not just from us. We tell the government every time we are in this chamber, and we try to tell them through the media every day when we are back in our electorates, that they are so far out of touch. Senator Cory Bernardi has done what very few people will do, and that is to walk away from his own political party that put him in this chamber. He is the one who has put it on the public record today that this government is out of touch and arrogant. They cannot listen to the opposition, they are not prepared to listen to the crossbenches and they are not prepared to listen to the community. Obviously the senators on that side of the chamber do not go out into the real world and talk to people in the suburbs and the communities. If they do then obviously they are not listening, because this is the hottest issue around the summer barbecue, and it does not matter where you go.

We are talking about real people here. We are talking about people who have enormous challenges. They need a helping hand up. If you have never walked in the shoes of somebody like that then you have no understanding. Some of us have actually done that, and this is such a huge insult to those people. You should all hang your heads in shame—you really should. We know that the next cohort of people will be the aged pensioners and those people living on disability payments. All I can say is: you better get it right before those letters go out, otherwise you may very well end up with blood on your hands. This is so serious that people are stressed to the limit—and that is without going to those people who do not necessarily have the skills to be able to go through and challenge this government.

As you all know in this chamber, if you have a bad debt name, it is very hard to clear your debt. It is extremely hard to clear your debt, and the last people that you would expect to put that burden on any Australian would be the federal government. It is an absolute disgrace. I am ashamed to sit in the chamber with people who would do this to their fellow Australians. Of course we want that money paid back if it has been overpaid—of course we do. No-one is denying that some people do rort the system, but the overwhelming majority of people who are taking benefits from Centrelink are doing so because they have little other choice. I am ashamed to be a senator in the federal parliament where I sit opposite a government that is so arrogant, so heartless and so out of touch.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The time for the discussion has expired.