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Centrelink is why the budget won't win us over

29 March 2017
Peter Martin
Sydney Morning Herald

Scott Morrison's problem in delivering the budget is that people don't trust him.

He said Centrelink's new data matching software was going to deliver more "accurate and appropriate income testing". It would "cut red tape and ensure that mistakes are minimised".

Hundreds of thousands of Centrelink clients and millions of their friends and family now know that what he says doesn't necessarily happen. Like a bad golfer, he talks up his swing but doesn't follow through.

Centrelink was going to deliver $661 million by better matching the data provided to it with data provided to the Tax Office, what the Treasurer called "the smarter use of technology".


Given that automatic matching of incongruous information would inevitably produce false reports, it was essential to have a working website on which falsely fingered people could set out the truth.

The Prime Minister had set up an organisation to do just that, to "assist agencies with their digital transformations, to ensure that all services meet the needs and expectations of the user".

But Human Services, the department that runs Centrelink, turned its back on the Digital Transformation Office.

"They were difficult to work with," its head Paul Shetler, told the ABC. "Very, very defensive. You know, nothing is wrong, everything is good, the house is burning down but everything is fine."


The union representing Centrelink workers says what those people often didn't realise was that unless they did much more than simply confirm their annual income the machine could instantly conclude they had been overpaid and declare them in debt.

"It appeared to ask a few simple questions, however customers did not realise they had to delve further to enable them to type in their wages for every week or fortnight," said a Centrelink worker.

"We were actively discouraged from helping the customers," said another. "We were told to always refer them back to the automated system and only help them as a last resort. Directions have since changed to a slightly softer approach since the media attention."

Then came the phone calls.

"On answering this call, from a private number outside of usual hours without any warning of who it was from, the first question posed to me was: what's your date of birth," said the author of a submission to the Senate.

"I was then told that I was effectively a criminal who'd committed fraud."


Many of those who have told their story to the Senate have asked for their names to be withheld.

"I no longer trust that I would receive impartial and fair treatment from the department if I am identified," said one. "The department has demonstrated it is willing, and has the power, to attack critics by breaching their privacy without consent."