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Centrelink debt scare backfires on Labor

26 January 2017
Simon Benson
The Australian

Labor’s attempts to mount a ­repeat of its discredited Mediscare campaign against Centrelink’s automated debt recovery system have been exposed, with at least two-thirds of those publicly claiming to be victims of Centrelink found to owe significant debts to the ­taxpayer.


following analysis taken from comment elsewhere:

WHAT WAS SAID: “at least two-thirds of those publicly claiming to be victims of Centrelink found to owe significant debts to the taxpayer.”

WHAT WAS MEANT: We’re not telling you whether they owed anything like the amounts that they were first alleged to owe. But in view of the bugs in the algorithm and the difficulty of correcting them online, it’s a safe bet that most of them didn’t.

WHAT WAS SAID: “a third of the people used to fuel a media campaign against the government were not subject to the automated system.”

WHAT WAS MEANT: Two thirds were, in spite of the relatively short time that the automated system has been operating.

WHAT WAS SAID: “Labor could not guarantee yesterday that all the so-called victims, whose names it had supplied to the media, were ‘innocent’.”

WHAT WAS MEANT: Of course not, because our story later describes them as self-identified, not Labor-identified.

WHAT WAS SAID: “a number of those who claimed to have been wrongly targeted had in fact accepted that the debt was owed”.

WHAT WAS MEANT: We didn’t ask whether that simply meant that they had confirmed their total earned income when invited to, and then immediately got hit by the “divide by 26” bug.

WHAT WAS SAID: “with some even having entered into repayment programs.”

WHAT WAS MEANT: If you get a false debt letter (or don’t get it, and consequently hear about it from a debt collector), you have to pay first and argue later.

WHAT WAS SAID: “One claimant… Another… A woman…”

WHAT WAS MEANT: We cherry-picked the cases that suited our narrative.

WHAT WAS SAID: “Of the 34 self-identified cases subject to the new system, almost 60 per cent had been found to have been overpaid for failing to declare other income or employment.”

WHAT WAS MEANT: We didn’t ask how many of these cases were SUBSEQUENTLY adjusted (or should have been) because Centrelink and the ATO had recorded the same employer under two different names, or wrongly counted exempt income.

WHAT WAS SAID: “The remaining number of aggrieved welfare recipients had not bothered to contact Centrelink.”

WHAT WAS MEANT: We didn’t ask now many of them had letters sent to out-of-date addresses when current addresses were available in the ATO data, or how many couldn’t access the website or couldn’t get through by phone. And never mind how many people hadn’t informed Centrelink of their new addresses simply because they were no longer Centrelink “customers” and had no plans to become “customers” again.

WHAT WAS SAID: “in response to claims it had an error rate of 20 per cent.”

WHAT WAS MEANT: That “20 per cent” figure actually comes from Centrelink and refers to the percentage of recipients of the initial “polite letter” who are not sent a subsequent debt letter. It tells us NOTHING about the percentage of debt letters that are wrong.

WHAT WAS SAID: “they received an overpayment because they had not declared all their income… entire jobs were not reported…”

WHAT WAS MEANT: We didn’t ask how much of this was SUBSEQUENTLY found to be undeclared EXEMPT income or double-counting of jobs by the government."