This year I am completing my honours degree at ______________ University under scholarship. I am neither uneducated or easily unnerved.
During 2010-2012 I received centrelink income assistance while I was working part time as a pizza maker at a local restaurant. My employer was known for cutting corners, and refused to give his employees payslips and it was implied that if I insisted I would be fired. Nevertheless, I carefully reported all my earnings to centrelink, and filed my paperwork. As soon as I began earning enough to live on, I cancelled my centrelink payments.
Late October last year, right during crucial exam time, I received an email in MyGov, informing me that I had to confirm some tax file information about the period that I received centrelink payments. I followed through the prompts with an actual letter from centrelink from that time period, six weeks between December 2011 and January 2012, detailing all of my reported hours and payment amounts. On conclusion I was informed that I had a debt to centerlink of $1,600 of received income that had not been reported. Another prompt informed me that I could submit a challenge to this debt. I did so. I was informed by the browser that I would be contacted within a week.
I did not understand what was happening. The information that I had provided from more than six years ago was correct according to all my documents. I was in the middle of exam period, in my last year of my double degree, I could not afford to have a panic attack or a breakdown. I hate to think how those who are less fortunate than I; disabled or pensioners would cope with that kind of stress.
I studied. I completed exams. I was living in a perpetual state of tension, anxiety and depression. I took a call to say that my challenge had been denied. As soon as my last exam was done, mid November, I went down to my local centrelink office, and waited in line for two hours. I presented my paperwork to the very apologetic woman that spoke to me. She told me that she was very sorry, but this debt collection was handled by a different branch, and though she could scan my centrelink letter that proved the information I provided was accurate, she could not help me. She gave me a number to call.
I rang the centrelink branch, and waited on the phone for about an hour. The young man, Jamie, who took my call informed me that the centrelink letter that had been scanned and placed to my account was not useable. He told me that he would put through another challenge on my case, and that I would be contacted within the week.
Another week went by, it was now more than 20 days since I received the debt notice. I had not been called. I rang the number again, and again explained my problem, this time to a woman called Steph. I was told that the challenge had been denied, and I needed to upload my payslips from that employer. I did not have them. I emailed my previous employer and formally requested the payslips. My email was not responded to. I left it for a week, and then I went into my old work and spoke to the mother of my previous employer and told her that I needed payslips from that six weeks for tax purposes. Knowing that they most likely did not exist, I gave her the breakdown of hours and income I had received. I heavily implied that if i did not receive them directly, I would inform the tax office and they would deal direct. I gave them another week to supply me with the payslips. The day before the end of that week I emailed my employer again, once again implying that I would set the tax office on them. He emailed payslips back to me from the same email address that I had originally used, just before midnight of the last day I had allowed him.
Following some advice given to me by a friend who has had a similar experience, when I rang to submit my payslips, I asked for a team leader rather than re-explaining my problem. I was put onto Kerry, who listened to my now very convoluted story, and told me that she could use those to put through a manual reassessment that she would complete herself, and was confident that the problem was that my employer was using two different business names, which was confusing the system and was a very common problem. Money was now being taken from my student payments in order to repay the debt; money that I budget for travel costs. Nevertheless I listened to Kerry. She told me to be calm and trust her. For the first time I felt that I was not fighting a losing battle.
Kerry finally rang me in late December, just before Christmas, and told me that although she had everything she needed, she could not sign off on my case, and it was being transferred to a third accounting party to determine. She apologised and told me she could give me no idea about whether the debt would be removed, or a number to call, but that I should hear from them early January.
By late January, money is still being taken from my study payments, and I had received no word. I had been reading the news, the liberals claiming that few people have been affected by this debt collection. This is not true to my experience. I hate to think how many others have been through this process, put on trial and deprived of income, those who do not have the know-how or ability to continue to struggle against this injustice. How many panic attacks have been brought on by this move? How many people have felt that they have no power to challenge these debts applied to their names with the significant interest applied on top?
I emailed all my local and federal members with my story, with details and dates. My local politician was in contact within a week, asking for my centrelink number in order to pursue this on my behalf. It took two weeks for a call to be made to me from centrelink. That was two days after the Liberals passed a bill that bank statements could be used instead of payslips. I was told that there were two further payslips that I needed to retrieve from my employer. I am ashamed to admit that I almost had a panic attack at the thought of engaging again with my previous employer. It was not until the woman on the other end of the phone heard this that she relented and wiped my 'debt'. I asked her to give me the number to call to make a formal complaint, then waited on the phone for another half an hour to have my story clinically documented, by a woman who clearly was expecting verbal abuse (not that I blame the staff, the majority have been very sympathetic and helpful).
If this was a psychology study, the ethics would not get passed by the proposal board. The process has been one that victimises some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and not only that, but knowingly so. Structures were only implemented to deal with issues once enough negative press had been received. I never vote Liberal, so at least I am reassured that I did in no way bring this upon myself.
No debriefing has been implemented to people proven innocent. I got no apology or official recognition of the stress, merely a letter from centrelink informing me my debt had been reset to zero. The fact that it was not until I involved someone with more power than myself that my case gained traction is unacceptable. What about the people that do not have the ability or knowledge to petition their local government?
I honestly cannot imagine a worst handling method (that is also legal) that our Government could have implemented.