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Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Page: 33


Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (14:42): My question is to the minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Brandis. I refer to the Minister for Human Services, Alan Tudge, who, in relation to the Centrelink debt recovery system, said: 'The system is working, and we will continue with that system.' I also refer to Senator Abetz, who said: 'The department's program was not as robust as it might have been.' Who is correct—Minister Tudge or Senator Abetz?

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:42): Senator, I have not seen Sen Abetz's remarks, so I will not be commenting on them. But I can tell you, Senator, in relation to the issue that you raise that, while Australia has a generous, targeted and fair welfare system, Australians rightly expect that support should only be provided to those who need it. Everybody who relies on the welfare system are entitled to what their entitlements prescribe—nothing more and nothing less. Senator Cameron, if we are going to have a fair and generous welfare system in this country there has to be a system that ensures that there is not overpayment and that where there is overpayment that overpayment is recouped.

The way the system works is that every relevant person receives a letter asking them to explain their circumstances. Where the Department of Health and Social Services have found a discrepancy between what that person told Centrelink that they earnt and information matched against the ATO—so if there is, evidently, a discrepancy between what the relevant person declared to Centrelink and what they declared in their return to the ATO—that data is matched. In the event that there is a discrepancy, the person concerned is asked to explain it. That is, Senator Cameron, a perfectly sensible way of identifying apparent discrepancies while at the same time—

The PRESIDENT: Order! Pause the clock.

Opposition senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: On my left! You have a colleague on his feet waiting to take a point of order—I assume. A point of order, Senator Cameron?

Senator Cameron: My point of order goes to relevance. The question was in relation to the Minister for Human Services, Alan Tudge, and his quote saying, 'The system is working and we will continue with that system,' and the statement from Senator Abetz which said, 'The department's program was not as robust as it might have been.' The question was: who is correct? I do not think you can run away from that by simply saying, 'I didn't see Senator Abetz's claim.'

The PRESIDENT: Senator Cameron, there is no point of order because the minister indicated up-front that he is not aware of Senator Abetz's comments, so it would be unfair of the minister to respond accordingly.

Senator BRANDIS: Through you, Mr President—I actually have not—

The PRESIDENT: On the point of order, Senator Brandis?

Senator BRANDIS: No, I will resume my answer. Can I point out that having had Mr Tudge's quote, with which I am familiar, drawn to my attention, that was about how the system works. I am explaining to the senator how the system works. (Time expired)

Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (14:45): I refer to the Liberal Premier of Tasmania, Will Hodgman, who said that the Centrelink debt recovery system 'needs to be fixed'. Why does the government continue to deny there is a problem when even their Liberal colleagues are calling for action?

The PRESIDENT: Senator Cameron, a supplemantary question.

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:46): Through you, Mr President—Senator Cameron, we believe that the system is working. I am explaining to you how the system is working and why it is important that we should have a system of data matching so that when a person declares their income to the ATO that is an obvious piece of data and when a person makes a declaration to Centrelink that is an obvious piece of data.

The inquiry covers the same issue—that is, their income—and, if on the matching of that data there is apparently a discrepancy, that discrepancy needs to be explained, and the person who is the welfare recipient is given an opportunity to explain it. Senator Cameron, we know that you and the Labor Party think that money grows on trees. That is at the heart of the Labor Party's DNA—the belief that money grows on trees—but, on our side of the chamber, we believe that if we are going to have a generous welfare system, people should not be paid what they are not entitled to. (Time expired)

The PRESIDENT: Senator Cameron, a final supplemantary question.

Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (14:47): Minister, is Senator Abetz correct when he says that the Turnbull government's Centrelink debt recovery system has 'let down the Australian people'?

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:47): Through you, Mr President—Senator Cameron, as I said to you before, I am not familiar with Senator Abetz's commentary on this issue, but, if the words you attribute to him are accurately attributed, I do not agree with him. I do not agree, because the fact is that all should acknowledge that if we are to have a First World, generous social welfare system forming a safety net so that the people who need it most get it most then we have to ensure that every dollar of transfer payments paid through the social security system goes to the people who are entitled to them, and not a penny more. Not a penny less, but not a penny more. When there is evidently a discrepancy from the two primary sources of information in relation to a recipient's income—that is, what they lodge with the ATO and what they lodge with Centrelink—then of course once an apparent discrepancy is discovered, it ought to be interrogated. (Time expired)