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Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Page: 88

Senator CAROL BROWN (Tasmania) (17:42): I, too, rise to speak on this MPI about the Centrelink debt recovery debacle. It has absolutely been a debacle. The start of the year has been marked by many failures from this government, but none have had a greater impact on so many vulnerable people than the Centrelink debt recovery debacle. By any measure, it has been an epic failure.

What is most concerning about this debacle is the trauma that has been inflicted on thousands of Australians on low and fixed incomes who have done nothing wrong other than to access the support that they are entitled to. To receive a debt recovery notice with virtually no explanation of the circumstances surrounding the alleged debt would be shocking for anyone. But for people on low and fixed incomes this sort of notice from the Australian government agency can be devastating.

We have to have a look at exactly what has happened. We are talking about people that have accessed Centrelink—whether they have at one time been students who have then moved into paid work, casual workers that have been supplemented by Centrelink payments who have then moved into a higher paid job, or pensioners or others that receive a Centrelink payment that have also supplemented their income through paid work. So we are talking about people who have had paid work, had jobs and have, most likely, paid some income tax. This is what we are talking about. We are talking about the ATO and the Centrelink records being married up together. But they are two systems that are completely different. This system that has been put into place, the Centrelink system, does not match the ATO system. The requirements of the Centrelink system do not match those of the ATO system. What has happened is a fundamental failure of this government to protect its own people. That is what has happened. We have heard here today, and also during question time, stories about people who have thousands and thousands of dollars worth of debt notices that have not been correct. We have heard today that up to 40 per cent of debt notices have been incorrect. Seriously, that needs to be fixed. The government needs to suspend its issuing of debt notices, see what the issues are and fix them. Because until it does that it is putting upon its own people stress, distress and an absolute inability to pay debts that they do not actually owe.

In Hobart a rally was organised by a northern suburbs community action group, and many people turned up to express their anger. The following day we had the honour of having Linda Burney, the shadow minister for human services, come down and talk to people who have had debt notices sent to them. In Tasmania we have heard many people who have received incorrect notices. We have also had every single Liberal senator from Tasmania say, 'There's a problem.' Senator Abetz has been on the radio saying, 'There's a problem. Let's fix it'. We have had not only the Premier of Tasmania but the Minister for Human Services in Tasmania saying, 'Stop what you're doing. It's wrong. It's not working. You're targeting people with incorrect debt notices. Stop it now.'

There are consequences of these debt notices for people: they are being sent to debt collectors. That means they now have a bad credit rating that is not of their own making. That is what is happening. Stop pretending. Do not stand up and protect the government. It is wrong. Think about the people that you represent in your home states. It has to be suspended and it has to be suspended now. (Time expired)