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Automated Centrelink a fast track to Turnbull's demise

24 January 2017
Ross Gittins
SMH

I thought of Daniel Blake when I read of the way the Turnbull government is using an "automated debt recovery program" to harass former users of Centrelink.

It's using a computer program to go back several years, checking Centrelink benefit payments against records from the Tax Office, to look for apparent overpayments and demand the money be repaid.

Trouble is, the exercise is hugely prone to error. Eligibility for social security benefits is assessed on a fortnightly basis, whereas tax information is annual. The machine merely divides the annual figures by 26 and often gets the wrong answer.

Where the same employer's name has been recorded differently, the machine treats them as separate businesses, sometimes calculating "debts" that are thousands of dollars out.

The machine may send its demand to an old address, even though failure to respond within 21 days is taken as acceptance that the figure named is correct, and the trigger for debt collectors to be called in, with the addition of a 10 per cent "recovery fee".

The many leaks from appalled Centrelink staff suggest they've been discouraged from correcting obvious errors before the machine-generated demands are sent out, and discouraged from helping people in person, rather than just telling them to use the website.

It's clear this is a fishing expedition. You make what you know may often be erroneous claims for repayment, shift the onus of proof onto people with few records or resources, give them a scare, then sit back and see how much you rake in.

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I've been amazed by the way the Centrelink boss, the junior minister, Alan Tudge, and the senior minister, Christian Porter, have each denied there's any problem.

Really? This is the way bureaucrats and politicians get their names into the history books for contributing to their government's demise.

So far they've mainly been picking on young people on the dole, but now they're moving on to invalids and age pensioners. Really? Courageous decision, minister.

What on earth is motivating them? Partly it's that, having made so much fuss about debt and deficit while in opposition, the government is having enormous trouble getting the budget deficit down.

It lacks the courage to tackle the big sources of rent-seeking by business interests, but is confident it can get away with cracking down on the tiddlers in social security.

It's worse than that, however. Porter and Tudge are from the Liberals' hard Right. You can see from their speeches and remarks they have little sympathy for people poor enough to need social welfare, and every sympathy for their own class, groaning under the weight of a tax rate of supposedly "almost 50 per cent".