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Thursday, 9 February 2017
Page: 577

Ms CLAYDON (Newcastle) (10:08): I rise on behalf of the many constituents I represent who have been hit hard by this government's robo-debt clawback debacle. My office has been inundated with calls from anxious people, some of them in tears, because they have had money forcibly taken out of their payments for debts that they swear they do not owe. One woman called me earlier this year when she was sent a letter saying that data-matching revealed that she owed $11,000 to Centrelink. She was told that, even if that debt was wrong and she disputed it, she would have to start repaying $200 a fortnight anyway. She was anxious that she would be forced to default on her monthly car payments and angry because she was sure that she did not owe anything, and it turned out she was right.

My office contacted Centrelink on my constituent's behalf, and her case was fast-tracked for internal review. To her great relief, when she logged on to her myGov account about a week later she found that her debt was now showing zero. No explanation was given, and certainly no apology was forthcoming. But the truth of the matter was clear: she never owed the money in the first place. Yet, because of the government's completely flawed robo-debt system, she was being treated as a cheat and having her payments garnisheed to recover a bogus debt.

This case turned out well, but there are many thousands of Australians who have been left in financial limbo while they wait weeks, or even months, for Centrelink and the tribunal to review their cases. The onus of proof is placed entirely on the recipient, who is asked to provide documentation that can stretch back as far as seven years or more, making it impossible for most people to comply.

Labor has no problem with the use of technology to ensure that people do not abuse government systems to get more than they deserve. But removing the human oversight—as those opposite have done—only dooms the process to failure. Instead of creating a fair process with the integrity that human oversight can bring, the Turnbull government has gutted the public service and put the robots in charge instead. They are using crude algorithms to come to ridiculous and erroneous conclusions about jobseekers' income and working circumstances, and then using those false conclusions to raise bogus debt notices. Tellingly, Malcolm Turnbull's own hand-picked former digital government chief, Paul Shetler, said that if it were operating as a private company, Centrelink would be shut down for fraud—what an absolute indictment. The amount of distress and upset this debt callback debacle is causing vulnerable people in our community is absolutely disgraceful. The government needs to suspend the system immediately. (Time expired)