3 Jan 2017

Centrelink debt notices, data matching, pension cuts, 18C, vandalism charges











Subjects: Centrelink debt notices, data matching, pension cuts, 18C, vandalism charges

SENATOR DOUG CAMERON: Labor is extremely concerned at the increasing number of complaints that we are receiving around the country in relation to the data matching that the government is doing with Centrelink and the Australian Tax Office.

It seems to us that this is a very crude and a very inaccurate way of dealing with potential violations, of people seeking payments from the welfare system. And while Labor has got no time for anyone trying to rort the system, these are innocent people ringing offices around the country saying they are having bills of up to tens of thousands of dollars from the Centrelink offices.

As you're aware, not only are they being told there will be a ten percent increase in the money that's owed if they don't pay immediately, they've also been threatened by Minister Tudge that they could end up in jail. That is inaccurate. You can only end up in jail if it's a serious fraud.

But we are of the view that because the system is causing so many problems, that the Minister should suspend the system immediately. The Minister should take steps to investigate why these problems are being created all over the country. We should be told why, leading up to Christmas, that decent Australians are being told by this government that they will not only fined, but they will also go to jail.

We should also understand why this crude and inaccurate system is being persevered with by the government.

So this is unfair at Christmas and New Year. This is unfair during the festive season. This is not right that a government put such a system in that is so crude, that it is causing so many problems. This is another example of the Turnbull government not getting things right. This is another example of the Turnbull government targeting the poorest people in the country, when it is not prepared to come after the people who are rally causing problems in the economy; that's the banks and big business.

And we take the view that this should be suspended, that a proper analysis should be done of the issues and that everyone should be confident around the country that if they are getting a letter saying they owe a debt, that debt is actually owed. That is not what's happening now.

One of my constituents, who said she had been meticulously advising Centrelink of her circumstances, was sent a bill for $9,000. She came to my office extremely distressed because $9,000 for someone who has been relying on Centrelink for some period during the year is a big problem.

So there is a great deal of fear, a great deal of concern and a great deal of concern that the government is not getting this right. So we say suspend this program, do the analysis, do the fact checking and make sure that you get it right.

JOURNALIST: Senator, this automated system replaced the manual system in the middle of the year. Is there any evidence in your opinion that that manual system was in need of a drastic replacement and one that is obviously causing so many problems as this one is?

CAMERON: Well it's not so much that the system needed drastic replacement. The government has decided that it will do this cross checking between Centrelink and the ATO. We don't think that's a problem but the cross checking should be accurate. The cross checking should be correct. And what are hearing, we had the whistle-blower who said the system is grossly unfair … this is a Centrelink person … that it's grossly unfair, it's flawed and overly harsh. It’s error prone.

The compliance officers have got no discretion and these are how you deal with the issues in the past – there was some discretion with the compliance officers because they could look at it and go no, this is incorrect. That's not what's happening now and simply a computer is saying here's the problem, the government's saying, well, you are going to pay a price for that problem and you could even go to jail. We think it's ridiculous and should be stopped.

JOURNALIST: The boss of the Department has put out his own email address and directly provided that to people who are receiving benefits because there are so many complaints out there that people are frustrated with the regular processes, is that any sort of indicator that there may be more endemic problems with the Department itself?

CAMERON: I've been Shadow Minister for Centrelink in the past, for a period of time and there are clearly problems in Centrelink. A lot of those problems are that the government has decided to attack its own workforce, trying to take conditions and wages from its own workforce. These are issues that have gone unresolved now for three years.

What we should be looking at in Centrelink is not attacking the workforce; treating the workforce with respect, making sure the workforce are there to deliver the services that Centrelink should be delivering. Not relying on a robot, not relying on artificial intelligence, not relying on a non-human approach to people who see this is a very serious issue if they're faced with tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

JOURNALIST: Senator you've just described this is another example of the Turnbull government targeting poorer people. If this was an accidental flaw in the system, or [inaudible] as you say, how could you say this is a targeted attack?

CAMERON: Well it's targeted because this is a government who has targeted the poorest people in our community since the 2014 Budget. The 2014 Budget was the worst budget for inequity ever and the targets in that Budget were some of the poorest, most vulnerable people in the economy. We were told that there would be no cuts to pensions; this government is determined to cut pensions. This is a government that says people should work until they're seventy. This is a government that is attacking young people who can't find a job. So I think it's quite clear, I don't think there's any argument about the targets of this government and it's clear that while they are targeting welfare recipients, while they are attacking the vulnerable, they're not prepared to take on the banks.

JOURNALIST: With this particular incident, are suggesting that it was deliberate?

CAMERON: Yes it's deliberate. The cross matching is a deliberate decision by the government to target welfare recipients. There's no argument about that. That is the process; a deliberate targeting of some of the most vulnerable people in the community with a crude inaccurate system. We say, suspend the system, do the analysis, do a proper check on what is being asked of individuals and that would be the best way forward.

JOURNALIST: Senator, Labor supported the omnibus savings bill earlier this year. That bill scraps the six year time limit that prevents Centrelink from going too far back in terms of retrieving debts, it's going to allow them to retrieve debts that are seven, eight years old, is that not in your sights then?

CAMERON: Well, the omnibus bill has a number of aspects to it and it was presented as an omnibus bill. These are issues that have been created by the government desperate to try and squeeze every cent out of, again, some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the country. Labor will always have a look at dealing with these things in a fair and reasonable manner. If Labor was in government, we would be dealing with this now if something had cropped up to the extent that this has so it's just not a viable criticism of Labor to say that you have agreed to these issues. We would deal with them as they came up.

JOURNALIST: Also, do you have any thoughts Senator on the pension changes and have you had any reaction from your constituents?

CAMERON: A huge reaction. I think this is a huge problem for Malcolm Turnbull. I think it's got internal political problems for him. I think there are problems out there in the community. You know, people have worked hard to save for their retirement and this government who has said it wouldn't change the rules, has changed the rules mid-stream, costing many pensioners lots of money. 300,000 pensioners will lose out of this decision by the government. Labor opposed it when it came to the Parliament. Labor is not happy that this is happening and this government has got a lot to answer for.

This is a government in chaos, with no leadership from the top, with a Prime Minister who has absolutely no capacity to control his party so how do you expect him to actually run the country and deal with issues like this. He is incapable of running the country. He is incapable of running his own party and he really is a lame duck Prime Minister.

JOURNALIST: Senator, just on changes to the 18C, do you think the Prime Minister will lose support of ethnic communities if they go ahead?

CAMERON: There no doubt about that. Ethnic communities all over the country are saying that this is a problem if 18C goes. 18C has been in for a while, there's legal case history on it and how to deal with it. It is not a problem for any individual and this again is the extremists in the party controlling the Prime Minister and pushing back on issues that he said he stood for prior to becoming Prime Minister.

Who knows what this guy stands for. Seems to me he that stands for whatever the extreme right wing of the party tells him he should stand for.

JOURNALIST: Has Labor been mobilising the ethnic communities to fight against the changes?

CAMERON: We haven't been mobilising the ethnic communities. The ethnic communities have been coming to our offices; again, all over the country complaining about 18C going, complaining about the protections it provides them being removed and actually saying there is no need for.

So again, this is Malcolm Turnbull being led by the nose by the extreme right wing of his party, showing no leadership, no capability to show any courage on an issue and simply not the man that people thought they had voted for.

JOURNALIST: And there are reports that the Coalition is divided on the issue. Is Labor united?

CAMERON: Absolutely. And it's clear that the Coalition are completely riven by this issue. You've got those right wing extremists basically determining what the policy position on a day-to-day basis of a Prime Minister is.

There has never been a weaker Prime Minister in my knowledge of politics in this country than Malcolm Turnbull. He is weak, he's jelly-backed, he's got no capacity to stand up to the worst elements in his own party.

JOURNALIST: In Melbourne, three people were charged, including the husband of a current Labor Senator, were charged with vandalism and assault charges in the election. Is vandalism, is that the way to act [inaudible]?

CAMERON: Absolutely not. There are democratic processes in this country and they should be protected and Labor's view is if people are vandalising signs, if people are trashing the democratic processes and it's illegal to do that, they should be dealt with under the law. Full stop. No argument.

JOURNALIST: Are you concerned that one of them has, or all three have some links to Bill Shorten as well?

CAMERON: This is not an issue of who they have links to, this is an issue that's before the courts. The issue is they have charges against them, it's in court, they will be dealt with and Labor has got no tolerance for the democratic processes being trashed.

Thank you