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Wednesday, 29 November 2000
Page: 20081

Senator BARTLETT (10:21 AM) —We can always live in hope. I noted the arguments that the minister and Senator Evans have put forward that people have nearly four months to make arrangements and fix things up, and that this is some sort of extra inducement. I still think the point needs to be made that just because people are not on payments anymore does not mean they have heaps of money rolling around the place. Overpayments can be quite sizeable, through no fault of people or any deliberate deceit on the part of people. Many Australians already struggle very much with the burden of the overpayments regime that is put on them.

If we are looking at the power in this situation, let us not forget that, while there are lots of legal protections in terms of appeals et cetera which are very important, there are opportunities to negotiate and there is assistance through welfare rights centres for people to negotiate with the department, the department is not exactly a shrinking violet in relation to overpayments. It pursues them very vigorously. That is not necessarily inappropriate but it is not as though people necessarily have a lot of say. At the end of the day they have to repay the money, as they should, and that often makes it very difficult for people. That is just a fact of life.

It is not a case of people deliberately defaulting on overpayments; most of the time it is people just finding it too much of a burden. All of us know that many in the Australian community struggle with financial burdens at the moment for all sorts of reasons. That is always going to be the case, sad as it may be, but the basic principle here is still adding an extra administrative fee on people in those circumstances, particularly in cases where it is not in dispute that the debt is raised through no fault of their own. The department already has widespread powers, as reflected in this bill. Already, even without this bill, it has widespread powers to dive into people's bank accounts to retrieve money if those bank accounts are under their control. I saw reports recently of the department—incorrectly as it turns out, with the department repaying the money and apologising, so I just do not want to tackle the department in relation to this—trying to access money in a child's trust account because it was assumed that the account was under the control of the person who had the debt raised against them. These things may be appropriate and may be the only way to go, but they are still an indication that the department is not exactly a shrinking violet about these things; it can go in pretty hard.

The department may need to get the money back and it is still appropriate for people to repay—I am not saying it is not—but the principle here is that I do not think people need another $50 or $100 charge hanging over their head. I do not think that is why people default on overpayments. I think it is because in the vast majority of circumstances people find it hard to repay, and I think that the basic reality is the difficulty that people in the Australian community have in struggling with their financial situation for all sorts of reasons. Having to repay an overpayment in any circumstance, even if it is incorrectly paid through your employment—that always has to be repaid of course, as it should be—is still hard. It is hard to have to repay money if it is a sizeable debt incurred for any reason. In the Democrats' view, people do not need the sword of a $100 threat hanging over their head to enter into repayments. In the vast majority of cases, people find it hard to meet a repayment regime because they are in difficult financial circumstances, and that reality needs to be recognised. There is already enough power for the department. I do not think they need this extra bit to clobber people into submission.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (Sen-ator Knowles)—The question is that schedule 1, item 12, section 1229AB; schedule 3, item 3, section 78B; and schedule 4, item 7, section 205 AAD stand as printed.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Amendments (by Senator Chris Evans)—by leave—proposed:

(8) Schedule 1, item 12, page 12 (line 10), omit "$100", substitute "$50".

(21) Schedule 3, item 3, page 24 (line 27), omit "$100", substitute "$50".

(30) Schedule 4, item 7, page 35 (line 10), omit "$100", substitute "$50".