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Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Page: 92


Senator PATERSON (Victoria) (18:02): Welcome back, colleagues. Great to see you all after a clearly restful break over the summer. I am sad that Senator Dastyari is no longer in the chamber, because I was going to compliment him on his haircut. He is looking very sharp, in contrast to the way he finished the end of last year.

I thank the Greens for raising this important matter in the Senate. They are right that the efficient administration of government programs is a very important issue and they are right that bureaucracies must be as careful as possible to administer their payments in the most sensitive way. But the Turnbull government makes no apologies for ensuring the integrity of our welfare system. It is a $170 billion welfare system which takes up nearly one-third of the budget, and its integrity is of paramount importance. People deserve to be paid exactly what they are eligible for, but they do not deserve to be paid $1 more—

Senator Polley: No-one disagrees with that.

Senator PATERSON: and overpayments, whether they are through error or fraud, must be recovered.

Now, the Labor Party—and I hear Senator Polley interjecting—pay lip service to this idea that of course overpayments should be recovered and of course people should only be paid what they are owed, and what they say they care about is an efficient and fair process. Well, we all care about that. There is nothing which distinguishes you from us on that. Centrelink should be recovering these debts in a fair and transparent way. But the truth is that Labor's time in office left a legacy of overpayments that they did not resolve, that they failed to resolve—billions of dollars of overpayments—which this government now, regrettably, has to deal with.

If we are being completely honest, a significant undercurrent of the Labor Party campaign and the campaign that their allies in the media have been running over the summer, is that it is somehow unfair or unreasonable to recover these funds. The question that they are clearly seeking to leave people with is that, if they were overpaid, somehow that is okay; if they were overpaid, it is not really their fault; if they were overpaid, it should not really be recovered.

It is a very sad state of affairs when the so-called party of workers reveal themselves to really be the party of welfare. I will not bother addressing my comments to the Greens because they at least have the decency not to claim to be the party of workers. But the Labor Party has claimed and does claim to be the party of workers, and let us remember that what we are talking about here is working-people's money. It is their hard-earned money raised by us in taxes, which is done to provide a necessary safety net for Australians but nothing more than that. If we do not stop the overpayment of welfare, we are in effect taxing people more than we need to, taking more from their family budget than we need to, in order to pay people welfare that they are not entitled to. That is wrong.

The Labor Party have been badly exposed by their own campaign. Many of the cases that they have brought to the media's attention have been ones that appear to constitute fraud, and others that may have been the result of genuine error but are nonetheless still overpayments that must be recovered.

The Australiannewspaper has published a number of revealing reports on this issue, and I want to quote from one by Joe Kelly, published on 26 January. He says:

As revealed in The Australian, an assessment of 52 cases of people publicly claiming they were being harassed by Centrelink with automated debt notices found that 18 people had in fact been identified under a manual system established by the former Labor government.

So we can take those 18 out. He says:

Of the remaining 34 cases subject to the new system, 60 per cent had been found to have been overpaid for failing to declare other sources of income.

We can take those cases out. He says:

A further 12 per cent who had been found to owe money had asked for a reassessment while the remaining number of aggrieved welfare recipients had not bothered to contact Centrelink.

You have to doubt somewhat the sincerity of someone who goes to the media first without even attempting to contact Centrelink to resolve their case. So, even among the tiny number of 52 cases that had been revealed in the media—the supposedly shocking cases which reveal the failure of this process—only 12 per cent of people were who had been found to owe money and had asked for a reassessment. It is their right to ask for a reassessment. They should ask for a reassessment, and it should be carefully and fairly assessed by Centrelink to ensure whether they in fact do owe the money that they had initially been found to owe. But 12 per cent of 52 who had applied for a review and who will not necessarily be found to be in the right in that review is a very small proportion indeed and nothing like what the Labor Party has suggested.

Sadly, there are some good, concrete examples of this in action. These have been de-identified for obvious reasons to protect people's privacy. There was a recipient—who has been identified in the media; a male from Victoria—who had received Newstart for all of the 2013 and 2014 financial years. During that time, they declared that they had received less than $12,000 in employment income. In fact, Australian Taxation Office data showed they had earned more than $16,000 during that time. The customer had accrued a debt of approximately $3,000 in those financial years. It is good that this new system has identified this debt to the Commonwealth—it has identified this instance where someone has been paid welfare to which they were not entitled—and the system is now seeking to recover that debt. A second customer, also a male and also from Victoria, had received Austudy for all of the 2014-15 financial year. During that time, they declared less than $15,000 in employment income. However, ATO data showed that they had earned more than $25,000 during that time. As a result, they owed a debt of approximately $3½ thousand to the Commonwealth for those financial years. Again, I am pleased, personally, that that has been identified by the new system. I am glad that it has been identified.

Alan Tudge, the responsible minister, was addressing this issue in the House today. He talked about two further extraordinary examples of even greater sums. A Queensland male had been receiving Newstart for all of the financial years 2011-12 and 2012-13. During that time, they declared less than $5,000 of employment income to Centrelink. In fact, ATO data showed they had received more than $100,000 during that time. So, if someone has received $100,000 in two financial years and declared that they had only received $5,000, it is likely that every single dollar of Newstart that they received was received under false pretences and should be repaid.

Alan Tudge talked about another example, again another Victorian male and again a recipient of the Newstart allowance. Over three financial years, they declared less than $11,000 in income. Again, the ATO data showed they had earned more than $65,000 during that time. This is something that the new system identified and picked up. I think that is actually a very welcome thing. If it were not for these new processes, if it were not for the reforms brought in by this government and recovery sought for this money, then these may have never been uncovered. These people who had received welfare which they were not entitled to receive may never have been identified.

Labor is asking the government to scrap this successful process, which is successfully identifying cases of overpayment. In effect, what Labor is trying to protect is people who have defrauded either deliberately or inadvertently through error the welfare system and received money that they are not entitled to receive. They have asked us to stop a system which is recovering taxpayers' money—money that should never have been paid, but nonetheless has been paid. The coalition government will continue with this process because it is successfully identifying cases of overpayment and identifying cases of fraud, and it is acting appropriately to address it.

The government is recovering those funds because, at the end of the day, the Australian people do not go to work, working long hours to support their family and pay a reasonable share of that income to the federal government in taxes to support the services that we all enjoy, unless they know that those dollars are going to be used wisely and fairly. They do not go to work with the expectation that we are going take more money than we need to from them in order to give it to someone who is not entitled to it. These are working people whose family budget depends in part on how much money the government takes from them each year. If we take less of it, there will be much less strain on their family budget. If we take more of it, there will be more strain on their family budget—and it is morally wrong to take more than we need to to pay someone who is not entitled to it. That is what this system addresses. That is what this system has identified. There are potentially billions of dollars of funds involved in this, and it is entirely appropriate that the government is using the latest technology and data matching to achieve this end.