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Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Page: 304

Mr GEORGANAS (Hindmarsh) (15:50): I too rise to speak on the issue of the Centrelink robo-debt mess. This is another great example of where this government of today is punishing families, pensioners, carers and low-income earners—people who, perhaps, rely on welfare to buy their food, to pay for their children's school and to ensure that they can get by, because this government cannot provide jobs. We saw the lowest job creation in the history of Australia in these last figures. At the same time, this is a government that wants to hand out $50 billion in tax cuts to the PM's wealthiest mates in big business. This is an important issue for people who come to see me in my electorate. Many have visited my electorate and have phoned me to talk about how they have received Centrelink letters stating that they have a debt when, in the true account, they have absolutely no debt.

Since December 2016, this government has sent out 20,000 letters a week. These letters are causing distress, anxiety and numerous problems for people who are honest Australians who have perhaps worked for the majority of their lives and have paid taxes and then they are being accused of being fraudulent. You can imagine the distress it would cause someone who is absolutely honest, has paid their taxes and is doing everything by the book to receive a letter saying, 'You have fraudulently received this money from Centrelink and we want you to pay it back.'

We heard the minister say that, in the first instance, they receive a letter saying, 'Please call us to talk about it.' I spoke to constituents who showed me letter that actually said, 'You have been overpaid.' Imagine the distress getting a letter that says, 'You have been overpaid through Centrelink,' causes someone who has been an honest person their entire life. This is not working. We heard the minister talk about the theory of how it should work—and it is all very nice, it is beautiful and it looks wonderful—but the reality is that it is not working, and we know it.

All of us on this side of the House have been following up constituent letters, constituent queries and constituent phone calls from people who are in distress because of these letters. Constituents who have contacted me after receiving such letters all tell me—without exception—that they specifically asked Centrelink for advice regarding how to declare their income beforehand. That is why so many are so surprised to receive a letter a year, two years and maybe three years in some cases after they have been doing everything by the book and giving Centrelink every bit of information that they have asked for. According to the Minister for Human Services, 40 per cent of those who raise their issues publicly are actually found to owe no debt and an even greater number have their debt reduced. Yet the minister still refuses to tell us how many of these debt notices that have been sent out are false or are being reviewed, challenged or repealed. So you have to wonder about how high this number may actually be.

This reform is distressing people. It is causing them stress and financial hardship—often having debt collectors knock on their door. These are often people who are in a precarious financial position to start off. It is certainly hurting people in my electorate. For example, I was contacted by a constituent who received a letter claiming that she had a $6,000 debt with Centrelink. She was told that this was incurred during a period of unemployment in 2014. My constituent was very surprised, because she keeps meticulous records and was in constant contact with Centrelink throughout this transition from being unemployed to working. When she challenged the fee, it was reduced to $330. This was clearly a mistake by the system that is meant to be working like clockwork—as we heard from the minister. You have to agree that that is a pretty big discrepancy. This constituent contacted me not only because she feels that the remaining debt is incorrect but also because she is enraged that this could happen in the first place. And that is what we have to consider here—this is actually happening.

Another constituent heard me speaking on the Leon Byner show on 5AA in South Australia—a radio program. I must commend Leon Byner from 5AA who has been advocating so strongly for people who have been sent incorrect debt letters. This constituent was sent a letter claiming that she owed even more than she had ever received from Centrelink. (Time expired)