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Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Page: 310

Mr GOODENOUGH (Moore) (16:17): I have listened with interest to the members who have contributed to this debate. At a time when public overhead costs in developed societies are increasing at a disproportionate rate to taxation revenue, leading to budget deficits and ever-increasing national debt, not many developed and advanced First World nations are in surplus. If we want to fund essential services in health, education, law and order and defence whilst maintaining income and company tax at affordable rates, we have to create a more disciplined society with less waste and more social responsibility.

The government has a responsibility to ensure the integrity of our $170 billion welfare system, which represents almost a third of the federal budget. The Australian public expects the highest standards of integrity, efficiency and effectiveness in our welfare system, with a proactive approach to compliance and audit. The government believes that it is appropriate to reconcile the income declared to Centrelink with that recorded by the Australian Taxation Office and, where there is a discrepancy in the sum that the person concerned has declared, they should be queried. This practice of checking Centrelink records with Australian Taxation Office records has been in place since the introduction by Labor of the Data-matching Program (Assistance and Tax) Act 1990. In fact, it was the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition—as Assistant Treasurer and human services minister respectively—who first introduced the online automation of data checking in 2011. As I understand it, the online compliance intervention does not automate debt recovery—it is a system which automates only a part of the existing standard compliance review process.

The Department of Human Services always provides assistance when people request it, and this has not changed. If a discrepancy is identified in the process, it requires people to confirm or amend their information online. However, a person can call the dedicated 1800 number for assistance at any time. It is important to note that people with vulnerability indicators on their record are not included in the online process of review but are, instead, screened via the manual process. Initial letters are not debt collection letters; rather, they are a request for people to explain discrepancies between the self-reported income data collected by Centrelink and the information the Australian Taxation Office holds. No determination that a debt exists has been made at this point. It is not simply a recovery exercise; rather, the initial letter is sent to individuals inviting them to engage with the Department of Human Services to explain the discrepancy. No decision to raise a debt or otherwise is undertaken until the person has been provided an opportunity to confirm or update their information.

Centrelink currently has five million clients and, unfortunately, there are some who deliberately defraud the system, while others inadvertently fail to correctly update their income information. When this occurs they receive an overpayment, and must repay it. The government's welfare compliance system is checking the data going back to the Labor years and has discovered cases where people were overpaid. It is helping to raise $4.5 million in debt owed to the Commonwealth each day. I understand that we are dealing with real people, with real personal circumstances, but this does not displace the need to maintain integrity in our welfare system.

When welfare recipients have received thousands of dollars in payments from the taxpayer, in general, it is not unreasonable to ask them to consider and explain any discrepancy in reported income. To balance the budget the government must implement a wide range of measures which seek to incrementally achieve savings and efficiencies over time and give the public the chance to adapt to the changes and modify their behaviour. These measures include programs to increase workforce participation, to clamp down on law and order issues and to ensure that health costs are sustainable and education funding is administered more prudently.