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Thursday, 11 June 2020
Page: 2781


Senator STOKER (Queensland) (15:06): That was a wonderful exercise in rewriting history. It's near enough to fantasy, because as we try to paint recipients of the assistance of the Australian taxpayer in their time of need as victims we forget something really important: that is, that assistance from the taxpayer comes with a set of obligations. When someone makes an application for income support—let's say it's for any kind of income support payment, really—they're told two really important things. One is that they've got to report their income and that they have to do it every fortnight.

Senator Pratt: And they did! They—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Pratt!

Senator STOKER: And they're told that if their circumstances change that they need to let Centrelink know.

Senator Pratt: And they did.

Senator STOKER: And they're told that, if they fail to do so and they end up overpaid, a debt will be raised.

The people who have received these notices weren't just sent a debt collector to go and knock on the door. Yes, there was a computerised exercise of matching ATO records to what people had reported by way of income, an observation by that process that they didn't match and, in doing so, a process of averaging through the year was used. It turns out that wasn't the world's most accurate process. But it remains the case that the income support recipient has the obligation to accurately report their income. If they're doing that, they're not going to end up with a problem. If they get a notice through this data-matching process, as occurred in this case, it asks them to provide evidence of their income. If they engage with that process, as is their obligation, then they're not going to end up with a debt; there's going to be an accurate assessment of these things.

But, if we're talking about people who stick their heads in the sand—people who refuse to engage with their obligation to provide information to Centrelink so that the taxpayer can support those people in the measure reflected by law—then there's going to be a problem. Obligation is a two-way street; those who receive support from the Commonwealth have to do their best to make sure that accurate information is reported, just as the Commonwealth has to do its best to make sure we're assessing these things accurately.

I won't have Senator Pratt stand up here and take note of the answers to questions today and pretend that there is some moral objection from the Labor side to the use of a computer based measure to match the income reporting data with employment data for Centrelink recipients, because that is false. I can direct those opposite to so many examples from their own ministers when they were in government in which they expressed support for precisely the same thing. Let me direct Senator Pratt to a few examples. Mr Shorten said:

The automation of this process will free up resources and result in more people being referred to the tax garnishee process, retrieving more outstanding debt on behalf of taxpayers.

Mr Shorten didn't have a massive problem with the idea that we should recover debts using a computer based matching program. How about Mr Bowen? Mr Bowen had some things to say about this. When he had responsibility for this area, he said:

It is important that the Government explores different means of debt recovery to ensure that those who have received more money than they are entitled to repay their debt.

So Mr Bowen is okay with being responsible on this front. Mr Bowen is okay with people being required to repay excess benefits that they receive from the taxpayer because income hasn't been properly reported. And what about Ms Plibersek? She said:

… if people fail to come to an arrangement to settle their debts, the Government has a responsibility to taxpayers to recover that money.

Again, it's an uncontroversial concept. But those opposite seem to forget that that is exactly what they argued for in government. We're not ashamed to say that we're going to do the right thing by the Australian taxpayer. We're going to make sure we support those in need, but we're also going to make sure that those who are overpaid repay their debts. All the bleating in the world doesn't change that responsibility. (Time expired)