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Monday, 13 February 2017
Page: 663


Mr WILKIE (Denison) (10:05): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

There has obviously been a considerable amount of controversy over the last few months over what is being widely described as the Centrelink debt recovery debacle or fiasco. There should have been much controversy over this because we have known for a long time now that Centrelink is sending out in the order of 20,000 debt notices each and every week and something like 4,000 of those, about 20 per cent or about one in five, are wrong. We know they are wrong, the government knows they are wrong and the department knows they are wrong but they are still being sent out.

We also know that this is not a problem that has virtually run its course and will go away, and the government will be grateful for that. In fact, the fiasco is set to get a whole lot worse because this year the data matching to achieve debt recovery will be expanded to include recipients of the age pension and the disability support pension. So this fiasco, which is already of great significance and causing great hurt, is about to become a whole lot more significant and cause a whole lot more hurt in the community.

In this place about a week ago when I spoke about these matters the minister assured the community that all is well, that these are simply 'please explain' letters and that all that is needed is for the recipients of these letters to get in touch with Centrelink—easily done—and explain what the problem is and there will be no further action taken against those members of the community. But the fact is that what the government has had to say about these matters so far has been plain wrong and sometimes misleading. The fact is that a great many people are struggling mightily to even get in touch with Centrelink. They are waiting for an hour or two hours. It is simply not the case that you get on that 1800 number and someone will pick up the phone straight away. We are still hearing stories about people who are waiting an hour and giving up with exasperation. Those trying to deal with this through the online portal are finding it just does not work and does not allow them to communicate with Centrelink.

We know for a fact that a great many people are simply unable to find the historic paperwork that is often required to clear up the matter. When I spoke last week and gave the example of a woman who had had five jobs over the last seven years it was dismissed by the minister, I regret to say. One of those employers is not even in business any more. She has no hope of finding the paperwork back seven years. Heavens, the ATO expects you to keep the paperwork for only five years.

We know many people are scared when they get these letters. It is a scary thing to get an official looking letter from the government. No wonder some people are scared deeply and are just paying the bill. They assume that the government knows better, they assume that the government is right or they just do not assume anything but are so scared they pay it. Perhaps they pay the money that is in the debt letter because they are scared about putting at risk any future payments from Centrelink.

When other crossbenchers and members of the Labor Party have raised examples in the parliament or have raised them publicly at press conferences we have seen the awful practice of the government demonising the people we are talking about. They are very quick to say that those people are wrong so we are wrong and the government is right.

This is a terrible, terrible episode. No wonder the Commonwealth Ombudsman is investigating; no wonder the Senate has decided to set up an inquiry into these matters. I just hope that the Ombudsman and the Senate inquiry make good and speedy progress so that more and more of a light can be shone on this debacle and more and more pressure can be put on the government to axe the system and to put in place a timely, an accurate and a fair debt recovery system. No-one is disputing the fact that any genuine overpayments should be paid back. But let's do it in a timely manner, an accurate manner and a fair manner. This current, clunky system that has been put in place is not timely, is not accurate and is not fair.

The major parties wonder why members of the community—why voters—are shifting their support to minor parties, microparties and independents. Mr Speaker, I will tell you why some people are shifting their support from the government right now: when it comes to the Centrelink fiasco, the government is looking incompetent, cruel, uncaring and unresponsive. This is not the job of the opposition; it should not be up to the Labor opposition or to the crossbench, week after week, to have to come in here and make the case, and keep making the case. It is the job of a competent and caring government, a government with integrity, to see there is a problem, to admit there is a problem and to fix it. That is how you improve your poll numbers, I say to the members of the government.

On a positive note—there is one little positive note here. I was pleased to see, a few weeks ago now, that the minister did acknowledge that it would be helpful if in future no debt recovery action would proceed while people were having their alleged debts examined and any concerns examined and reviewed. That is a good thing. And that brings me to the substantive matter here, and that is the private member's bill which I now have before the parliament, which in essence seeks to formalise and legislate that commitment from the government—to formalise and to legislate that from now on if anyone is disputing an alleged debt then, in law, no debt recovery action will proceed while that review is occurring. I think that is an entirely reasonable thing, and it is entirely consistent with what the minister said only a few weeks ago.

Now, I am disappointed that the minister is not in the chamber for this important bill. He, or at least his staff, would know that I am in here trying to progress this matter. If he is fair dinkum about that commitment he made, that people would be left alone while their matters are being reviewed, I think he would be in here. Hopefully, he is at least watching my little 10 minutes of talking on his television or, hopefully, one of his senior staff is doing that, because I can see absolutely no reason—no reason whatsoever—why the government would not support this bill. If the government does not arrange for this bill to progress to a full debate and to a vote, and if the government does not support this bill then, frankly, it will mean that everything the minister said a few weeks ago was hollow or false. The fact is that a few weeks ago he did say that from now on all debt recovery action against a member of the community would be put on hold while their matters were being reviewed, and that is all this bill seeks to do.

So I am actually quite hopeful that the government will see fit to support this bill. I suspect the opposition and the crossbench will support this bill. I do not mind if it is amended; I do not mind if it is improved. I do not mind if the government actually grabs it and puts its name on it and progress it as its own bill. All I want is the outcome. The public interest would be best served by the outcome. So I say to the minister: get behind this bill, or at least progress your own bill in its likeness.

And let's not forget why we are doing this. Let's not forget why so many of us are trying to keep the pressure up on the government to axe the debt recovery program and to put in place a timely, an accurate and a fair replacement system. It is because this is not about statistics—it is not about just big numbers: 20,000 letters, 4,000 letters—this is about real people. This is about people who we walk past in the street; this is about our mums and our dads and our brothers and our sisters, or our sons and our daughters or our friends—or the people we are supposed to be serving. None of them deserve to be treated like this.

Remember that the most important role of government is to look after the most disadvantaged members of the community. This is an example of bad public policy that is targeting the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of the community. I call again on the government to support this bill. I am hopeful that the opposition and crossbench will support this bill to at least formalise and enshrine in law the commitment that the minister gave only a few weeks ago. (Time expired)

The SPEAKER: Is the motion seconded?

Ms McGowan: Yes, I am happy to second this motion and support all the comments of my colleague on the crossbench.

The SPEAKER: The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.