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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 77

Senator MARSHALL (3:15 PM) —I rise to take note of the answer given by Senator Patterson to a question asked by Senator Denman today. In the real world, people's circumstances change. In the real world, people's employment situation changes. The problem here is that we have a system that does not accommodate real changes for real people on an ongoing basis. We have a minister who, instead of trying to fix a system to accommodate the real world and real people, wants to blame the people who are caught out by the system. The minister is accusing people who overestimate their income, through no fault of their own, of being repeat offenders and, by implication, says that they are doing something wrong and they are guilty of some offence.

That is an outrageous slur on hardworking people who are simply trying to do the best they can to estimate their income in the real world where circumstances change. I know it is hard to do that. Strangely enough, I am not the only person who thinks it is hard. Minister Patterson herself thinks it is hard to estimate income. In my question to the minister today I referred to an article in the Age of Wednesday, 17 November. In that article Senator Patterson admitted there would always be some families who incurred overpayments under the government's family tax benefits system because it was hard to accurately estimate earnings. Those were the minister's own words. Yet, earlier in the same article, this statement appeared:

Family & Community Services Minister Kay Patterson said yesterday she was considering “uplifting” repeat offenders' estimated incomes based on their previous years' earnings to lessen the likelihood of overpayments.

The minister is trying to have it both ways: admitting that it is hard for them to estimate their income in advance over that period because it is hard in the real world to make those estimates. Yet, when the estimates are made, they are `repeat offenders'. The minister is going to intervene with her proposal to automatically uplift their income, so it will be overestimated, so those people cannot have their FBT element reduced. This minister is not in control of the system. Minister Patterson said she would fix the family debt crisis when she first became Minister for Family and Community Services in September 2003. All she has done is apply bandaid after bandaid, but the bandaids have not fixed and will not fix the problem. They are merely creating more problems.

Having Centrelink tell people to overestimate their incomes, so as to avoid the possibility of getting into debt at the end of the year, is creating enormous problems. The opposition referred in its question today to the 2004 Ombudsman's report, which indicated clearly that people are missing out on concession benefits they are entitled to, including stamp duty exemptions, electricity account reductions, motor vehicle registration exemptions, reduced health and pharmaceutical costs and reduced red tape costs associated with buying homes. We know from that report that some people have already been compensated for the wrong advice given to them by Centrelink. But the minister was unable to address that issue in her answer to the question.

Minister Patterson was asked specifically by Senator Evans: `Is it true that the minister has directed her department not to officially record an FTB debt where the per child supplement is greater than the amount of FTB debt? She answered with some waffle: `Everyone knows that families are better off under this government than they would have been under Labor.' She had no idea how to address the very specific question asked of her because she is not in touch with what is going on in her portfolio. She is not in control of this situation, which is getting out of control. Now we see the minister is cooking the books to try to avoid the number of people listed as having debt to Centrelink. She has deliberately excluded from the figures some families which incurred a family tax benefit debt, thereby making the crisis seem less than it really is. This is a deceptive and misleading situation that the minister is engaged in. The minister has shown by her inability to answer questions today that she does not understand the system. She is completely incapable of fixing the very problem she recognised and said she would fix when she took over as minister in 2003. She has not fixed it, she cannot fix it, she does not know how to fix it and she is not aware of the problems in her own ministry. It is probably time that Joe Hockey was parachuted in to fix this problem and take the problem out of her ministry.