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Monday, 13 February 2017
Page: 830

Mr CONROY (Shortland) (11:59): I am pleased to support this motion moved by the member for Lyons. If the actual robo-debt debacle were not enough to prove this government is woefully out of touch, the response from the government members to this motion surely proves the case.

Returning to Canberra, all 150 of us who serve here would have had one thing in common about the summer break: our offices were inundated with calls—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 12 : 00 to 12 : 23

Mr CONROY: As I was saying, I, like, I am sure, every other member of the House, was inundated by distressed constituents who received Centrelink debt notices just before or after Christmas. The targeting of vulnerable people on fixed incomes by this government is a disgrace and another clear indication of how out of touch and arrogant they are. Labor has always been clear that people who do the wrong thing in relation to social security payments should be investigated and compelled to pay the money back; however, our social security safety net is one of the most important foundations of our society, and the hallmark of a civilised and compassionate country is how we look after the most vulnerable in our community. This government is targeting the unemployed, pensioners and people with disability at the same time as they are giving a $50 billion tax cut to their corporate mates.

The flawed data-matching program used by the Turnbull government has resulted in the wrong outcome in about 20 per cent of the cases, although, as we saw last night with the minister, it could be up to 40 per cent of cases, and so many of these people are vulnerable Australians on low and fixed incomes.

I particularly want to draw the attention of the House to the experience of one of my constituents, Emma, who contacted my office. Last November, Emma received a debt notice for $11,000. This would, obviously, be distressing for anyone. However, the experience she has had with Centrelink in trying to clarify the notice has caused her more anxiety and stress. Emma has requested a review but has been advised that, until the review is finalised, she will have to begin a repayment plan or her pay will be automatically garnished. This is the wrong way around. Emma is an intelligent and sensible woman and has stated that, if the debt is the result of an error on her part, she will take responsibility for it and pay it back. However, she is adamant that she has reported all of her income correctly and on time in the period covered by the debt. This is just not right. A hardworking young woman like Emma should not have to endure this unnecessary and distressing experience. Emma's call is just one example of the numerous calls my office has received over the last few months.

Something that is causing people further distress is the fact that, having asked for a review, they are then required to provide pay slips to Centrelink to confirm that they have reported their income accurately. Some of the periods covered by these debts are up to six years ago and often cover a period of several years, so it is just ridiculous that the recipients of the debt notices have to try and gather together pay slips from years ago, particularly from former employers. In some cases, people would just not be able to do this.

This motion rightly condemns the Minister for Human Services for his failure to respond to community concerns about the robo-debt system. This minister has arrogantly claimed the system is working well. I say to him, 'How can a system that is terrifying pensioners, the unemployed and people with disability with incorrect debt notices be working well?'

This motion rightly acknowledges Centrelink staff are at breaking point. It was incredibly ridiculous for those opposite to keep talking about the 1800 number as if somehow that could resolve this issue. That 1800 number has wait times up to hours, and that is if you can get through in the first place and are not automatically blocked and if you can afford to spend the credit on your phone to use the line. I want to pay tribute to the employees of the Department of Human Services. They do a very difficult job in very difficult circumstances, but this government is making their job all the more difficult with this ridiculous system. The 1800 number will not solve this problem. It cannot solve this problem. We need human intervention earlier in the case to review these issues.

The robo-debt debacle clearly shows not only how dysfunctional the Turnbull government is but also how out of touch it is with ordinary Australians. Pensioners, people with disability and men and women looking for work in my electorate of Shortland, and indeed in all electorates around the country, do not deserve to bear the brunt of this farcical joke of a government—a government that cannot even manage simple debt collection properly. God help us all.