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Monday, 13 February 2017
Page: 829

Mr COLEMAN (Banks) (11:54): I am very pleased to speak in support of the government's appropriate and sensible activities when it comes to protecting the hard work of Australian taxpayers and ensuring that people who receive Centrelink benefits receive the right amount. To the extent that people have received too much, whether through a deliberate act or a misunderstanding or error, it is completely appropriate and entirely reasonable that the government should do everything it sensibly can to collect that debt on behalf of taxpayers.

Let us take an example of some of the success stories for taxpayers achieved through this debt recovery program. There was an example of a person in Victoria who was receiving Newstart for the financial years 2011-12 and 2012-13—that whole period. They had declared less than $11,000 in employment income during that time, but the ATO data showed that this person had earned over $50,000 in that time. This program successfully identified that there was a discrepancy between what that person claimed to have earned and what they had in fact earned. That person was then asked to substantiate or explain the issue, which they could not do, because they had earned more than $50,000. Consequently, those Centrelink overpayments were recovered—and so they should be. To suggest that they should not be or that there is something wrong with that shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Centrelink system should work. That, of course, occurred under previous ministers—the member for Sydney, Senator Carr and Senator McLucas. We saw, in that example and certainly in many others, people being paid substantially more Centrelink benefits than they were entitled to, and that is wrong. That is absolutely wrong, and it should not happen.

It is often said that social security is about a third of federal budget. The federal budget, for reasons dating back to the Rudd era, includes the GST revenue gained by the state as a federal expenditure. I think there is an open argument about whether that should be the case. When you take out the GST revenue that goes to the states, social welfare is actually 41 per cent of all federal government spending—more than 40c in every dollar. It is sensible for the government to say: 'We need to ensure that that social welfare is provided to those who need it, who are entitled to it. Let's make sure people don't receive benefits they are not entitled to.' Minister Tudge and Minister Porter are saying, 'We are going to ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, those people who receive Centrelink benefits are those who are entitled to them and that people who are getting more than they're entitled to are required to pay those benefits back.'

I struggle to accept the notion that there is, somehow, something wrong with this or that the average Australian would have a problem with this. The average Australian is, in my experience, supportive of a social welfare system for those in genuine need but equally supportive of the idea that those payments must be made only to those in genuine need. Rorting or ripping off the system is something that is wholeheartedly rejected by the Australian people.

There are other examples of the success of this program. There was an example from South Australia of somebody who had declared less than $2,000 of employment income. Through ATO records, this program identified that they had in fact earned more than $40,000. The system identified the discrepancy and asked the person to explain the difference. They could not do so, and they were required to pay back to the taxpayer a debt of $14,000—Centrelink money they should not have received. That was completely appropriate.

In 80 per cent of the cases where these letters go out, the apparent discrepancy is a real discrepancy. In 80 per cent of cases where the government gets in touch with people and says, 'Can you explain this discrepancy?' the person cannot do so and is required to make a repayment. In 20 per cent of cases, there is a legitimate reason for the discrepancy. In that case, the person is not required to make any repayments. Nor should they be, if they were entitled to those benefits. But when they are not entitled to receive the benefits, it seems to me to be entirely reasonable—it should be an unobjectionable principle, and it should be completely supported by those opposite—that we stand up and defend our taxpayers' funds while supporting those in need.