The chief executive of a Shepparton-based not-for-profit organisation has highlighted the issues surrounding Centrelink’s automated data matching system and its approach to collecting alleged debts, as the issue faces a looming Senate inquiry.
Mr Tennant said the issue had placed immense pressure on Goulburn Valley residents and many felt helpless in their situations.
‘‘It’s extraordinarily stressful because you feel as if you have the least power of anybody in the process, and it has reversed the responsibility from proving something is owed to proving that you don’t owe something,’’ he said.
‘‘In any normal situation, it would be unfair and illegal for an organisation or individual to pursue the same course of action the government has.
‘‘It erodes the confidence of those who rely on the benefit system to treat them fairly, or to recognise them as having the same rights as all citizens.’’
Centrelink’s debt recovery system was automated last year as a move to save money.
Many Australians have since reported being contacted by debt collectors when they were adamant a debt was not owed.
Since his involvement in the establishment of the first debt collection guideline in 1999, Mr Tennant, who has a background in consumer law, said the industry had cleaned up its act but, unlike government, was still subject to state and territory fair trading laws.
He said debt collectors, even if acting on behalf of government, should be cognisant of the rules and laws surrounding debt collection.
Mr Tennant said he was aware of a number of people who had been impacted by the issue and it was inevitable that more people in the Shepparton community would be going through the same thing.
‘‘My advice to people who receive those letters is if they have concerns that they don’t think they owe what has been alleged at all, or in the amount that they’ve been told they owe, absolutely ask more questions, object to it, and if you’re placed in a position where you don’t know or you can’t get anybody to answer your inquiries, don’t agree to make payments until all of those things are resolved,’’ he said.
‘‘Regardless of the special position the government has, it is never fair or legal to claim money back from people when they don’t owe it.
‘‘When people in our community are presented with a difficult situation, they tend to shoulder that difficulty and get on with things. In this instance, getting on with things by agreeing to do something that is unfair doesn’t make it any less unfair, and so it is okay to say this doesn’t feel right, I might need some help, and there is help around.’’
A number of community legal services are available in the Shepparton area, and help is available from Centrelink and other not-for-profit family organisations such as FamilyCare.