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Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Page: 97


Senator POLLEY (Tasmania) (18:22): I rise to make a contribution in relation to this disastrous, inaccurate automated debt recovery process and this government's refusal to abandon the system. Today would have been a good opportunity for the Turnbull government to act on the Centrelink robo-debt debacle that has been devastating thousands of Australians over the summer. The government has issued more than 170,000 debt notices as part of the robo-debt system, and we know that there is at least a 40 per cent inaccuracy rate when these debt notices have been sent out to people. Many of these people received the notices prior to Christmas. If you have a debt being allocated to your name—whether it is tens of thousands of dollars, $10,000, $2,000 or $1,000—what this government has failed to acknowledge is that these people who have been receiving these notices take those letter very seriously.

We know, because we deal with these sorts of issues every day, how difficult it will be for those people and how long it will take for those people who have received a letter and thought 'Heavens, this is something that I'm going to have to repay,' because they did not know how to go about appealing it. Because there is so little support within the legal centres around this country because of the cuts that have been made to them, they have struggled to get advice. We know on this side of the chamber—and others from the crossbenches have made a contribution—that people have been ringing our electorate offices in tears. They are utterly devastated to think that they would owe this money, and at least 40 per cent have had a debt put against their names without any foundation.

What we have seen in Minister Tudge is an incompetent minister who failed to recognise that the government have botched this up, just as they have done on so many occasions. It does not seem to matter what the government touch: they stuff it up. That is the purest and simplest way to describe the shambolic, dysfunctional government, who cannot even admit when they have got something so basically wrong. It is time that Mr Turnbull and his government accepted the responsibility for this scandal, rather than trying to blame everyone else. This is their mess. This is Minister Tudge's mess, this is Malcolm Turnbull's mess and they have to take responsibility for that—no-one else.

I want to turn to the effect that this shambolic government has had on my fellow Tasmanians. Thousands and thousands of letters that have been sent out have been blatantly incorrect. They have been sent to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, and this government needs to take responsibility for this debacle.

It is not just us on this side. It is not just the Labor Senate team and our House of Representatives colleagues from Bass, Braddon, Franklin and Lyons. We have all experienced the devastation of these people making contact with our offices, but even the Liberal Senate team have said that they have concerns. But they are not prepared—as Malcolm Turnbull was to buy his own election—to put their money where their mouths are. The Liberal Senate team have paid lip service to that, but where is Senator Duniam? Why isn't he in this chamber supporting us? He has had representations to his office. We have even had Senator Abetz make comments to the media about the debacle that this government has undertaken with this policy, but what they say in their electorate and what they do when they come into this chamber are two different things. That is what it is: 'I will pay lip service to the local media, but when I come to Canberra I'm standing firm with Malcolm Turnbull and the debacle that this policy has created out in the community.'

I would like to talk about just one case that has come across my desk—and I have spoken to the individual. A woman received a notice that she owed the department a couple of thousand dollars—$3,000, I think it was. But when she spoke to the Centrelink staff she challenged them, and what they said to her was, 'Oh, we've made a mistake: we've double-counted what you have advised us.' So she had quite clearly done nothing wrong, and she said, 'Well, then, withdraw your letter,' and what was she advised to do? 'You have to go through the process. You have to go through the appeal.' I was speaking to her again at the weekend, and she said to me—she was very proud of it, and so she should be—that she is not going to be bullied by this government. She is not going to be bullied by the debt collector's letter when they come knocking on her door, because she has always done the right thing. She is honest as the day is long. What an insult and affront to a woman who, as a single mother, has made something of herself, gone back to work and advised the department, as she should. She has to go through this debacle because of this incompetent, dysfunctional, shambolic government.

Those opposite come in here, say, 'Oops!' and talk about two cases where two people have done the wrong thing. There is not a person in this chamber that does not agree that, if you have been overpaid, of course the taxpayer would expect that that money be repaid. But, when you have at least a 40 per cent rate of inaccuracies and you have basically got it all wrong, that is not good enough.

That is why the government are in so much turmoil, because they are not listening to the community. They are so arrogant and out of touch. That is the only way you can look at it. We have seen a demonstration of it here in this chamber today, and not just from us. We tell the government every time we are in this chamber, and we try to tell them through the media every day when we are back in our electorates, that they are so far out of touch. Senator Cory Bernardi has done what very few people will do, and that is to walk away from his own political party that put him in this chamber. He is the one who has put it on the public record today that this government is out of touch and arrogant. They cannot listen to the opposition, they are not prepared to listen to the crossbenches and they are not prepared to listen to the community. Obviously the senators on that side of the chamber do not go out into the real world and talk to people in the suburbs and the communities. If they do then obviously they are not listening, because this is the hottest issue around the summer barbecue, and it does not matter where you go.

We are talking about real people here. We are talking about people who have enormous challenges. They need a helping hand up. If you have never walked in the shoes of somebody like that then you have no understanding. Some of us have actually done that, and this is such a huge insult to those people. You should all hang your heads in shame—you really should. We know that the next cohort of people will be the aged pensioners and those people living on disability payments. All I can say is: you better get it right before those letters go out, otherwise you may very well end up with blood on your hands. This is so serious that people are stressed to the limit—and that is without going to those people who do not necessarily have the skills to be able to go through and challenge this government.

As you all know in this chamber, if you have a bad debt name, it is very hard to clear your debt. It is extremely hard to clear your debt, and the last people that you would expect to put that burden on any Australian would be the federal government. It is an absolute disgrace. I am ashamed to sit in the chamber with people who would do this to their fellow Australians. Of course we want that money paid back if it has been overpaid—of course we do. No-one is denying that some people do rort the system, but the overwhelming majority of people who are taking benefits from Centrelink are doing so because they have little other choice. I am ashamed to be a senator in the federal parliament where I sit opposite a government that is so arrogant, so heartless and so out of touch.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order! The time for the discussion has expired.