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Thursday, 9 February 2017
Page: 568


Ms O'NEIL (Hotham) (16:29): Mr Speaker, by now your constituents have no doubt informed you about the Centrelink debt recovery shambolic process that is being undertaken right now right around Australia. This is a program that has been going for some time, but from the very first moment it started it was absolutely clear that this was a fundamentally flawed process, creating a situation where millions of Australians who depend on Centrelink benefits were made to feed like fraudsters and were made to feel that they were cheating the system. Many were made to feel that they owed thousands of dollars to Centrelink, which it now turns out is actually Centrelink's fault.

What we have seen is that 4,000 honest Australians every single week have received letters from Centrelink, telling them that they owed thousands and thousands of dollars to Centrelink—to the government. When these claims have been investigated, for very large numbers of Australians we have found they have not been true.

One of the biggest issues with this program is that the Centrelink debt recovery program reverses the onus of proof. It basically tells the good people of Australia that they are the ones who owe money and that they are the ones which must prove to Centrelink that Centrelink is wrong. This is simply unfair.

Labor has written to the relevant minister, Alan Tudge, to ask him to suspend the Centrelink debt recovery program until the problems are resolved. But this has fallen on deaf ears and Labor is very disappointed on behalf of the Australian people. My office has received hundreds of phone calls and complaints from people who have been caught up in this mess. My constituents tend to be at the lower end of the income spectrum, and about 42 per cent of the people who live in my electorate were born overseas. I have had elderly citizens contacting my office, telling me that they have received a letter from Centrelink saying they owed debts ranging from $1,700 to $14,000. These are elderly people who have served their country for many years. They are entitled to a pension and they are getting that pension, and now they are getting these, frankly, terrifying letters from Centrelink.

We know that what Centrelink does if they do not respond to those letters—at the request of the government—is hand that letter over to a debt collector, and then debt collectors are going to these pensioners and hounding them for money, which in the most part we are finding is actually not owed to Centrelink. Unfortunately, because of the incompetence of this government these hardworking pensioners have been made to feel like they have been accused of fraud and like they have been rorting the system.

I have to say that Labor absolutely disagrees with what is the central thrust of this program—and that is, that somehow, people who are on social security benefits in this country are freeloading, that they are defrauding the system—I reject that. That is absolutely wrong. It is one of the hallmarks of good government and the good society that we live in here in Australia that if you fall on tough times, that if you are in a period of your life where you need income support, then you will be able to get that income support. As a fellow Australian, I am very happy to pay it.

One of the things that those who sit on the opposite benches forget is that the vast majority of Australians, at some point in their lives, will access that social security system. They will access it because they are sick, or because they have a period of disability, or because they go on the age pension when they reach that age or because they have children who are in child care. This is not a system which is for a narrow bunch of Australians who are trying to defraud us; it is for our fellow neighbours, who we are supporting as part of the community.

I want to talk about some of the instances in my electorate. A 92-year-old lady in my community received a letter from Centrelink and completely broke down. Thankfully, she had just received my newsletter; she had no-one else to turn to. She phoned my office, we worked with Centrelink and—surprise, surprise!—the woman owed nothing to Centrelink.

Another Hotham resident, Mr Matthews, received a letter just before Christmas stating that he and his wife, Carole, owed almost $11,000 each to Centrelink. This is from records going back to 2011. Mr Matthews wanted me to tell the parliament that he has been deeply hurt and distressed, and that his wife is suffering from poor health. He thought the government's behaviour was disgraceful and he feels that this is a smack in the face to older Australian citizens, many of whom have fought tooth and nail to provide for their families and to make a contribution.

Another Hotham constituent, John Wilson, called for help on behalf of his daughter, who suffers from mental health issues. She was shocked to receive a letter stating that she owed almost $10,000. She was receiving financial support; we checked the matter out and we have found that there is absolutely no money owing to Centrelink. Remember, these people were called fraudsters, money was demanded of them, payments were threatened and it was Centrelink that was wrong. Centrelink was the organisation that made the mistake.

Now, the damage has been done for these families, but I want to call on the minister and call on the Prime Minister to end this ridiculous program. It is victimising people who are legitimately deserving of community support and we ask that it be stopped now.