Two more victims of Centrelink’s debt crackdown have emerged, as the Opposition turns the screws on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over the government’s $4.5 billion benefits clawback.
Grayndler MP Anthony Albanese held a press conference today (Friday) to highlight the fact that by the government’s own admission one in five of the notices that Human Services has sent out to recoup benefit overpayments have been wrong.
Two of Mr Albanese’s constituents, Tony Barbar and Curtis Dickson, have been slapped with debt demands threatening them with debt collectors if they don’t pay up but both men argue that they do not owe Centrelink any money.
Mr Albanese said they are not isolated cases and claims that around 20 people have contacted his office so far worried about the notices, some of which have overstated the money owed and others sent out where there is no debt to pay.
Mr Barbour, who lives in Marrickville, claimed benefits in 2010 while he was on sick leave and having chemotherapy for cancer. He recovered and began working again in January 2011. Six years later Human Services is demanding more than $4,500 from him or to supply records proving that he was entitled to the money.
Mr Dickson, from Leichhardt, claimed Austudy when he was a student between 2007 and 2012. Now he has been asked to repay $750, which he says he does not owe. Despite this, he has signed up for a repayment plan, spooked by Centrelink’s threat to call in the debt collectors if he does not act.
Mr Albanese called the government “extraordinarily callous” and said attacking the most vulnerable Australians by sending out automatically generated letters based on matching tax data with Centrelink income data had “taken people out of the equation”.
He said the government had played down the concerns of ordinary people affected by the letters. Centrelink has been openly referring anxious welfare claimants to Lifeline and social workers on social media, in response to their concerns.
“Christian Porter [deputising for Human Services Minister Alan Tudge] has been dismissive of individual vulnerable Australians,” Mr Albanese said. “It makes me sick to my stomach.”
He said the situation was aggravated by the fact that people contesting the letters struggled to get through to a human being on the phone, partly because of years of staffing cuts.
Mr Albanese called on the federal government to make more staff available to answer telephone inquiries and to ask Centrelink office staff to deal with questions face-to-face when necessary, rather than turning people away and asking them to call instead.
“The government needs to acknowledge that it got things wrong. It needs to allay the concerns of so many vulnerable Australians who have received letters from debt collection agencies,” he said.
Labor’s Human Services spokesperson MP Linda Burney has called on the Attorney-General Grant Hehir to investigate the situation and the government’s figures behind the operation, which it has boasted has generated 20,000 debt letters a month.
Meanwhile, Mr Turnbull’s former handpicked chief IT advisor Paul Shetler – who resigned from the Digital Transformation Agency in November – has publicly criticised the government in The Guardian today for the high error rate of the debt notices sent out, which he said would put a private company out of business.
He said the algorithms used were flawed and accused the government of having “blind faith in data”.
Mr Shetler told The Guardian: “It is literally blame aversion, it is not risk aversion. They’re trying to avoid the blame, and they’re trying to cast it wide.”
The Centrelink furore will further exert pressure on the Prime Minister after data failures at the ATO and the Census system meltdown on August 9.
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