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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 75

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (3:05 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Family and Community Services (Senator Patterson) to questions without notice asked by senators today relating to the family tax benefit.

It was clear from the response of the minister that she has no idea about key issues in her portfolio. She was unable to answer a couple of very key questions. One of them was about the extent of the debt problem, which I would have thought, whatever one's views about the payment system, was an important issue for thousands and thousands of Australian families. She was asked about the change in the recording of that and had no idea about that. Then she was asked about the question of compensation for families who have been advised to overestimate their income and as a result lost other Commonwealth benefits such as access to health care cards. She had no answer to that. She actually sought to dispute what the Commonwealth Ombudsman said in his October 2004 report. I do not think she has read that. She referred in her answer to one of his earlier reports. Clearly she is not on top of her game.

What this reflects is a much wider problem: that the government has failed to come to terms with the family debt mess it has created. The minister, when she took over the portfolio, said in October 2003 that she was committed to fixing the problem. We now notice that, under the new ministerial responsibilities, that job has been taken off her. In fact most of the job has been taken off her. It is a bit hard to come to terms with what the minister is now responsible for because Senator Minchin, in addition to having to run half of Senator Hill's portfolio, now also has responsibilities in Senator Patterson's old portfolio area. He is the fix-it man for those who cannot manage the finances. Minister Hockey has now also been given the job of trying to manage the family debt crisis because Senator Patterson ain't up to it. She has failed so far, and the government has decided to try somebody else.

The clear issue that Senator Patterson failed to respond to today is the minister's response to fixing the debt problem by fiddling the figures. What we have is a change in the way the debts are represented. Instead of continuing to provide the information on the number of families who have fallen into debt, the big fix has been put in and they have changed the way they reflect the figures. Now when we ask how many families have family debts caused by overestimation of income, the figure is manipulated so that those who are considered to not have a net debt are excluded—that is, those families who have a debt less than $600, $1,200 or whatever their payment is. If the net result is not a debt they are not counted. Of course, those families do have a debt and it is taken off them; it is just taken out of those other payments. But the minister seemed not to have a grasp of that. I urge her to come back into the parliament and provide the proper information. It was a reasonable question of her portfolio. She did not seem to grasp the question, but the question remains. We want a true picture of the extent of the family debt problem. She owes it to the parliament and to the Australian public to make it clear.

The other issue that really troubled me was that, as I said, the minister seemed to have not read the Ombudsman's report. The Ombudsman found very clearly that there is a problem with the Commonwealth providing advice to families to overestimate their income, because a consequence of overestimating their income was that some people did not qualify through the year for low-income health care cards. The Ombudsman was concerned about that and he raised that concern. As at today the minister seemed to have not read the report, and then she denied the fact that he had found the problem. I refer the minister to the Ombudsman's 2004 report. I urge her to read it and I urge her to come to grips with the problem. One of the things he pointed out is that one family has been paid compensation. Centrelink had provided advice that was detrimental to them because they had encouraged them to overestimate their income and they then lost other benefits such as access to health care cards, electricity account reductions et cetera.

Compensation was paid to that family because of the advice provided by the minister's department. When I asked her about compensation for other families she said, `It's not an issue, not a problem. I don't know anything about it.' It is an issue. Thousands of Australian families have been denied benefits that they would otherwise have been entitled to because they acted on advice from Centrelink. What compensation has been paid to them? What steps have been taken to ensure that they receive their full entitlements? The minister does not know, does not care and is not interested. The Ombudsman is interested, those families are interested and this parliament is interested, and we will be pursuing these issues. The minister has to do better than she did today. She will have to front up and answer why those families have not received compensation, why they have not been treated fairly and why what she told the parliament today was totally misleading. (Time expired)