​Turnbull says Centrelink 'robo' letters are entirely responsible and appropriate

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said the automated Centrelink debt recovery process is 'quite appropriate'.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has told journalists in Sydney on Wednesday that the Centrelink automated debt recovery system that has seen some letters demanding money repayment sent in error to welfare recipients is actually "quite appropriate".

According to Turnbull, 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.

"The letters that go out in the first instance are simply saying, there is a discrepancy: 'Your employer is saying you earned this, you say you earned that, can you explain what that discrepancy is' -- and that is entirely responsible and appropriate."

Turnbull's comments come 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.

"[Minister for Human Services] 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."

The Department of Human Services (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 upon his return from leave, Tudge held firm the government's view that the system was working well, confirming 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."

Also speaking with the ABC on Thursday, assistant national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union Michael Tull said there is no way the government could declare the debt recovery system is working well, as the automated data matching tool has left the Australian public with a "bad taste in their mouth".

Tull said it was clear the system is not working properly and that it "lacks integrity".

"Firstly there's the very high error rate; then there's the people forced into debt repayment plans even when they know they don't have a debt; then there's the fact that Centrelink doesn't have enough staff to deal with this workload," he said.

Appearing on behalf of the union representing public sector staff, Tull explained that the high error rate in letters sent to welfare recipients -- flagged previously by Minister for Social Services Christian Porter as only 0.16 percent -- has seen the impact flow on from Centrelink customers into the staff dealing with complaints.

"I think everybody understands now that there is a very, very high error rate," Tull said.

Earlier this month, Independent Member for Denison Andrew Wilkie said he had personally received over a hundred complaints from citizens who have recounted "deeply disturbing" stories about their experience with the Centrelink debt recovery system, and that the thought of having to pay back demanded money has driven some people to contemplate taking their own lives.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman Colin Neave opened an investigation into the Centrelink fiasco last week, with a spokesperson telling ZDNet that Neave is aware of the concerns raised and has commenced an own-motion investigation into the matter.

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