Acting national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) Michael Tull has asked the Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge to meet with union members employed at the Department of Human Services (DHS), to discuss why Centrelink's automated debt recovery process is causing "extraordinary" stress in staff.
In a letter addressed to Tudge, Tull said that Centrelink staff are under pressure from the volume of queries and complaints they have received as a result of the agency sending out letters demanding welfare recipients repay money previously paid to them.
"The debt crisis is a manifestation of a bigger issue for DHS -- systemic understaffing, under resourcing, and a failure to listen to staff and to draw on their expertise when designing systems," Tull said. "Our members tell us that these issues will not be solved until there is an increase in permanent and well-trained staff."
Speaking on behalf of the union representing public sector staff, Tull explained that DHS staff workload is now so unmanageable thanks to the error rate in the letters, that they do not feel they can serve their fundamental role of helping those in need.
"People work at Centrelink because they want to help -- but the systems work so badly, and DHS is so understaffed, that they simply cannot," he said. "The resulting reduction in safety for DHS workers and the public must be addressed without delay."
DHS announced in December it had implemented the online compliance system in July and said that it was finding approximately AU$4.5 million that had gone awry each day. With this, the federal government hopes to improve the nation's Budget by AU$2.1 billion over the next four years.
The new system automatically compares the income people declare to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) against income declared to Centrelink. When it detects a disparity, Centrelink automatically issues a debt notice and that debt comes with a 10 percent recovery fee.
One large error in the Centrelink system is that it was incorrectly calculating a recipient's income, basing a recipient's fortnightly pay on their annual salary rather than taking a cumulative 26-week snapshot of what an individual was paid.
Speaking on ABC RN Breakfast earlier this year, Tull said the automated data matching tool has left the Australian public with a "bad taste in their mouth" and that the new system -- which has now removed the human intervention aspect -- "lacks integrity".
"I think everybody understands now that there is a very, very high error rate," he said.
"Underpinning all of this is Centrelink is an agency that has been run into the ground and the government has cut 5,000 jobs out of the place -- it's had a terrible impact on the service standards -- and now they're trying to get this compliance work done on the cheap.
"There's no way this can be said to be working well."
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Wednesday that the letters welfare recipients have been receiving were actually "quite appropriate", and said the government has an obligation to ensure that Australia's "very extensive and generous" social welfare system is allocated correctly.
"Centrelink has always sought to find explanations from recipients of Centrelink payments in circumstances where there is a discrepancy ... and it's quite appropriate," he said.
"Centrelink has a responsibility where it identifies a discrepancy between what the recipient has reported and what the employer has reported to seek an explanation and that is what is being done."
Turnbull's comments came a day after Shadow Minister for Human Services Linda Burney announced Labor would be referring the "robo-debt debacle" to a Senate inquiry when Parliament resumes in February. Citing weeks of mounting public concern, Burney said the inquiry would focus on the extent of issues experienced by users, the adequacy of testing a modelling of the system before its rollout, and the capacity of the Centrelink system to meet increased demand.
"Alan Tudge cannot be allowed to keep claiming that the system is working. We need an inquiry to establish just how the government got this so wrong," she said
"If the prime minister won't hold his ministers to account, then the parliament will. The government is totally out of touch -- they don't understand just how angry the community is and how concerned they are that this program is going to be targeting people with disability and age pensioners."
Upon his return from leave a few weeks into the new year, Tudge held firm the government's view that the system was working well, confirming on ABC RN Breakfast that the Coalition has no intention of suspending, let alone scrapping, the issue-plagued system.
"There's an important principle here that we're trying to implement and that is to ensure that there is great integrity in the welfare system because after all, the welfare system constitutes a third of the budget," he said.
"We want to make sure that people get the welfare entitlements that they're entitled to and no more and no less. Consequently we do have a robust compliance system in place and in the last six months alone, we've recovered over AU$300 million to the taxpayer through that process.
"So the system is working and we will continue with that system."