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Tuesday, 14 June 2011
Page: 6016

Ms PLIBERSEK (SydneyMinister for Social Inclusion and Minister for Human Services) (20:32): Yes, I am happy to. The shadow minister, the member for Menzies, asked about Hank Jongen in particular and the Centrelink communications business. Mr Jongen has been employed by Centrelink for many years, long before my time. He is sought after for media interviews in a talkback format where he answers questions on the radio about people's entitlements to pensions and family benefits and so on. I certainly have not instructed him on how to undertake those regular media engagements that he has had for some time. I think he does a very good job in explaining the complex detail of entitlement to particular payments and so on. He, of course, is in regular contact with my office about media engagements that he has been asked to undertake, but not in a way where we are instructing him to pursue particular engagements.

The shadow minister also asked about the Disaster Relief Fraud Task Force. I think the first thing that is very important to say about the payments that occurred during the flooding is that the vast majority of people who applied for and received payment after the disasters that we experienced in January, particularly the Queensland floods, were people who very much needed help. They were in very difficult circumstances and they were applying for an amount of support from the government that would allow them to, as the member for Blair will tell you, buy clothes, buy a meal that night, perhaps if they were fortunate find a room in a hotel, replace medication and buy a phone and a SIM card so they could let people know they were okay. It was were important for the government to be able to help with those expenses. I am very proud of the job that Centrelink did in turning those payments over very quickly, with the vast majority of people receiving financial support within 24 hours or 48 hours, with hundreds of thousands of calls handled not just by Centrelink but also by the other Human Services agencies. We had people from Medicare and from the Child Support Agency answering phones. We even had people from the tax office and other Commonwealth departments pitching in to answer phones and to process claims.

There were some people who claimed incorrectly, and that was established on subsequent checks. Our bias when people were ringing up in the first instance was to accept the information that they gave us. If they were already on our Centrelink database we were able to verify identity, bank account details and so on. But in some cases people received money that they were not entitled to. The shadow minister, the member for Menzies, asked how much money has been recovered so far. Almost half a million dollars has been recovered to date, with around three per cent being voluntarily repaid. Almost 97 per cent are being repaid through withholding from regular payments. If people are otherwise entitled to a pension, family tax benefit and so on, a proportion of that money is being withheld over time, so for that reason the amount under recovery is growing all the time.