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Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Page: 89

Senator HUME (Victoria) (17:47): We have seen a great deal of media coverage on the Centrelink debt recovery situation, a number of protests and even a couple of trending hashtags. In emotive situations such as these it is very easy to get caught up, and that is why it is always imperative to examine the facts.

Australia prides itself on having a welfare system—a social safety net—that is the envy of much of the world. It is generous, it is fair and it provides for those who need it. But welfare is not and never has been obligation free. There is a quid pro quo. Those receiving welfare have a moral and societal duty to let Centrelink know about changes in their financial and personal circumstances that might change the amount or the type of welfare that they receive. Welfare recipients have this societal duty to report changes to their personal circumstances to Centrelink because the welfare they receive is the redistribution of taxes. Welfare payments come from the hip pockets of ordinary working Australians. Taxpayers understand this. Indeed, it is an integral part of our society's compact. We help those who cannot help themselves. We provide a hand to those in strife. We look after our vulnerable. And we do so willingly and generously.

For a number of years now Centrelink has matched its data with that of the tax office to ensure that people are being paid correctly—the right form of welfare and the right amount. This is not new. The only difference now is that the system is automated rather than manual. If a discrepancy between the two sets of data is identified it is the best indicator that the welfare recipient's personal circumstances may have changed. A letter is then sent to the welfare recipient asking them to confirm or update their financial details, and they have 21 days to respond to the request. During this 21 days the welfare recipients payments continue. If the welfare recipient does not respond or if they respond in a manner that indicates changed circumstances, Centrelink will ask for the money to be repaid. Centrelink is not the bad guy. Centrelink, as a custodian of taxpayers' money, is well within its remit to ask for taxpayers' money to be repaid when it has been wrongly received. This is how Australia's welfare system remains fair.

What concerns me most is the despicable political opportunism of the Labor Party on this matter. Once again the opposition have met our low expectations. Labor's Centrelink scare campaign has been exposed as a fraud. The Leader of the Opposition's rhetoric of 'the summer from hell', of 'hounding ordinary Australians' and of 'cruelty' is mendacious in the extreme. Trading integrity for headlines, the ALP's response has been a seamless continuation of its disgraceful and deceitful Mediscare campaign. Perhaps this behaviour might have been okay in the union movement, from which so many of them have come. Maybe such a demonstrable lack of integrity for the sake of ideological expedience is even admired, but in the corporate sector and the private sector—where I have spent most of my working life—such deceit would be a sackable offence. In the real world good people do not tolerate deceit.

However, it does not stop there. This time the Labor Party have reached a new low. The ALP have not just exposed themselves; they have unscrupulously used unsuspecting welfare recipients as media patsies to further their political objectives. A thorough review by Centrelink has shown that the majority of people who have been featured in the media alleging mistreatment by Centrelink's compliance system actually do owe money to the Australian taxpayer. According to The Australian newspaper reports of 27 January, one of the young people Labor were parading in front of the media as a victim of the big bad coalition had in fact received $12,000 in youth allowance to which they were not entitled, because they had not declared income from several jobs. Another had been working for a whole year and yet still drew welfare payments, leading to a debt of $4,000. Another woman who claimed to be wrongly pursued by Centrelink had failed to declare $37,500 in income from a small business.

How dare Senator Brown accuse this government of failing 'their own people'. The ALP exploited these people. You exploited them. You held them up to be poster children and victims in a ruthless, political and ideological pursuit. But you did not do your homework. You were sloppy and you were heartless. You made fools of those people in the public domain. You paraded them in front of the media and you sacrificed their privacy. I would be interested to know if you have apologised to those people for that public humiliation. Have you apologised to them for such public humiliation? Did you do any fact checking at all before you paraded them on talkback radio and before you paraded them in front of the media?

Did you know that one-third of the cases raised actually had absolutely nothing to do with the online compliance system? Did you also know that many of these debts that the welfare recipients had accrued were accrued during a time of Labor government? The debts accrued under your watch. What were you doing back then? Obviously, not much. Evidently, nothing. They accrued under your watch. You did not pursue these cases on your watch and now you have the audacity to have a go at a government for doing the job that you should have done.

We all know that money to pay welfare does not grow on trees; it comes from taxpayers, from taxpayers' hip pockets, and taxpayers have a right to know that their money is being distributed accurately and to those most vulnerable, to those most in need, to those who cannot look after themselves, not to those who do not meet their societal obligations, not to those who do not recognise that with welfare comes obligations. With welfare there is a quid pro quo. This is what governing responsibly is all about—making sure that taxpayers' rights are as paramount as those of welfare recipients.

The opposition is right in one thing. This deceit, this unscrupulous, opportunistic posturing, and this unprincipled exploitation of ordinary Australians who are unused to media scrutiny is indeed—

Senator Polley: Really? Don't you listen to your community? Heartless.

Senator HUME: Heartless, you are absolutely right. Exploiting welfare recipients for political opportunism is heartless and it is indeed a matter of public importance. So thank you very much for raising this issue, Senator Siewert. Thank you very much for allowing this government to shed light on the issue. Thank you very much.