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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 723

Mr TRUSS (Leader of the Nationals) (9:30 PM) —The government’s welfare payments for flood and cyclone victims is beginning to look like the latest multimillion-dollar administrative bungle of the Rudd-Gillard government. Early in the new year the Prime Minister announced payments of $1,000 for adults and $400 for children in areas affected by flooding. Later these benefits were extended to cyclone victims. When the Prime Minister announced the payments she outlined eligibility criteria which were very restrictive. Hardly anyone would qualify. Centrelink staff were dismayed because, after all the Prime Minister’s media hype, they were the ones who were going to have to tell desperate flood victims that they did not qualify. Within hours the Prime Minister was back to the media to say she had asked the acting Attorney-General to fix the problem. At his second attempt the eligibility criteria were relaxed to reflect those which applied in the flooding of early 2010. These criteria were very generous—probably too generous, considering the scale of the flooding and cyclone damage around Australia.

Your house did not have to be flooded or even get wet to qualify for these thousand-dollar payments. You did not have to be flooded in or flooded out. You did not have to lose any property. You did not have to lose any wages and you could still qualify for these thousand-dollar payments. If you were unable to leave your house for 24 hours; your suburb or town was cut off for 24 hours; or if you lost electricity, sewage or some other utility for 48 hours, you qualified for this thousand-dollar payment. On this basis much of Brisbane, Townsville, regional cities which had their power cut off or were isolated for a day or more—everyone living in those areas qualified for these grants. I estimate at least two million Australians would qualify. If your suburb was isolated, even if it was going about its normal business—the supermarkets were there, the food was still available to sell, the pub was still open and the poker machines were still running—you still could qualify for this thousand-dollar payment. If people were on holidays, unemployed, welfare beneficiaries or had awards that gave them paid leave in these circumstances, they still qualified for the thousand-dollar payment. Millionaires qualified. I was told of a lottery prize winner who had received the thousand dollars. You could qualify if you could not get home even if you did not want to go home. Indeed, the payments were available to a whole range of people who had suffered no personal hardship, very little disadvantage or very little inconvenience.

Of course, many people did not claim, because they felt guilty about asking for money in these sorts of circumstances, but already around $500 million or more has been paid out. Potentially around $1.5 billion will be paid. There are many people who did not claim who now want to because the government has said they do not have to pay the new flood tax if they get this benefit. So people who did not really need it or felt they did not deserve it now want to claim because that gets them off the new tax payment as well.

This has been an absolute nightmare for Centrelink, and I admire their staff. The government changed the guidelines at least four times and then repeatedly changed the interpretation. I had three cases last Friday where two members of a family were approved but another member who applied a few days later in exactly the same circumstances did not get the grant. There are now examples of Centrelink endeavouring to recover the money from many of these people even though they met the criteria. It was the fault of the criteria that people who did not need the benefit were paid the money rather than those who claimed according to the rules as they applied at that stage.

I have heard all sorts of stories about the fantastic days the pubs and poker machines had. One town is reported to have sold out of flat screen TVs. In addition to that I had a call from a local bank appealing to us to stop this because they had run out of cash in the bank to pay out these amounts. There are at least 1,400 cases of fraud that are being investigated. There are many people who deserved and needed this payment, but the government’s administration of the guidelines was so inconsistent that, indeed, many people who did not need it received the money.