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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 62

Senator MACKAY (2:16 PM) —My question is to Senator Patterson, the Minister for Family and Community Services. Is the minister aware of the recent finding by the Commonwealth Ombudsman in his annual report that many Australian families are now ineligible for low-income health care cards, as well as other concessions and entitlements, because they followed the government's advice to overestimate their income to avoid being saddled with a family tax benefit debt? Isn't it true that these families may have suffered a direct financial loss as a result of following the government's advice? Has the government now reversed its earlier advice to families to overestimate their income to avoid an FTB debt? If so, when was this decision taken and what advice is now being provided?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women's Issues) —The Ombudsman's report is based on data of a couple of years ago—and I cannot remember the exact date—that does not actually reflect the current family tax benefit situation. Also, there are other ways in which people can apply for low-income health care cards. My advice from my department was that some of the issues that were raised in the Ombudsman's report have been addressed by some of the changes within the family tax benefit scheme and that some of the information is now out of date.

Senator MACKAY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, did the government consider the full consequences of families overestimating their income when it advised them to do precisely that? How much has the government's incorrect advice cost Australian families? Will the minister now agree that some compensation to families who suffered financial loss as a consequence of following that government advice is warranted?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women's Issues) —When that was raised, I checked with Centrelink and I was advised that they are advised not to suggest that people overestimate their income. There are other offers in More Choices for Families; people may choose to receive some of their family tax benefit at the end of the year. There is no direction for Centrelink to advise people to overestimate their income.