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'Facing years of debt': what it's like being in the middle of a Centrelink stuff-up

3 January 2017
Shalailah Medhora
Triple J Hack

Imagine you get a letter from Centrelink saying you have an outstanding debt of more than half your yearly salary. Oh, and it's due in just over a fortnight.

Brisbane-based single mum Joy got a letter like that before Christmas. (Joy isn't her real name; she's asked Hack not to identify her as her debt is still outstanding.)

Joy receives, on average, about $540 a fortnight in Family Tax Benefits and a partial parental payment to help ease the cost of raising two small children on her own. She works three days a week and earns about $45,000 a year.

So it came as a rude shock in December when Centrelink told her she owed them over $24,000.

"I was really stressed and upset. I work in an open-plan office and was trying not to burst into tears," she told Hack.

"As a single parent, I don't have a safety net of a lot of savings.


Joy is one of the 169,000 people who have received a letter from Centrelink asking them to check if the info they provided to the organisation was correct.

All welfare recipients - including people who got student support payments - are subject to the new compliance measures.

Centrelink's new automated compliance system has raised red flags all over the place; discrepancies that critics of the system said would not occur if humans were checking welfare records.

The number of letters has ballooned from 20,000 a year to 20,000 a week.

For some people, the automated system assumed that the welfare they receive in a fortnight is the same across the year - without taking into account that some people work casually or only during certain periods.


Social Services Minister Christian Porter defended the automated system, telling Radio National it was getting the job done.