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Wednesday, 29 November 2000
Page: 20087

Senator CHRIS EVANS (10:50 AM) —After that brilliant exposition of my amendment, I would be very disappointed if you did not vote for it, Senator Bartlett. I thought you put it very well.

Senator Newman —It wasn't accurate.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —You will get your turn, Minister. The minister makes the point about certainty. I do not disagree with her. The current provisions are certain, and that is our concern. We are concerned that they are not fair. I am not arguing that; in fact, you are very clear. The interpretation of this `solely' provision has meant that people who we think ought not be caught up in the net are being caught up in the net—where in good faith they have been overpaid, they are having debts raised against them which they should not have. I said in my opening remarks that I accepted that the Labor government had drafted the phrase. I know there is a long history to this, and I accept that. We are always accused of learning nothing in 13 years of government. Perhaps you can take it as an interpretation that I learnt something.

We are responding to what we see is concern about how stringently that is being interpreted currently. There is certainty, as the minister said, but we are concerned about the fairness. Our amendment seeks to provide a bit more flexibility, because we find that the way the word `solely' has been interpreted is that many people have, in good faith, received an overpayment which they may otherwise have not noticed. I am not talking about someone being overpaid $10,000 more than they were entitled; we are talking about people who may have over time incurred debts by small extra amounts being paid, and they ought not be caught up in this requirement to repay debts. As Senator Bartlett said, the amendment says:

... the Secretary must waive the right to recover the proportion of a debt that is attributable to an administrative error made by the Commonwealth if the debtor received in good faith the payment or payments that gave rise to that proportion of the debt.

In other words, if it was through no fault of their own—the Commonwealth made a mistake, the client was overpaid and it is not reasonable that they would have noticed the overpayment—we say that there ought to be the capacity for them not to be forced to repay the debt. It is a mistake by the Commonwealth; it is no fault of their own; there is no reason why they should have noticed it; why should they incur the debt? These are people who are on fixed incomes, are relying on social security, and any sort of debt puts an extreme pressure on them and their lives. We are saying that, if it is not their fault, why should they be made to pay? We accept that where it is clear that they should have noticed they be required to take action. We are not seeking to weaken that. Clearly if they receive an overpayment they have some responsibility to respond to that. But we think this will give us a fairer interpretation. I accept the minister's argument that, currently, it is very clear. But we say it is very clear because people are being forced to have those debts raised against them in circumstances where we do not think it is fair that they should have them raised. So it is a question of whether the current provision is operating fairly or not. We think it is not. We want to find a way, and the amendment seeks to do that, of making it operate more fairly.