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Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Page: 1


Mr WILKIE (Denison) (12:01): I seek leave to move the following motion:

That this House:

(1) acknowledges that Centrelink has, since late 2016, been sending out numerous incorrect notices relating to debt recovery - by its estimation, at least 4,000 of the 20,000 debt notices sent each week are incorrect;

(2) notes the severe financial and emotional toll that the debt recovery system has had on thousands of people, including some of the most vulnerable, with some going so far as to talk of suicide;

(3) notes the many well-documented problems with the system, including:

(a) incorrect debts being raised by a crude data-matching of a person's annual income as reported by the Australian Taxation Office with their fortnightly income reported to Centrelink;

(b) alleged debts having been referred to debt collection agencies in a short amount of time, often when the person has not even been made aware of the alleged debt because they have not received adequate notice from Centrelink;

(c) people being asked for payslips and other proof of income from periods or in circumstances where they could not reasonably be expected to provide such documentation; and

(d) the Department of Human Services often refusing to explain how an alleged debt has been calculated, and in some cases recalculating the alleged debt seemingly at random;

(4) notes that while the Minister for Human Services has indicated that some minor changes will be made, the program remains deeply flawed and must be shut down immediately;

(5) condemns the Minister for not only refusing to admit that there is a problem with the system, but also for insisting that the system will continue to operate despite it incorrectly targeting thousands of innocent Australians and its failure to treat people fairly and humanely; and

(6) calls on the Minister to:

(a) ensure that all Centrelink debt recovery activities are timely and accurate, and are conducted in a fair and humane manner; and

(b) convene, as a matter of urgency, an expert stakeholder roundtable to design a fair and humane system of debt detection and recovery.

The SPEAKER: Is leave granted?

Mr Pyne: Leave is not granted.

The SPEAKER: Leave is not granted.

Mr WILKIE: I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the Member for Denison from moving the following motion immediately—That this House:

(1) acknowledges that Centrelink has, since late 2016, been sending out numerous incorrect notices relating to debt recovery - by its estimation, at least 4,000 of the 20,000 debt notices sent each week are incorrect;

(2) notes the severe financial and emotional toll that the debt recovery system has had on thousands of people, including some of the most vulnerable, with some going so far as to talk of suicide;

(3) notes the many well-documented problems with the system, including:

(a) incorrect debts being raised by a crude data-matching of a person's annual income as reported by the Australian Taxation Office with their fortnightly income reported to Centrelink;

(b) alleged debts having been referred to debt collection agencies in a short amount of time, often when the person has not even been made aware of the alleged debt because they have not received adequate notice from Centrelink;

(c) people being asked for payslips and other proof of income from periods or in circumstances where they could not reasonably be expected to provide such documentation; and

(d) the Department of Human Services often refusing to explain how an alleged debt has been calculated, and in some cases recalculating the alleged debt seemingly at random;

(4) notes that while the Minister for Human Services has indicated that some minor changes will be made, the program remains deeply flawed and must be shut down immediately;

(5) condemns the Minister for not only refusing to admit that there is a problem with the system, but also for insisting that the system will continue to operate despite it incorrectly targeting thousands of innocent Australians and its failure to treat people fairly and humanely; and

(6) calls on the Minister to:

(a) ensure that all Centrelink debt recovery activities are timely and accurate, and are conducted in a fair and humane manner; and

(b) convene, as a matter of urgency, an expert stakeholder roundtable to design a fair and humane system of debt detection and recovery.

I regret that the government chose not to grant me leave to progress this matter immediately, but I hope that the government and the opposition would see the sense in at least, now, suspending standing and sessional orders to allow this matter to be dealt with. I would hope that everyone in this place would understand and would agree that we have a very important duty to look after the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our community.

It is not acceptable that we have a debt recovery program now in place and running its course, where by the government's and by Centrelink's own admission, some 20 per cent of the debt notices that are being distributed are wrong. That is simply not acceptable. Something like 20,000 debt notices are being issued by Centrelink each week right now. That means that in the order of 4,000 debt notices are going out each week from Centrelink, and they are wrong. We know they are wrong, and so far the government has nothing to rectify it. There is no way that can be defended—4,000 incorrect debt notices each and every week. And, although this has now been running for a few months, there is no reason to think that it is about to get any better any time soon. This is an ongoing program. In fact, we have good reason to be concerned not only that things are not going to improve but also that they are about to get a whole lot worse, because we know that the program is soon to be expanded to include recipients of the age pension and the disability support pension.

It is not good enough for the government not to allow this matter to be dealt with now. This is a very serious matter and it needs to be dealt with urgently. We cannot wait for the normal processes of this parliament to run their course. This cannot be dealt with next week, next month or next year; it must be dealt with today. In fact, the government today needs to make the decision to axe the program and design a new program that will be timely, accurate and fair. To put a human face to this and to help explain why we must suspend standing orders and deal with this matter right now and not some time down the track it should be noted that real people are being affected by this and being desperately hurt by this as we speak.

Today, as I am standing here now, people are opening their mail and they are seeing that they might owe money to Centrelink. It might be only a few hundred dollars or it might be many tens of thousands of dollars. But it does not matter how much it is, because for some people a few hundred dollars is an enormous amount of money. So I do not want to just focus on some of the outrageous figures that are being contained in some letters. I heard of one women, I think from Queensland, who before Christmas was told that she owed $69,000. For a lot of people in my community and communities right around Australia to get a letter saying that they owe few hundred dollars is a big deal. That is enough to send some people into a complete spin. Numerous people who have contacted my office have talked of self-harm. I know of one particular member of the community who has attempted self-harm as a direct result of receiving a letter from Centrelink alleging that he owed a considerable sum of money which he is quite sure that he does not owe.

This is a flawed system. It is a flawed system that, among other things, is matching two completely unrelated data sets. But the government knows this. In fact, the government says that it expected there to be something like a 20 per cent error rate. The government figures that that is okay and that it would be quite acceptable for those 20 per cent to simply make the case that they do not owe the money. The problem is that, if they cannot make the case that they do not owe the money, they are assumed to be guilty and are forced to repay the money. What on earth happened to the principle of innocent until proven guilty? With this policy, people are guilty until proven innocent. A lot of people cannot prove that they are innocent. I stood with a woman and her two young children at a press conference a few weeks ago. Since 2010, she has held five jobs. Because she received a Centrelink debt notice recently, she is now required to substantiate her income back to 2010. She has had five jobs in that time. One of her former employers is not even business now. She cannot possibly come up with the documentation to prove her innocence, and, because she cannot, she has started to repay the debt—guilty until proven innocent.

This is why we need to deal with this now. I am not waving my arms around and screaming and carrying on; I am trying to make a sensible and reasoned argument here to urge the government and the minister to intervene. It is not good enough to roll out some Centrelink manager; this is a job for the government. The relevant minister should stand up here now and explain himself and explain the government's position. And it will not be good enough to simply say that some minor changes have been made around the margins, because none of the changes that have been made around the margins so far deal with the fundamental problem that some 4,000 incorrect debt notices are being sent out by Centrelink each and every week. And not only will that continue; it will increase as Centrelink turns its attention to age care and the disability pension.

I am grateful that the government has allowed me to at least have this say. I hope that the government will now support the suspension of standing orders so that we can have a decent debate about this and so that we collectively, as representatives of the Australian people, can start the process of getting rid of this flawed system and putting in place an accurate, timely and fair system that recoups the legitimate debts that need to be recouped. Yes, let's go after that money, but let's go after it in a timely manner, in an accurate manner, in a fair manner and in a manner that stops scaring so many good Australians. (Time expired)

The SPEAKER: Is the motion seconded?