Subjects: Centrelink debt debacle, Sussan Ley
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Goodmorning and thanks for coming to Marrickville but I wish you didn’t have to be here. Malcolm Turnbull is the Grinch who stole Christmas from some of the most vulnerable Australians in our community. This Centrelink debt debacle has had an enormous impact on thousands of Australians. When you have a system established whereby on the Government’s own figures 20 per cent of people who’ve been sent debt letters, often accompanied by threats of debt collection agencies being involved have been sent them on a false basis, then there is something very wrong indeed.
Whenever this Government is suffering politically, which is very often indeed, they attack the most vulnerable in our community. Now no one would argue that if someone has got a debt from Centrelink , had payments to which they weren’t entitled, then it should be repaid. That’s a given. But that’s not what has occurred here. What’s occurred here is that the Government has taken people out of the equation.
They took people out of the equation when they had computer generated letters sending threats and debt repayment asks to people in the community that should not have received those letters.
But they also took people out of the equation, not just from Centrelink offices, but for those people who received those letters. People have spent hour upon hour on the phone, trying to talk to a human being, trying to find out why they received these letters.
Today I have just two of the many constituents who have contacted my office, to put a human face to what is a human problem.
Here we have Tony Barbar, who in 2010 was diagnosed with cancer. Tony went on sick leave from his employment while he was receiving chemotherapy. Fortunately, in good news Mr Barbar and his family, he came through that process. In January of 2011 he commenced work again. During that time, he has been an honest man – someone who’s paid his taxes, someone who’s worked hard, in spite of going through that difficult period in his then very young life. He is still pretty young I’ve got to say.
In the lead-up to Christmas he received a debt letter from Centrelink informing him that he now owed over $4500. And what’s more, they said that it was his responsibility to go back to 2010 and provide evidence of his payments and what his former employer had paid him, and the circumstances that occurred in that most difficult period of his life in 2010.
The only time that Mr Barbar has ever received Centrelink payments in his life is during that period after he was recovering from chemotherapy. He deserves better from our national Government than to be treated with such disrespect.
Of course, we know that the sort of pressure that this is placing on vulnerable people, many of whom have been through circumstances such as illness, can add to that illness. This is an extraordinarily callous Government, who when, I saw Mr Porter being dismissive of these circumstances, of individual vulnerable Australians, it made me sick to the stomach. Mr Tudge can’t be bothered being back from leave, the Minister responsible for this debacle.
We also have with us today Curtis Dickson, another constituent of mine, from Leichhardt. Curtis was receiving Austudy while he was at university from 2007-2012. In the lead-up to Christmas, Curtis received notice that Centrelink believed he had been incorrectly reporting his earnings during that period, and now he needed to repay $750. This is one of the many mistakes that have been made because of the way that the computer-generated algorithm has worked out – averaging people’s income over a period of time and hitting people with these debt letters.
Despite knowing that Centrelink made a mistake, because he’s been threatened with action from a debt collection agency, he’s been forced on to a repayment plan for a debt that he knows that he doesn’t actually owe.
These are just two of the many human faces around this debacle. It is no wonder that Paul Shetler, the person who was brought in to oversee the Government’s information technology interaction across departments, has described this debacle as cataclysmic. It is no wonder that Paul Shetler has said that if this was a private business, that admitted that 20 per cent of its letters at least were on a false basis, then they would be put out of business.
Now, it is about time that Malcolm Turnbull got on top of this issue. It is about time that the Government showed some compassion and some leadership. That is why Linda Burney, Labor’s spokesperson, has called overnight for the Auditor-General to investigate this debacle – what the relationship is between the sacking of so many public servants, that computers are generating letters, that computers are answering phones and that people can’t actually talk to a human being about the circumstances which are there.
So, I say to the Government it needs to acknowledge that it’s got this wrong. It needs to allay the concerns of so many vulnerable Australians who have received letters with threats from debt-collection agencies to be put on them over circumstances which are not of their own making. People like Mr Dickson and Mr Barbar here, who have done the right thing by themselves, but also by the community, by not trying to rip off the system, just trying to be hard working, trying to make a contribution, and who have received these letters.
Now, I notice that as well Mr Porter said that there were only a few people. Now, my office alone has received more than 20 people at this difficult time of the year, they have approached my office for assistance on these issues. Any Member of Parliament would have received numerous complaints about these circumstances as well. It’s not just one or two. You are talking 20 per cent.
And the Government has a responsibility to provide an appropriate response. Labor will continue to pursue these issues. We are concerned. Anyone who was not entitled to receive payments is ripping off the system. Of course, they should have to pay money back. But the fact that people in vulnerable circumstances, such as Mr Barbar, who is being chased down for a period of his life in 2010, which was extremely difficult for him, as someone recovering from cancer, having to undergo chemotherapy treatment, the fact he has been in work since January 2011, and worked each and every day and paid his taxes, says a lot about his character. It is a pity that ministers in the Turnbull Government don’t have the same character as Mr Barbar. Happy to take questions.
REPORTER: How should Centrelink recoup its money?
ALBANESE: Of course, Centrelink have had in place circumstances for a long period of time to recoup money that it believed was paid inappropriately. And I have been, in my electorate office here in Marrickville for 20 years. We’ve dealt with circumstances whereby people have made approaches, some of them correct, some of them incorrect, when Centrelink have approached people about over-payments. There is nothing new in that.
What’s new about this is the computer-generated letters that don’t seem to have taken any real human element into account. And what has also changed is that people, when you go into – there is a Centrelink office three doors from my electorate office here in Marrickville, when people go in to see someone from Centrelink, after they have tried to get through on the phone, sometimes for many hours, literally hours on the phone. So out of frustration, if you are someone, you have been on the phone from 10 o’clock in the morning, you have received this letter, you have been on the phone until 2 o’clock in the afternoon, out of frustration you go into the Centrelink office and you know what you get told? You get told, “We can’t see you. Ring up.” That is what you get told.
So, people can’t find out what the real circumstances are. And this is a Government that likes to talk about people in politics being engaged in scare campaigns. Well, let me tell you – they are scaring the life out of vulnerable Australians who have received these letters, who have received debts that they don’t actually owe. And threatening them with debt collectors being put upon them, and when they go and try to find out what the circumstances are I mean, I’m sure that in Mr Barbar’s case, for example, in 2010, when he was suffering from cancer, when he was going through chemotherapy, when he was going through that recovery phase, he used all of his sick leave up, of his employer, who was there then. They actually are saying to Mr Barbar he has to prove those circumstances. He has to provide the employer’s information from 2010, which his employer no longer has because employers probably weren’t considering that these circumstances would arise some seven years later.
So there is a human element to this and it is pretty simple. We’re saying to the Government put some humanity back into the equation here, acknowledge that this has been done in an incompetent and callous way and fix this debacle.
REPORTER: You’ve called for the Auditor-General to be involved. If that does happen it will take some months so what needs to be done in the interim to try and fix this system then? Practically, what needs to be done?
ALBANESE: Well the Government needs to get on top of this. It could start by actually having some real people employed in Centrelink instead of continuing to reduce the workforce who are actually interacting with people. The Government needs to establish a process so that all those who say that they’ve received these letters on a false basis have someone to go to and can fix their claim, can get it done quickly and easily and efficiently and accurately because I am certain that there are many people that when it goes through the process will be told, no you don’t have a debt we’re sorry. They probably won’t say sorry, but they should say sorry that we caused this aggravation to you. But in the meantime, particularly the timing of this over Christmas and the New Year period, I mean these letters were going out, they were hitting homes in the lead up to Christmas and how the Government didn’t foresee, and then the Minister just went on leave, how the Government didn’t foresee this problem is beyond me.
REPORTER: How troubled are you by Centrelink referring people to Lifeline that are stressed about these debt letters?
ALBANESE: Well I think that says it all. The problem here is that Centrelink, of course, because of the slash and burn approach that this Government has to the public sector, don’t have the staff to deal with some of the circumstances. I’m very sympathetic with the Centrelink staff who are in offices today with vulnerable people coming in and having to tell them to go away and make a phone call. That they are unable to provide them with any assistance on the spot and so I think it says a lot about the debacle that this is.
“Cataclysmic failure” as it’s been described by the Government’s own IT adviser, handpicked by Malcolm Turnbull to do that job. And the response is to send people to Lifeline. Lifeline do a fantastic job and I can tell you that people have been ringing electorate offices around the country who feel very vulnerable and who, if you’re someone, even someone with a second language where English isn’t your first language, or you’re elderly, or you’re just not used to dealing with bureaucracy, it’s up to individuals to say whether they’re going to make public the letters that they’ve received.
But I must say, as a politician who is used to receiving a lot of correspondence; these letters are pretty brutal. They don’t provide a great deal of detail; they just immediately threaten people with debt collections. Now if you’re a hard working Australian who has never done anything wrong in your whole life and you’ve never received anything like that before, you are wondering what is going on.
REPORTER: The Information Commissioner was quoted today saying he is going to hold an inquiry about this debacle, as you call it. Have you had confirmation of that inquiry and do you think an inquiry is necessary?
ALBANESE: Well certainly there does need to be inquiries. Not just of the Information Commissioner about privacy issues, which is what he would deal with. There would be issues with regard to the Auditor-General about, the Auditor-General enquiry will look at the value for taxpayers. How much is this costing? Sending out all the letters, going through this process. My real concern isn’t just the cost to the taxpayer, it’s the cost to real human beings and that’s the problem with the Government here. It’s as if people don’t exist. They’ve written people out of the equation and every Australian deserves respect, whether they are a billionaire or whether they are someone who, due to circumstances beyond their control, is on welfare. Mr Barbar didn’t choose to get cancer and have to have chemotherapy and use all his sick leave out at the job in which he was in. He didn’t choose that. Those circumstances happened to him and he is worthy of respect, as are all Australians.
REPORTER: The Government has managed to recoup some money. Do you (inaudible) has had any success?
ALBANESE: Money that has been recouped, of course that has always occurred. There has always been a process of recouping money that are over-payments from people and of course if people have received money they are not entitled to then it should be paid back. The problem here is the whole onus of proof, the assumption here is that people have done the wrong thing.
The Government itself says that one in five – people have received letters who have never been on to Centrelink. People have received all sorts of letters in circumstances around this debacle. They’ve got it wrong because there has been no proper oversight of this. There’s a need to go back and make sure that this sort of debacle never happens again. But the Government stands condemned by the impact that they are having as a result of these changes. Maybe one more.
REPORTER: Details have emerged today of Federal health Minister Sussan Ley’s (inaudible). What questions do you want Minister Ley to answer and do you think she should resign?
ALBANESE: Sussan Ley will answer those questions and there are Government processes in place for auditing of entitlements. I’m not aware of all the circumstances. So that is a matter for her and the Government – the need to respond to those issues.
REPORTER: Do you think it shows that the minister is out of touch. She said that …
ALBANESE: I’m not going to respond to circumstances to which I don’t know what they all are. It’s obviously up to Minister Ley and the Prime Minister to respond to those issues. Thank you very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.