Centrelink system in need of urgent review

19 Jul 2020

Posted February 23, 2017

Viewpoint by Rebekha Sharkie, the Member for Mayo.

Make no mistake; if someone owes a debt to Centrelink, the Federal Government owes it to the Australian taxpayer to recover that money.

However, what I and the Nick Xenophon Team take issue with is the Government’s deliberate robo-targeting of Australians for debts they do not owe.

The robo-debt campaign is a drag net approach that scoops up thousands of innocent, law-abiding citizens, forcing them to deal with an agency that is under-resourced, overly complicated, time consuming and frustrating.

Dealing with Centrelink is worse if you live in a regional area with little or no access to fast speed internet or you don’t have the money or the skills to access the internet.

Robo-debts and Centrelink complaints are flooding into my office.

We have had some constituents receive Centrelink notices alleging a debt dating back five years.

One of the many problems with this campaign is that the burden of proof is on the individual.

Who still has payslips from 2012? And what do you do if the company you worked for is no longer there? These are the experiences of many.

We had one constituent who broke his collarbone several years ago and couldn’t work while it was healing.

Now back in the workforce, this person is working overtime to save money for the imminent arrival of their first child.

Centrelink recently sent him a debt notice for $3000 for an alleged overpayment.

He spent hours on hold on the Centrelink line, using up all his credit to get a resolution.

As anyone who has dealt with Centrelink knows, nothing ever gets resolved quickly.

This impending new father ended up making part-payments to avoid the debt-collectors.

Here he was, putting in the hard yards, working overtime to save for the arrival of a new child, and his pay was being siphoned off by the automated machinery of Government.

After many hours of work my office managed to get Centrelink to properly review the debt. Guess what? This man didn’t owe a cent.

Unfortunately his story was not unique.

Some people are getting letters, providing the information to Centrelink, and receiving letters that no further action is required. But then they receive further correspondence that a debt is owed.

It is grossly unfair that people who dispute a debt are forced to make repayments until they can battle their way through the robo-system to a result.

For many of my constituents, trying to navigate the dysfunction of the Centrelink machine is a nightmare that takes many months.

It’s these stories of personal misery that made it easy to vote in support of a Private Members Bill introduced by Independent MP Andrew Wilkie that sought an urgent review of the robo-debt campaign and no debt collection until individual cases were resolved.

It is my hope that the Government will consider that legislation.

In the meantime, I will be meeting with Human Services Minister Alan Tudge next week to raise our concerns about the Government’s program and the running of Centrelink, particularly its reliance on the myGov platform.

This campaign is targeting those who can least afford to have their income siphoned off and it needs to be scrapped before the Government turns their attention to another “welfare” group such as aged pensioners.

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