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Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Page: 86


Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (17:32): I rise to convince the Senate that the government's disastrous and inaccurate automated debt recovery process, and its refusal to abandon the system, is a great matter of importance. I also rise to convince the Senate to support that particular contention.

The Turnbull government's disastrous and inaccurate automated debt recovery system has resulted in misery, concern, frustration and anger for a great many Australians. While it may be a new year in parliament, we see no change in the government's ongoing attack on Australians relying on the social safety net. Many of us here in this chamber were lucky enough to have time off with family, friends and loved ones over the holiday period. However, many Australians—who are not represented here today but who we are supposed to be representing—were not so fortunate. The Christmas holiday period is already stressful for many Australians who do not have a high and significant income. It brings on issues of ongoing financial stress and affects people's mental health, and this is reflected in the statistics. But during this time, which is stressful for many vulnerable low-income Australians, the government chose to launch its worst attack of late on income support recipients. It is certainly the worst attack and the worst-timed attack that I have seen during my time in parliament—and I have seen many attacks during that time.

I know that many Australians save all year to enjoy the Christmas period with their families and to make sure that their children have an enjoyable time. Yet, due to the actions of this government, many Australians have been in a state of panic and distress about the debt notices that they have been receiving, demanding payments of thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, without explanation, just days before Christmas. The government may play around with some of the words around the debt notices, but, when they got those letters, that is how people read them—as debt notices. Recipients of these notices were, and are continuing to be, assumed guilty. They are directed to start making payments virtually immediately or to prove that they have made the correct reports through providing pay slips from, in some cases, many years ago—sometimes where businesses are no longer operating—despite the Centrelink website advising until recently that they only needed to keep pay slips for six months. Who in this place still has pay slips from previous jobs, jobs from five or six years ago? When people have attempted to do that, they have been directed to talk to Centrelink, but it is nearly impossible to get hold of Centrelink via phone or online. Try using the myGov website to resolve a situation, particularly when you are frustrated and scared about these debt notices. Many people have told me about the long waiting times, and I have talked about those waiting times in this place on numerous occasions. The government's response was, 'You can phone Centrelink,' and they say the average waiting time is a relatively short amount of time. It is not. If you have tried, you know that it takes a very long time to get through to Centrelink. In fact, people have been sending me screenshots from their phones showing how long they have spent waiting on the line, trying to get through to Centrelink. Because of troubles with the system—there were 29 million missed calls last financial year—we know that the fundamentals of the system are flawed.

I have heard many accounts of the flaws that are occurring, so let me talk about a few. They have been averaging out the wages that somebody has earned over a year, matching it to Centrelink or ATO records for the year and then saying that the debt is owed. There are varying types of records that are being matched up by the computer. This is a recipe for disaster, as the records simply cannot be properly matched, as we have seen. Payments have been averaged out that were short-term and have then been calculated over a period of a year when the person was not, in fact, employed for the whole year.

I have also heard of school teachers on short contracts receiving debt notices of over $10,000 because the automated system has not recognised that the payslips they received with the name of the school on them at which they teach were in fact the same records as those the ATO had saying 'Department of Education'. So the system has assumed there were two different incomes there and, therefore, said to teachers, 'You owe a debt.' This is from the system that the government was trying to defend during question time, saying that it was working fine. How could it be working fine when one wage is being counted twice because the system does not recognise different names for the same employer! I have heard people have received debt notices saying that they owe $10,000 for overpayment while on WorkCover. And people are having to fly interstate—this is one of the accounts that have I got—to try and retrieve documents from five years ago. And then they cannot be uploaded to the Centrelink website!

Many people have started paying debts despite having records to prove that they have been paid correctly simply because: they cannot get into contact with Centrelink; their internal review is taking so long that they do not want to be opening a door to a debt collector; they are scared—they get these notices and they are scared; and/or they cannot access their records. And, so, they start paying.

Some overpayment notices have been out for quite a while. In fact, people have now contacted me saying, 'I've started paying this debt because they thought they must be right. I thought they were wrong but I thought I must have done something wrong.' It was not until they started hearing all the other people getting errors in debt notices that they realised something was wrong.

I have been contacted by Centrelink workers who have told us that even when the paperwork has been uploaded as requested it simply sits there as there is no-one to process it, and people's erroneous remains and gets sent to the debt collectors. Those on the inside say that delays in processing are literally getting longer by the day to the extent that things are getting completely out of control.

Some of the so-called overpayments are a result of system or administrative errors by Centrelink. When I asked a question on notice about this—Centrelink does not even count, the department does not count, the number of errors that they have made. So we have no idea how many of these so-called overpayments are a result of errors by the agency. And then, even when they do identify that it is as a result of an error by the agency, there is no grace period for people. It is not their fault that they have been overpaid. All of these are problems with the automated system creating debts that people do not, in fact, have. The government is so focused on trying to undermine our social safety net. They are so anxious to put blame and to victimise vulnerable Australians that rely on our social safety net when they are letting people get away with millions and millions of dollars in tax avoidance. They are negotiating with people that owe millions and millions of dollars, and letting them off millions of dollars. Yet, they are chasing the most vulnerable members of our community with a system that is totally flawed and that needs to be abandoned.

Government senators are trying to stand here in this place today and defend a flawed system which is having a direct impact on people's lives. The system ruined people's Christmas. People are stressed. It has resulted in mental health. We are getting phone calls into my office with people that talk about taking their own lives as a result of this process. We of course have been referring them on to the appropriate advice, such as through Lifeline. But when you get to a situation where people are talking about literally taking their own lives—they are scared witless about how they are going to pay the bills; you could open a bill and see a debt for $10,000—this system is broken. It needs to be abandoned. They need to scrap it now.