Senate debates

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers


3:29 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for International Development and the Pacific (Senator Fierravanti-Wells) to a question without notice asked by Senator Siewert today relating to a Centrelink trial of an automated debt recovery system.

These so-called trials are targeting those on income support who have vulnerability indicators. We are talking here about people who have, for example, significant mental health issues, people who have cognitive or intellectual disabilities, people who are homeless. This is who the government now think it's acceptable to target with their robo-debt—the so-called debt recovery program.

It was really clear that the government seem to be quickly dumping the department in there by saying that this is a trial, that it's been suspended and that they are reviewing it. I'd like to know when the trial was suspended. Was it when the community found out what was going on and raised concerns? Was the trial set up with the government's knowledge? How many people? I notice the minister took that one on notice and said she'd get back to me by the end of question time. What amount of money was involved? Particularly, what number of people have received a letter or a phone call from Centrelink asking them about debt recovery?

These are people that have vulnerability indicators for a reason. It is because they are vulnerable, as the name suggests. Just when you think the government couldn't go any lower, they sink to the depths of targeting the most vulnerable members of our community who are, from the start, already struggling on an income support payment that keeps them living below the poverty line. They are struggling to overcome their vulnerabilities and are most likely in streams B and C—in other words, they have different requirements in terms of looking for work. The poverty that they are living in is yet another barrier beyond their vulnerability indicators. For example, somebody who is homeless is being contacted and asked to start potentially repaying money.

We already know that one in six of the debts indicated through the robo-debt process has been found to be reduced or found to be an error. In fact, every single person that has contacted me around their debt has come back to me and said their debt either has been released or has gone to zero. We are talking about people who have a cognitive impairment and may well not understand what the government is asking them.

I go back to the point of the government sinking to the depths of targeting the most vulnerable members of our community for their debt clawback. The very government that's trying to give massive handouts to corporate Australia is now sinking to the depths of going to the most vulnerable members of our community and asking them to repay money that they may not even owe. The amount of stress this will cause to those vulnerable people with those indicators is enormous.

Through the robo-debt inquiry that we had last year, we heard experience after experience of people struggling to survive on income support and their experience of the anxiety, stress, humiliation and shame of being told that they owe money—of getting a letter out of the blue from Centrelink saying, 'You owe money.' The government has slightly changed that now by sending an initial letter and saying: 'Justify why you don't. Give us your payments now before you get the debt letter.' Can you imagine what people who have poor mental health or who have a cognitive or intellectual impairment will feel when they get contacted by Centrelink in the government's flawed attempt to claw back money from the most vulnerable members of our community?

Is this because the government's estimate of how much they were going to claw back from Australians receiving income support is so out of whack that the department is now driven to try to fill in the gap in the money that the government hasn't clawed back? Is it because they need to fill a quota that they now go to the most vulnerable members of our community? It is an appalling way to treat Australians.

Question agreed to.