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Opinion: Centrelink ‘debt’ mess undermining public’s faith in system to catch real welfare cheats

7 January 2017
Paul Syvret
The Courier-Mail

“People should be able to obtain these benefits as a matter of right, with no more loss of their own standards of self respect than would be involved in collecting from an insurance company the proceeds of an endowment policy on which they have been paying premiums for years.”

This is not the Australian Council of Social Services talking about welfare payments in 2017, but the late Sir Robert Menzies addressing parliament as then Opposition leader in 1944.

The theme was the unemployment benefits safety net, which Australia introduced the following year, and Menzies was making the point that those who, through no fault of their own, find themselves out of a job should be entitled to both a degree of state support and personal dignity.

Times have clearly changed.

There is little dignity in receiving a computer-generated letter from Centrelink a week or so before Christmas informing you that – unless you can prove otherwise – you owe the government a sizeable sum of money because of previous welfare overpayments.

Close to 200,000 of these missives have been sent out in recent months, with thousands of recipients protesting that they are being hounded for a debt which doesn’t exist due to glitches in Centrelink’s automated collections and compliance system.

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The longer this mess drags on the more the public’s faith in a system designed to identify genuine rorters – who Human Services Minister Alan Tudge has warned face possible prison time – will be undermined.

Put the Centrelink shambles in the same period in which you have some significant (but very poorly sold) changes to the age pension, business leaders calling for cuts to penalty rates from their yachts, and federal Health Minister Susan Ley buying an $800,000 Gold Coast investment property while on a taxpayer funded trip, and you can excuse voters for taking an increasingly jaundiced “us and them” view of the world.