Autumn 2017

Alternative facts in the Centrelink debacle

Over Christmas 2016 and well into 2017, Centrelink’s new policy of automated online debt collection was subject to conflicting reports, making us wonder what version of truth we might best believe, writes Kasy Chambers.

Over the past few months the Minister for Human Services, Alan Tudge and the department head have stuck to the assertion that everything is, and was, working fine. It would be surprising if these assertions were deliberate lies.

Yet there is another version of the truth, and it is compelling. It can be seen in the still growing list of people talking publicly about the distress caused to them by being falsely targeted. The journalists who are prosecuting this side of the argument are not fools. And the Commonwealth Ombudsman would not have seen the need to launch a wide-ranging investigation, if there weren’t some reasonably sonorous alarm bells.

The outcome will no doubt be that there is truth on both sides. And we should say straight up that, ignoring the dismally low level of most benefits, we believe that where a person has received money they are not entitled to, that needs to be recovered.

That still leaves the problem of the manner in which these debt notices were sent out, the timing, and the tone in which citizens have been addressed by their government.

No doubt we will trawl through the adequacies (or otherwise) of the planning and thinking put into setting up this automated system. Anyone who has tried to interact with Centrelink knows the difficulties of dealing with the bureaucratic nature of the beast.

If you have income cycles which differ to its reporting periods, if you are moving in and out of work (very common when you are trying to get a job), if your children reach certain milestones or you meet a partner, difficulties will be created in your relationship with Centrelink.

“We are left with a fracture in the way we treat each other and a lack of respect from a government to its citizens.”

Until now humans have raised the debt notice after looking at the individual situation of each case. Automatic systems to date have been good at repetitive and routine decision making, leaving the humans to the more complex and individualised cases. The irony is not lost on us in the social services sector that the Department of Human Services was one of the first to step this far into automation.

Another difficulty with the process has been that the adversarial manner that it set up has made it unlikely to allow Centrelink to learn from the cases it reviews.

A 2008 study by Anglicare Tasmania explored the experiences of people who found themselves in debt to Centrelink. Their stories were analysed and their community legal centre files reviewed. The research revealed a pattern of overpayments, poor communication by Centrelink and a lack of assistance to deal with the problem of Centrelink debt. And that was before the system was automated.

Most people, at some stage in their life, will benefit from the public purse. That includes welfare benefits, with aged pensions and family tax benefits being the mainstream ones, as well as universal services such as education, vaccination and health.

Furthermore, many people caught in this current debt recovery process are now working. They thought they had ended their connection with Centrelink years ago, and are unlikely to have kept all their records.

It may be that Centrelink tried to run before it could walk in terms of technology and system design. It may be that in the culture of never admitting a mistake, it has proved to be difficult to back down and build a better process. Those facts (and a number of ‘alternative’ facts, have washed through the public hearings of an ongoing Senate inquiry, and in the Commonwealth Ombudsman report into the matter. And certainly, although without a note of apology, the department has amended its processes to address some of the more obvious frustrations and injustices of the automated process. In the meantime we are left with a fracture in the way we treat each other in this country and a lack of respect from a government to its citizens. And yet there is a swing in public sympathy towards those caught up in the mess: perhaps that offers some cause for optimism in what we can expect of our communities at least.


Kasy Chambers is executive director of Anglicare Australia. This is an edited extracts of a piece that originally appeared on eurekastreet.com.

The St Vincent de Paul Society’s National office expressed its concerns over the federal government’s attempt to return around $4 billion to the budget, through targeting Centrelink customers, in a media release on 10 January. These concerns reached broad audiences, including readers of Business Insider, The Guardian, PRObono Australia and The New Daily.

During an interview with Sky News on 12 January, National Council CEO Dr John Falzon told presenter Laura Jayes the government was going out of its way to hound people. ‘Many of whom have not been improperly paid, many of whom are struggling to survive from below the poverty line,’ he said.

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