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Budget 2018: transcript of interview with Tom Connell: Sky news: 8 May 2018: centrelink; newstart; centrelink staff

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SUBJECTS: Centrelink ; Newstart; Centrelink staff

TOM CONNELL: Linda Burney, let’s talk about Newstart. I know you’ve got your review on this. Do you have an opinion on how much more it needs to be?

LINDA BURNEY, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HUMAN SERVICES, MEMBER FOR BARTON: What Labor is committed to is a root and branch review of Newstart and associated payments. People can say, well it’s a review, it’s a politicians way out. But when you think about Labor had a review into the Age Pension, that resulted in a $30 increase. So a review is very important in terms of understanding the complexity and intricacy and whether an increase is warranted. There does seem to be a view in the broader community and business community that Newstart is inadequate.

CONNELL: And the BCA is saying that it actually helps people get a job, but you mentioned associated payments. The question du jour has been about living on $40 a day. There’s also Rent Assistance and help with Job Active to help people with resumes. The $40 a day question, is that a bit of a misnomer?

BURNEY: Well, I think that Julia Banks, Michaela Cash and Kelly O’Dwyer went close to it yesterday. I think anyone who says that they can live on $40 a day is living in an absolute bubble. When you think about the reality Tom, Newstart is about $546 a fortnight. If you’re living in Sydney or Melbourne, with the rent. I had a father contact me last night who said that his son, who is on Newstart, after rent, has $25 a week left to pay electricity or medical bills. I don’t think anyone could live on $40 a day. I certainly couldn’t and I don’t think you could either.

CONNELL: It is impossible to say for certain without going into individual circumstances. But you have to balance it as well against the fact that people don’t want to be on it.

BURNEY: Absolutely, I think that’s a very perceptive thing to say. One of the aspects of the new Human Services Minister is that the only things I’ve heard him say about his portfolio is that his going to find you, knock on your door and put you in prison.

CONNELL: After your review, you’re going to want to increase it, and then you’ll have to see if it’s affordable aren’t you? That’s going to be difficult isn’t it?

BURNEY: Well, it’s important to have the review first. The issues you’re raising are pertinent issues. But people who are living on welfare are generally vulnerable people and there are very few people who are actually rorting the system. They should be prosecuted. I’ve got no problems with that. But I think it’s really important to understand that the biggest expenditure is the Aged Pension, followed by Disability Support, followed by Family Tax Benefits, and then Newstart. Yet, the whole focus of the Government seems to be on Newstart and people defrauding the system. And one of the really big questions is that when you look at the Government’s record, particularly on Robo-debt, I don’t trust them when it comes to welfare reform.

CONNELL: What about the increase? ACOSS has done some modelling on this.

BURNEY: I’m not going to go to what a figure should be. I’m simply saying that Labor is committed to a review, a proper review, on what is adequate and what the implications are.

CONNELL: Whatever the implications are, the rhetoric is that there is going to be an increase of some sort.

BURNEY: Well that’s the rhetoric. But a review’s purpose is to find out what the facts are.

CONNELL: For people out there who think it’s too low, you’re indicating that you’re looking at increasing it.

BURNEY: Well obviously the review is the first step to examining properly the issues around whether Newstart is adequate. Newstart is something like $16 billion annually, so we’re not talking small bits of money. We’ve got to be incredibly responsible. And I stress, it’s Newstart and associated payments.

CONNELL: You alluded to welfare fraud. The Government is pushing to recover what is $900 million in welfare debts. That’s a fair enough goal is it not?

BURNEY: There is nothing wrong with recovering actual debt. But my experience, and the experience of 20,000 people is that the Government accused people of owing

money when the bulk of those people didn’t owe the amounts they were accused of or didn’t owe money at all. There’s been no effort by the Government at all to pay back the people who paid those debts that didn’t actually exist. I’ve got no argument, and neither has our party, against recovering fraudulent debt. What makes me cross - welfare and Human Services is about humans, and it’s about people who are doing it very tough - and there is no recognition by the Turnbull Government that there are people in these abject poverty situations.

CONNELL: Is your position that what was happening before should continue?

BURNEY: I’ve been very clear before on what I believe in terms of debt recovery. Labor has been very strong on mutual obligations. That’s a very important aspect of the welfare system. But a complicated algorithm, cannot work out on its own, what people may or may not owe to Centrelink. Yes, you need computerisation, the involvement of the ATO, but also oversight and involvement of a human being.

CONNELL: We’re nearly out of time, but just spell out what you’d actually do differently from the Government’s case.

BURNEY: It’s a big question and maybe we can come back to it. But the first point that I’d make is that tonight in the budget we expect the Treasurer to announce 1,000 jobs for labour hire at Centrelink, coincidentally, the Government axed that number of jobs last year. We would support the people who work at Centrelink; change the culture of Centrelink into one of assisting and supporting people; pursuing what you need to. But the important thing is to make sure that people who are on Centrelink are recognised and supported in their efforts to get back to work.

CONNELL: Nothing wrong with forcing someone on to a payment plan when they should be paying it back?

BURNEY: Well, it has to be an accurate debt. And unfortunately, it hasn’t always been the case.


Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP Canberra