Pensioners next in line for Centrelink letters

In the next few weeks it will be aged and disability pensioners who’ll be getting debt recovery letters in the mail, similar to those issued over Christmas to students and the unemployed.


They will be disheartened after reading the stubborn refusal of Human Services Minister Alan Tudge to acknowledge the failures of the Turnbull Government’s debt recovery process (Talking Point, January 20).


The process to date has been nothing short of a disaster, with an estimated one in five letters being issued to people who it turns out don’t owe the Government a cent.


It’s like one of those mail scams, where thousands of fake invoices go out and if even just a handful pay up without checking, it means a tidy profit for the scammers.


That’s what this Government has been doing, sending letters to people who don’t actually owe anything, and then keeping whatever is sent back by people who are either too busy, too trusting, or too frightened to check.


Apparently it’s netted the Turnbull Government hundreds of millions, so now they’re going to try it on pensioners.


Indeed, the Government is so committed to taking money from people who don’t owe it anything, that Centrelink whistleblowers report they have been instructed to not correct errors, unless the errors are highlighted to them by a customer.


Imagine the scenario – a Centrelink officer has a debt letter in front of them and they know the debt doesn’t actually exist, but they’re told to pursue it anyway unless the customer points out that they don’t owe it.


There could be a distraught customer opposite that officer, unaware the debt is bogus, seeking help on how to make repayments, and yet the officer has been ordered to keep mute. No public servant should be placed in that position, of having to choose between a morally and ethically bankrupt instruction or job security.


I really hope the claim by the whistleblower is not true, I sincerely hope that, because if it is true it points to a horrid malaise within the culture of Centrelink’s management and the Government, that anything goes, that no ethical standard is too precious to jettison in the pursuit of money.


If the claim is true then in my book it is theft, pure and simple and I would want the police getting involved and laying criminal charges.


The whistleblower’s claim is a serious one and it absolutely warrants a full independent investigation, not some shady internal review by the Government that seeks to hide the truth.


In light of the myriad troubles with the debt recovery process Labor has called for it to be suspended so the failures can be fixed, and for a Senate inquiry to be held into the matter so we can find out what happened, and avoid it happening again.


Failures in the sloppy way data is matched between Centrelink and the ATO have resulted in heartache, frustration and hours of wasted time for hundreds of thousands of Australians.


But Minister Tudge won’t budge, mistaking stubbornness for strength.


How many pensioners are now to be caught in his dragnet, ordered to prove they haven’t been overpaid?


Pensioners will be instructed to fossick through dusty old records or face the consequences of forced repayments from pension accounts.


Only six electorates in Australia have a higher percentage of people receiving the aged and disability pensions than Lyons, so the letters about to go out are likely to affect my constituents more than most.


And I know that most pensioners would be hard-pressed to make any debt repayments on top of the numerous other bills they already struggle to afford.


There is undoubtedly a handful of people gaming the system in order to receive social security they are not entitled to and they deserve to be exposed, shamed even, and made to repay what they’ve taken.


There are many more Australians who make honest mistakes on complex forms, or who forget to properly update their records, who end up being overpaid. It is fair enough that they also be asked to make repayments.


The problem with the current debt recovery system is it treats everyone like they are guilty, and must prove their innocence. It humiliates, when it should encourage.


My office has dealt with a number of people who simply paid what the Government told them they owed, without checking their own records first.

They’d believed the Government must know best because it has all the resources and records at its disposal.


Unfortunately, that has not been the case. The process has been riddled with errors and my strong advice is that no-one should assume the Government’s figures are right.


The Mercury has reported on various cases where people have been saved from significant hardship, in one Tasmanian case a person had been told they had a $14,000 debt, but it was entirely wrong!


Can you imagine trying to repay $14,000 from a limited income? It would take years and it would stop you from being able to afford things like a car, or save for a house deposit.


Australia’s social security system is extraordinarily well targeted and is one of the most efficient in the world. It underpins our common values of decency and mateship, of looking out for each other when things are tough, and it offers dignity to older Australians in retirement who helped make this country what it is today.


Mr Tudge needs to stop calling Australians who receive social security “welfare cheats”, acknowledge the shortcomings of his debt recovery system and suspend it before letters go out to pensioners.