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Monday, 13 February 2017
Page: 825


Mr GEORGANAS (Hindmarsh) (11:39): It is interesting listening to those on the other side talk about this issue. We just heard the member for Fairfax painting a beautiful picture of how this is working beautifully. The reality is that 40 per cent of people who query their debt are found to have no debt. That is an astronomical figure, which means that the digitisation of this system is not working. Why they have gone down this track I do not know, but you wonder if it is because they need to find the money to give the $50 billion tax cuts to their rich mates. Is that what it is? In Australia we pride ourselves on giving people a fair go, but the robo-debt collection that this government has implemented is not fair. It is hurting too many Australians and it has to stop.

Despite what this government says, every member of parliament has heard stories from constituents who have ben forced to repay fictitious or over-inflated debts. I will give you a few examples from my own electorate of Hindmarsh. One constituent received a letter claiming she had a $6,000 debt to Centrelink. She was told that this was incurred during a period of unemployment in 2014. My constituent was very surprised because, as I said before in this place, she keeps meticulous records and was in constant contact with Centrelink throughout the transition from being unemployed to working. When she challenged the fee, it was reduced to $370. There is one example.

Another constituent received a letter claiming that she owed over $5,000 for payments received in 2013. The strange thing was that for the short period that she was on benefits she received in total around $2,000 from Centrelink, yet she was told she had a debt of $5,000 in total. She was being asked to pay back more than twice the amount she had received. When she queried this, she was told that the letter was not meant for her in the first place. That was the excuse that they came up with. Yet another constituent was informed that she had been overpaid to the tune of almost $20,000. When this particular person queried this, her debt was reassessed to just over $6,000—a massive discrepancy. It is a big difference. We are not talking about a dollar or two here. We are talking about big differences.

We have heard countless stories, and I am sure you will hear more from this side, but how can anyone have faith in this debt recovery process when over and over again the debts that people are told they owe turn out to be highly inflated or absolutely non-existent? This situation is simply unacceptable. The Turnbull government is not being honest with Australians. The government refuses to tell us how many of the debt notices which have been sent out are false, how many are being reviewed, how many are being disputed and how many are being appealed. These are the things that we need to know to get to the bottom of this particular issue.

We on this side of the House are not the only ones who are worried. The Ombudsman has launched his own investigation into this, and even the Prime Minister's own Liberal colleagues are starting to publicly criticise this flawed process. That is why we on this side of the House pushed for a Senate inquiry. We are demanding that this debt recovery process be stopped immediately until the inquiry has released its findings. It is only fair that we have this inquiry, get the findings and then go to the next step. Labor supports measures to catch fraud and recoup debt—of course we do. That is obvious. But we absolutely, emphatically do not support attacking honest Australians who are being hounded by this particular system. The minister, rather than devoting his time to smearing honest age pensioners, students, people with disabilities and those trying to find work, must spend more time fixing this particular mess.

The Senate inquiry's terms of reference include:

a. the impact of Government automated debt collection processes upon the aged, families with young children, students, people with disability and jobseekers …

What is the impact on those people? The terms of reference also include whether the Department of Human Services and Centrelink are able to cope with the level of demand related to the implementation of the program. We know that there have been job cuts. We know that there are fewer people working and answering calls.

What has happened is that the human element has been taken out of this. When you have a human element where someone can answer a question, where you can actually speak to someone face to face, where you can query something or explain the intricate details of a particular case and get to the bottom of it, then solutions are found a lot quicker, but all of that has been taken out. It reminds me of the Little Britain program where the client goes in to see a travel agent and the person behind the desk keeps looking at her and staring and then says, 'The computer says no.' This is exactly the same sort of situation. No matter what information people have, the computer says no.