Thursday, 1 August 2019
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister for Families and Social Services, Senator Ruston. On nine occasions now, Minister Ruston has assured the Senate that debt recovery has not resumed in Townsville. Yesterday I tabled in the Senate a notice issued by Centrelink on 8 July to a Townsville resident impacted by the unprecedented flooding for a debt of $2,000. Given the minister has misled the Senate on nine occasions, will she now apologise to the Senate and correct the record?
Thank you, Senator Green. As I said yesterday, and numerous times before that, the debt recovery pause that was put in place in February in Townsville and a number of postcodes in Northern Queensland was—
Paused, suspended—you can use whatever terms you'd like, senator. However, the pause that was put in place in February remains in place today. I apologise about the technicality of my response coming here, but I'm afraid you're going to have to cop it. Can I just reiterate once again: debt recovery as it was in place in February has not recommenced, I will recommit that statement—that makes it 11 times that I've said it. On 2 July this year, as is normal practice, a compliance activity resumed. On 22 July this year, that issue was brought to my attention and the attention of the minister who is responsible for human services and Centrelink, Minister Robert. At that time, an instruction was given to the department that not only should the debt recovery pause remain in place but that no further compliance activity should occur in the Townsville area or the affected post codes. That has subsequently happened.
Last night, following the receipt of your heavily redacted letter—which was quite difficult to get to the bottom of—I asked the department to undertake a review to determine whether any other such letters as the one that you provided me with yesterday have been sent out in the area that's been affected by this pause. I will report back to this chamber as a result of that investigation, but what I would say and I will continue to say—
It's good to finally be getting some details, so let's try for some more. Yesterday the minister told the Senate that the pause that was placed on those postcode areas in the Townsville area post the floods remains in place. Yesterday I tabled in the Senate a notice issued by Centrelink on 8 July to a Townsville resident with the postcode 4812. Was this one of the postcodes? If so, why did the pause not apply?
Yes, the postcode that was on the heavily redacted letter was one of the postcodes that was paused. I will reiterate that the income pause that was put in place in February remains in place. I have advised the chamber that I've been advised that on 2 July a compliance activity resumed. On 22 July, when Minister Robert became aware of the compliance activity—this is not debt recovery per se, but compliance activity—and when it was lifted, the minister immediately sought for that to be put back in place. What I will now say again to this chamber is that if there are any people identified by the internal review by the Department of Human Services, or if you have anybody else that you have identified, I will give the undertaking that they will be contacted and advised that there is no debt recovery in place.
Let's get a really clear answer. When asked why her own department had contradicted her, the minister told the Senate that her department was wrong. Given that the minister has now had a week to check with her department, what did her department mean when it told the Townsville Bulletin that compliance activity had resumed?
Opposition senators interjecting—
debt recovery and compliance activity. I will reiterate that, if anybody is identified through my internal process and the internal process instigated by Minister Robert and the Department of Human Services—if anybody else is identified—we will contact them. If you would like to provide us with the name and details of the person whose letter you provided, we're happy to contact them to say that we will not be pursuing any debts that have been instigated as a part of the compliance process. I stand by my comments that the debt recovery pause that was in place in February remains in place—and has always been in place—and will not be lifted until sometime in the future. I give an undertaking to advise this chamber and the people affected when that pause is to be lifted.