TASMANIA TALKS - DRIVE - Senate Inquiry into the Turnbull Government’s bungled robo-debt system

BRIAN CARLTON: When you get somebody like Eric Abetz, who I think it would be fair to say is not exactly on the far left of politics – when he acknowledges that his party and his Government has been running the Centrelink ATO data match issue there is clearly a problem. And that’s not the only basis I use for making that assessment. I’ve had all sorts of people contact the show with all sorts of issues at least once a day.

The Senate is having a look at all of this and other issues. What I wanted to have a chat with Senator Helen Polley about is just how many of us are caught up in this and what the Senate is finding out thus far. Senator welcome to Tasmania Talks, how are you?

SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER TO THE LEADER (TASMANIA), SENATOR HELEN POLLEY: I’m very well thank you Brian and thank you for your interest. This is a really important inquiry because there are just under 6,000 individuals in Tasmania who have been caught up in this debacle to some extent. And I say debacle because Governments of various persuasions in the past have done the right thing to people who are overpaid. Obviously that money belongs to the taxpayer and should be repaid. This debacle as you’ve outlined actually condemns somebody with a debt without the onus of proof which is quite extraordinary. And they’ve taken the human element out of it, which in the majority of cases has meant that even if the debt has proven to be a debt, it has always been in most cases, far less than the debt collection notice.

CARLTON: The Government’s position so far, other than a few Senators who decided to break ranks, like Eric Abetz, is that the system is working exactly as we’ve designed it to and that there’s nothing to see here and go away.

POLLEY: Well that’s been the very disappointing attitude of the Minister and in fact even this week, Senator Duniam who is saying that everything’s all fixed and it’s ok. Well quite frankly it’s not. We need to look at the language that the Department uses in their initial communication with their clients. Too many people have contacted my office who haven’t even understood that they’ve owed a debt. They have no idea about how to go about asking for a review. It’s been brought out today by the Launceston Community Legal Centre that in fact Centrelink uses its own form of English language and they have a sheet which they give their clients to try to explain the terminology by the Department. This has been chaotic, it has been proven to be a shambles and although I appreciate Senator Abetz’s concern, his comments just demonstrate that the Tasmanian Liberal Senators have absolutely no influence over this Government at all because it should have been stopped months and months ago. The system should have been stopped and fixed rather than putting people through this horrendous onus of having to go back and prove things from sometimes up to five years ago. We know from evidence this morning from the Youth Network of Tasmania that too many young people have left school early, they are not engaged in the education program and they don’t have the life skills to comprehend what they need to do to review these debts.

CARLTON: Let me just try to go back and isolate the cause of the issue here. The cause seems to be an attempt to marry up two fundamentally mismatched data sets. One is the data set from Centrelink and then there is the ATO. So we’re trying to compare apples and oranges here and the system is not massaged enough by humans enough to ascertain whether someone who in the first instance in that data match appears to have a debt, but in fact they don’t when you go through the month by month breakdowns – when they worked, when they didn’t, when they got paid by Centrelink and when they didn’t. Is that the guts of the problem and am I right in narrowing down that as the fundamental flaw of the whole process and then everything that was stacked on top of it was wrong too?

POLLEY: Absolutely you’re spot on Brian. In the past we’ve had human eyes on those cases that could those cases where you have a company that pays you under one name and trades under a different name. If you looked at that with human eyes rather than just relying on computers we could have alleviated this. This is where the Government changed the system and this is another example of everything the Government touching turning to stone – when it comes to the Census, the ATO or the Aged Care website.

CARLTON: Of the 6,000 Tasmanians who have been caught up in this fiasco, how many actually did have legitimate debts to pay?

POLLEY: From the information that we’ve received today there have been a significant amount of individuals who have owed some money. What we are seeing is that the original amount owing is much more than the amount actually owing. We’ve heard evidence today from a gentleman who was alleged to owe $4,000 and having gone through the review process and all the paper work, the amount was reduced to $1,000. Now what we also need to ensure is that people on limited incomes have the ability to pay their debt in a way that allows them to survive on the benefits that they’re currently receiving.

CARLTON: Obviously there’s a lot of stress associated with having to go back and find all those records and then the onus of proof is on the person required to pay the money rather than the Department. That’s got to be the first part of the fix does it not? You must make sure that there is a debt owed before the citizen is approached to pay it, surely.

POLLEY: Absolutely. We’re seeking clarification today from some of our witnesses in relation to the fact that some of the first advice that they receive that there is a dispute over a debt is when they receive a letter from the debt collector. They didn’t receive anything from Centrelink. There has been a lack of communication and there’s been a complete lack of human involvement in this process. The evidence that we’ve heard so far is that the human cost has not been acknowledged. We’re talking about people that have great pride in making sure they have no debts and there are a lot of people who haven’t taken any advice from the initial letter they received from Centrelink because they didn’t understand and didn’t believe it was about them.

CARLTON: Is it true that the Human Services Department raised 133 debts up until January this year using this automated data matching system and that 50,000 of those debts have been removed from the hands of debt  collectors because of the campaign that’s been waged in protest?

POLLEY: I’ve heard rumours to the fact and that because of the debt collectors and the manner in which the debt is collected they’ve pulled back on both. So that’s where we still don’t have any real certainty, that’s why we rely on the Minister of this Government to be upfront with us.

JOURNALIST: I had a call this morning from a guy who said that he’s been told by Centrelink that he owes $1,350 from 2014-15 but has never actually claimed any benefits – is that happening?

POLLEY: That is happening.

Journalist: Where’s the information coming from then if Centrelink doesn’t have any record of him. Why is Centrelink calling him to say they owe money from him?

POLLEY: This is where the issue of the cross-over between the ATO and Centrelink and the computerisation comes in. I’ve also had constituent who rang Centrelink explain that they’d double counted an income that was involved. This was acknowledged by a Centrelink staff member who said ‘bad luck, you’ll get a letter from the debt collector, there’s nothing you can do about it you’ve got to go through the process’ – how is that good governance?

CARLTON: For those people who have made payments  to Centrelink in the belief that they had a debt that was subsequently proven to owe money, but has been paid anyway – what recourse do they have to get the money back from Centrelink that they’ve effectively been overcharged?

POLLEY: Well that money will be refunded to them but the timeframe for that I can’t tell you. It is a very good question Brian. The fact of the matter is that normal process is that you have to be found guilty before there are any penalties and this Government has introduced penalties before there is any guilt.

CARLTON: Senator I find the idea that you are being forced to pay money while your issue is under act and internal dispute resolution at Centrelink extraordinary because the determination has not been made as to whether you definitely do owe the money. The evidence is obviously challengeable and yet you are being made to pay the money.

POLLEY: It’s absolutely ridiculous, you don’t serve out a prison term when you’re under a court action and you haven’t been found guilty. We’re talking about people who are already on limited money and in some cases people who haven’t been on Centrelink payments for three years, who have been in receipt of an allegation that they owe money and then asked to pay that money before any proof is given.

CARLTON: There are potentially going to be people out of pocket for a significant amount of time aren’t there Senator?

POLLEY: Yes absolutely and the other issue Brian, is that I have never had so many people making contact with my office about the one issue and the amount of stress associated with it. I did ask the question in the hearing this morning of the Launceston Community Legal Centre and they’ve never known any process of the collection of outstanding money to have been handled so badly as this has from the get go. This Government has failed to take action when it was first brought to their attention.

CARLTON: Another issue that’s stuck out to me to an extent was the Prime Minister talking a couple of days ago about Australian values and how we have to have a set of behaviours that are acceptable to everyone. And I think it would be an excellent idea if the Government started treating citizens with the same respect that it wants everybody else to treat everybody else with, if you know what I mean?

POLLEY: Our values have always been in my view, a fair go for all and this [issue] undermines that. It would be good to see Mr Turnbull put his money where his mouth is and make sure that this doesn’t happen again because we are expecting that after the Budget aged pensioners will be the targeted next in the next round of letters going out to people. Let’s hope they fix it before then.

CARLTON: Can people still get along this afternoon if they’re in Launceston now still get along and talk to you?

POLLEY: Absolutely, we’re down at Albert Hall upstairs and we’d be very happy to take their evidence and their names would not be released to the media like what the Federal Minister did.

CARLTON: Yes that was another thing that we have yet to resolve. There is a lot to play out here. I just think that fundamentally the Government needs to recognise, and I think all politicians, perhaps you excluded Senator, is that you guys work for us it’s not the other way around. We employ you to do a job on our behalf and I think that behoves  Government and Opposition and everybody in the political sphere with some fundamental respect regardless of whether they’re on welfare or not. Appreciate your time Senator, good luck.

POLLEY: Thank you Brian and just remember that no one ever knows what’s ahead of them or whose family or friend may be caught up in this debacle whether you’re a politician or not.

CARLTON: Absolutely and I would to think we live in an evidence based world where if somebody tells me I owe them money I’d like to see some evidence and if they haven’t got it, I’d be reluctant.

POLLEY: Absolutely Brian, thanks very much for your time.