The Centrelink summer
The government will be scorched unless it acts soon

“WHEN a government agency tasked with assisting some of the most vulnerable Australians is reduced to suggesting on Twitter that clients seek help via Lifeline,” said the Courier-Mail’s editorial (6 January), perhaps it is time to acknowledge there might be a problem.”

To which we might add: When not just the Courier-Mail, but also other News Limited publications and A Current Affair are criticising the government for being too harsh on social security recipients, perhaps it’s time the government acknowledged how dangerous this Centrelink issue has become, and responded.

While the human services minister, Alan Tudge, is holidaying, tens of thousands of Australians are dealing with threats of debt collection. Amounts have been calculated (often incorrectly) by a data-matching algorithm and demands sent out by an automated compliance system, with no human oversight.

Put simply, the government has introduced a mechanism whereby the nation’s poorest citizens are being landed with new debts that the government knows are often in error. (Best estimates seem to be that between 20% and 37.5% of the debt notices are incorrect.) The onus is on citizens to disprove the debt at short notice, over summer holidays, using materials such as pay slips and doctor’s certificates they were never previously asked to keep. Often it’s material they’d submitted to Centrelink previously. The system by which people must register their objections and responses is completely overloaded, with phone lines jammed and IT systems groaning or simply incapable of coping with the task at hand.

The government has refused thus far to accept that there’s any problem, even though the evidence is irrefutable, not just in the numbers of complaints but in some of the obvious flaws that have been exposed over the past two weeks in particular: company names being written two different ways has prompted automated accusations that Centrelink recipients have been working two jobs; wage payments have been incorrectly averaged over the year, affecting the system’s calculation of allowable benefits.

In short, it’s a total balls-up.

And this situation is only going to get worse. Wait until pensioners and those on disability benefits or suffering from mental illness start receiving such letters. Wait until debt collectors start rolling up to homes to claim debts from people who have been desperately trying to explain to harried Centrelink staff that they are simply incorrect. Wait until the entire populace figures out that the government would prefer to land spurious debts on thousands of people rather than make the effort to get the system right.

The government believes it is “sending a message” regarding how serious it is about cracking down on welfare abuse, and that Australia’s national debt excuses extreme actions such as these. And no doubt the government will succeed in clawing back money, albeit from those who can least afford it, in many cases throwing them back upon the very services they’re struggling to (re)pay. But the government will soon realise that people don’t appreciate messages like these unless they’re consistent with actions taken in other policy areas, and don’t just target the poor. Everyone needs to accept that the budget won’t fix itself, so the standard argument goes, but this ignores the fact that some parties are never asked to dig deeper. An honest look at the government’s efforts to claw back money from the top end of town reveals either remarkable ineptitude or remarkable disinterest. To take one obvious example, how many times has the Coalition announced a “crackdown on multinational tax avoidance”? And how much revenue has this yielded thus far? If you guessed five times and zero dollars, you’d be close. When the government’s big-ticket policy item is cutting business tax, you can be sure that they’re not going out of their way to get business to pay more tax.

A third of Australia’s biggest companies paid no tax at all in 2014–15. But apparently the problem is disadvantaged people, and the solution to the nation’s budget woes will be to put them through the wringer. Negative gearing? Mining subsidies? Family trust laws? Not under consideration. Income tax? The government lowered the rate for people earning over $80,000 per year.

Western Sydney nurse Janette Suffield recently received a Centrelink letter incorrectly claiming she owed over $2000 from when she was off work recovering from surgery. One can only imagine what she thinks when she hears the social services minister, Christian Porter, saying that the system is working “incredibly well”. One wonders how those faced with thousand-dollar debts will feel about the Point Piper–residing prime minister returning from his sunny holidays to announce that everything’s going to plan. The plan being what – to extort money from them? Just how out of touch is this government?

Australia’s welfare system is already one of the most tightly targeted in the world. The country’s overall tax take is low, compared to other developed nations. None of this seems to matter to the Coalition, however, and nor does the mountain of evidence building about the very real problems its attack on welfare recipients is causing.

Add to this the disquiet caused by the recent changes to the pension assets test, the introduction of which was also bungled by the government, and it’s safe to say it’s going to be a long, hot summer for the Turnbull government. And to be frank, who will care if another prime ministership burns up?

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of the Monthly.

@nickfeik

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