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Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Page: 37

Centrelink


Senator McALLISTER (New South WalesDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (14:53): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Human Services, Senator Ryan. Is the minister aware of the case of Anne Foley, a 67-year-old pensioner from the electorate of Blaxland who received a Centrelink debt recovery notice for $36,000 and had her pension cut off? Two weeks later Centrelink admitted they got it wrong and reinstated Anne's pension. Why is the government continuing to harass pensioners instead of correcting its debt recovery mess?


Senator RYAN (VictoriaSpecial Minister of State and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Cabinet) (14:54): I am not aware of that specific case; I am sure the senator will understand. I am aware of the general circumstances, however. I am also aware of the background to this data-matching program. The data-matching program, I am advised, commenced in 1990 when former senator Graham Richardson put the act through parliament that undertook this. The automated data-matching program commenced when the current Leader of the Opposition and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the other place were ministers in the previous Labor government. It is important, despite the hysteria that the Labor Party have attempted to whip up on this, that the public know that the automated data-matching program that is in place at the moment was first implemented, I am advised, by the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the other place when they were ministers in the previous Labor government.

Our government have continued this program because we believe it is important. I am quite happy to say that I think taxpayers would expect the government when they have information that might be inconsistent provided by taxpayers and welfare recipients and other payment recipients to look at why that discrepancy is there and that we ensure that welfare and payment support goes to those who are most in need and to those who are legally entitled—no more and no less.

The PRESIDENT: Senator McAllister, a supplementary question?



Senator McALLISTER (New South WalesDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (14:55): Given that it is estimated that 20 per cent of Centrelink's initial letters alleging debts are incorrect, how many others like Ms Foley are being needlessly harassed?


Senator RYAN (VictoriaSpecial Minister of State and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Cabinet) (14:56): Senator—through you, Mr President—what you call needless harassment I will say is defending the interests of taxpayers and the recipients of other payments. Let us go to facts that became clear when people in instances provided by the Labor Party were found to owe debts to the Commonwealth. Instances that were provided by the shadow minister were found to relate to people who owed funds to the Commonwealth. Unless the Labor Party are repudiating the automated data-matching program that began under Mr Shorten and Ms Plibersek, which I do not think they are, they are basically saying that we should not be pursuing inconsistency in data provided by payment recipients and taxpayers. Are they saying we should not be pursuing overpayments in the interests of Australian taxpayers? I think Australian taxpayers and citizens would profoundly disagree with that.

The PRESIDENT: Senator McAllister, a final supplementary question?



Senator McALLISTER (New South WalesDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (14:57): Mr President, I do have a further supplementary question. The government's former top digital adviser, Mr Paul Shetler, has slammed Centrelink's robo-debt mess. He says if Centrelink was operating in any sort of free market it would go out of business or, if it did not go out of business, it would be shut down by regulators for fraud. When is the minister going to swallow his pride and admit that the Centrelink robo-debt mess has to be fixed?


Senator RYAN (VictoriaSpecial Minister of State and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Cabinet) (14:57): I am not aware of those particular comments, Senator. I am sure you will understand that this is not my direct portfolio responsibility. The government has made clear that this process is being continually refined.

Senator Wong interjecting

Senator RYAN: If you do not want to listen, Senator Wong, I am happy to move to the next question. I will take that interjection. I was being honest to the Senate. I am sorry, but I do not notice every comment about another portfolio. I am rather focused on my own.

As I have made clear, the government is continuing to work on this. The government will not walk away from it. This protects the interests of taxpayers and citizens who need to access a sustainable and targeted payment system. (Time expired)