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Monday, 13 February 2017
Page: 833


Mr HILL (Bruce) (12:33): This is a growing scandal and an important debate. We have heard that 40 per cent of debt notices are wrong—not four per cent, but 40 per cent. In any other government program a 40 per cent error rate would be an outrage. We should not accept it, but somehow it is okay when we are talking about vulnerable people. Can you imagine the reaction of those opposite if Labor were in government and sent blanket audit notices to all the super wealthy or to multinationals to make them pay their fair share of tax? What if 40 per cent of those notices were wrong? It would be a scandal. The Australian would go bananas. The tabloids would issue special lift-outs, with black borders, on struggling billionaires. But I do admit it is probably not a good idea, because the Green Left Weekly would like it, and that is never a good thing.

In sending in the debt collectors, there is a presumption of guilt here. It is almost impossible for people to prove what they have done because who has payslips from five or six years ago? Even Centrelink's website—until they took it down and scrubbed it—advised people to keep their payslips for just six months, but there is no mention of that now. Businesses have closed. The lived experience of so many people on low incomes is of jumping from job to job, doing their best to declare everything to Centrelink, yet living in abject terror of getting something wrong, because they will lose their lives on a 1800 number.

It is not just bad administration; it is ill-conceived and mean by design, picking on the vulnerable and with real impacts. The minister says it is just an opportunity to explain, but everyone knows that is nonsense. There is no explanation given by Centrelink; just a demand to start repaying a debt. Five dollars a week may not seem like a lot for many, but for those in my electorate who literally budget to the last dollar every fortnight, it absolutely is.

The effect is compounded—I spoke to the House last week about the case of Michelle—because as soon as a debt is alleged people then lose the right that everyone else enjoys in emergencies to seek a small advance on their own family payments. I call on the government to reconsider this double-whammy rule because of the unfairness and the double impact on people who do not owe a debt and are later let out of that debt. Not being able to grab $100 or $200 to buy their kids' school books or pay a bill or an emergency medical bill is unfair.

The government's reaction, having listened to it, is just astounding. It is not just denial but almost sociopathic scorn. Honestly, you opposite do not seem like terrible people. A little secret: I actually quite like a lot of you. But the response to this has been heartless and cruel. It is out of touch. There is denial, there is obfuscation, there is bewilderment at why we go on about this and there is blame and blustering like it is a crime to be poor. It is fantastic to hear that one of the Liberal members has been responding to his electorate, because my office has been deluged by people from neighbouring electorates, such as Deakin and Chisholm, whose members simply will not help them. We do what we can. We refer them to Senator Jacinta Collins, who is doing a great job.

Minister Tudge's fudges in question time were policy by anecdote: 'We'll justify picking on thousands of people who don't owe anything because we found someone who cheated $100,000.' Fair enough. Get the person who cheated $100,000. But suggesting that people call a 1800 number with impossible waiting times and no discretion—all they do is say, 'Just upload what you have on the internet that you don't have'—and no explanations is pointless.

It is to the state of absurd when Senator Eric Abetz, our little Aussie champion of the underdog from down under—it is such a weird world when 'Eric the Dark Lord' takes up the plight of the less fortunate. I do not believe, though, that it is an outbreak of compassion. It is a bit of Machiavellian magic to have a go at the Prime Minister. It is mainly a sign of how furious people are that even one such as Senator Abetz has spoken up.

Possibly the weirdest contribution was from the member for Gilmore last week, who compared—I am not joking—running a government and Centrelink robo-debt scheme to her previous fudge packing and distribution business. I was so bemused that I popped that clip on the internet to actually see if anyone else understood it, but so far no-one has shed any light on it.

My personal view, for the record—do not get excited—is that of course we should pursue significant debts from any time, and it is fair enough to seek repayment of small adjustments in more recent times if the system is right. But is it really worth pursuing tiny amounts of money from six years ago, with the cost of recovery and the incredible pain that this is causing to people? (Time expired)