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Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Page: 114

Ms RISHWORTH (Kingston) (19:30): Today I rise to talk about a big issue that is concerning my electorate: this government's mismanagement of Centrelink. Every single day, my office has been flooded with complaints about Centrelink and the way that it has dealt with the recent automated debt recovery fiasco—and 'fiasco' is the only way that it can be described.

Centrelink is an essential government service that is relied upon by millions: young people who rely on youth allowance, families who rely on family payments and pensioners who deserve a comfortable and well-lived retirement. We know that Medicare has been moved into many Centrelink offices, which are the only places you can get on-the-ground assistance. We also know that the Department of Veterans' Affairs has been moved into Centrelink in many places. Centrelink is meant to be the one-stop shop for many people. Many Australians access Centrelink at some point in their lives, often when they are at their most vulnerable: when something unforeseen, unexpected or unavoidable happens. We should be proud as a country to have a strong safety net to catch people when they need help. It is the responsibility of government to ensure that this safety net remains intact and is run appropriately and responsibly. Since taking office, this government has dismantled the safety net bit by bit, and it is continuing to cut services and understaff the department.

Of course I support measures which effectively recover wrongfully paid welfare, but it is unacceptable for this government to use an automated debt collection system which is falsely accusing thousands of innocent Australians. It has been alarming to hear stories of constituents in my electorate who feel they have been falsely accused and to hear how distraught they are. The Minister for Human Services may claim he is not aware of people who are convinced they do not owe money. Well, Minister, maybe you should spend a day in my office or, indeed, the offices of any of the members of parliament, because, right around the country, I am being contacted by distraught people who do not know where to turn.

One such person—I am not going to provide her name—a woman in her 60s, contacted me after she received a debt letter with regard to temporary income support she claimed in 2010. This constituent described the heartbreaking effect this ordeal had had on her mental health, as she spent Christmas frantically trying to track down pay slips to prove her innocence. By the time she called my office in January, she had resigned herself to the fact that she could not prove her innocence by the deadline and would be forced to pay back a debt she did not believe she owed. This constituent is a single parent who worked hard her entire life to raise her children and gain a university qualification. She expressed the guilt she already felt about needing Centrelink for the short period of time she did in 2010. She said that this ordeal had made her feel like a criminal and had brought such shame on her that she would never turn to Centrelink again, even if she needed help.

Another person, a mum who contacted me about her son who accessed youth allowance five years ago, when he was at university, said:

Our family is anxious regarding the outcome, as we somehow try to work our way through this very difficult online system, to organise a reassessment. I am sick to my stomach with the thought that this may not be possible and that Centrelink will steal over $1000 from my son and, I might add, he earnt less than $15,000 for the year in question.

These are just two examples of people who have brought stories to me indicating that this government has failed—failed to protect and support individuals who needed help.

The minister's response to this mess—and we heard it in question time today—has been, 'Simply ring the contact number to prove your innocence.' Apart from the fact that many people are not able to find the paperwork and are not able to gather all that information, try ringing Centrelink! The claim that it only takes 12 minutes to reach Centrelink is an absolute farce. The minister should actually live in the real world. Of course, it is not the fault of the staff—staff at Centrelink offices like Noarlunga and Marion—it is this government's fault. It this government's mismanagement. To put his head in the sand, as this minister does, is outrageous. It is time that this government heeded the serious concerns of thousands of Australians and actually fixed the system.