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Bearing the brunt of state-sanctioned thuggery: the Centrelink debt debacle

In a classic operation, most commonly perpetrated by telephone conmen and door-knocking scammers, the Turnbull Government has hit the jackpot. Boasting of returns of over $300 million after hitting up only 169,000 Australians, someone deep in the murky depths of Government has clearly been taking lessons from the lowest of predatory scumbags.

The operation, fondly promoted by the Government as a fair way to claw back taxpayer funds from those who were overpaid social security benefits, has reportedly caused significant angst among the most vulnerable in the community.

The debacle was first reported a couple of weeks before Christmas. In July 2016, the Government introduced an automatic debt identification and recovery system which compares annual income reported to the Australian Tax Office (ATO), with self-reports that welfare recipients provide to Centrelink on a fortnightly basis.

The results have been absurd.

Instead of providing people with a chance to address any identified discrepancy, the ‘system’ simply asks recipients to confirm their total income for the year on the MyGov website. If it accords with the ATO assessment (which it will, for any person who has correctly filled out their tax return and honestly reported their income to Centrelink), an automatic debt notification letter is sent where the system has calculated an overpayment.

Now this sounds fair enough – if a debt is owed.

But the process by which the system calculates the debt is scandalous. By averaging out annual earnings over 26 fortnights, it immediately assumes the person has earned income in every fortnight, was not entitled to benefits during the time claimed, and has therefore committed a fraud against the Commonwealth.

If a person disputes the debt, the Government still insists a payment arrangement is made to clear the debt.

If a person doesn’t pay the debt, it is quickly sent on to the debt collectors.

Those who allegedly owe a debt are threatened with jail if they do not pay.

Centrelink itself (the faceless Government organisation tasked with demanding money with menaces), has recommended distraught residents call the suicide prevention hotline, Lifeline, if they are concerned about receiving a debt notice.

Yet despite this blatantly clear admission of the trauma the system is causing innocent people, the Government is steadfastly proud of its money-making mission.

“From what we’ve seen in a high-volume system, it’s actually working incredibly well,” said Social Services Minister Christian Porter.

Here is some news for Mr Porter. Threatening people with unpalatable outcomes if they do not pay money (whether or not they owe it) is a tactic which has been used by unscrupulously vile and hideous individuals and criminal gangs for centuries to generate cash.

Why? Because it works.

If a person is terrified enough, they will pay up.

And when it is the Government making the demands and threatening to bring in the police for non-payment, there is little wonder so much money has already been collected.

The poor, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged have no chance against the state-sanctioned thuggery of the Turnbull Government.

The Government, in its attempt to save money and create efficiencies, has resorted to the lowest tactic possible: extortion.

Extortion is the practice of obtaining something, especially money, through force or threats. It is a criminal offence when practiced by any other individual. It is applauded as an efficiency when practiced by the Government.

While Porter continues to defend the unconscionable system, which violates every ethical principle and is an abuse of legal process, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce attempts to distract from the shitfest by focusing on those who may have been genuinely overpaid.

“I make no apology for making sure that those who didn’t need it, who got it, pay the money back,” Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said.

Little thought seems to have gone into the many innocent people who are caught up in the mess. The Government has admitted itself that around 20% of debt notices are falsely sent and those people owe nothing at all. Of course, the number of those falsely accused of owing money may well be higher if you consider some recipients have been accused of owing thousands of dollars, but may have been overpaid a mere ten or twenty dollars.

The outcry from the general public has been huge. The media, normally keen to stick the boot into the poor, has jumped on it, but the Government is holding its ground.

Just like the criminal underclass of old, who threaten, coerce and menace innocent people into handing over their life-savings, those responsible for the ‘Robo-Debt’ debacle stand firm. Instead of a baseball bat and balaclava, the Government uses the full force of the law and faceless institutions to muscle the vulnerable into submission.

The tactics used by the Government are nothing short of criminal. Those who are traumatized along the way, and who are pushed to the brink of suicide, are simply collateral damage in the Government’s quest to ‘balance the budget’. It has shunned due process and standard principles for debt identification and recovery. It is exploiting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in the community for monetary gain.

Terrifying innocent people into paying money they do not owe is nothing to boast about. It represents a new low for the Turnbull Government.

But like all conmen and scammers, the only way to make the Government back down, is to show it Australians are not weak and will not put up with thuggery.

Every person who receives a debt notice must ask for a review, lodge a formal complaint if the debt is wrong, and contact the Ombudsman. Contact the media. Contact each and every politician involved, including the Opposition and local MPs.

This is a war on the poor that Turnbull cannot and must not be allowed to win.

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24 comments

  1. Don A Kelly

    Australia is a monetary sovereign and the Australian Government is a Currency – Issuing Central Government (C.I.C.G). It is the monopoly owner and issuer of $AUD. Alan Greenspan, a former Chairman of The Federal Reserve Bank of America was called as an expert witness to address the American Congress regarding the ability of the Federal Government to afford the pension bill. Under oath, Alan Greenspan presented this statement when questioned about Social Security. “It doesn’t matter if the question is about Social Security, it could be about Defence Spending, Education Spending, Infrastructure Spending, Student Debt, it could be about anything. What matters is there is noyhing to stop the Federal Government from creating as much money as it likes, whenever it likes to spend into existence. The issue that matters is – will the real assets (goods and services) exist in the future for retiree’s – pension / super cheques to purchase? (i.e., will the basic goods and services, the health facilities, the nursing homes, etc.,be available for retirees to claim with their pension / super cheques). As the population ages and the working population shrinks, the ability of a nation to provide these real assets will depend upon: (1) The productivity of the working population (the economy’s sustainable productive capacity); and (2) What proportion of the real goods and services produced is made available in the form of real assets needed and desired by retirees? Taxes do not fund the pension bill”.

  2. Ken Butler

    My disabled son received such a letter in June 2016 asking for about $900 dollars because
    ” ‘the correct amount’ of your earnings was not taken into account in the payments made to you from -/-/ 2011 to -/-/2011 (3 months).
    Therefore we need to recover the amount.”
    He had changed employers and the claim was that he had been paid by each.
    The money was paid through uncertainty and fear by him and his carer mother.
    I have now obtained all the ” correct payment” details from each employer, phoned Centrelink and been asked to submit the relevant payment records.

    We shall see what happens.

    Question:
    Why is that new, nasty, algorithm facing in one direction only? If at least 20% snatches are traumatically incorrect , wouldn’t it be logical to expect a gracious admission that an equal number of the poor and underprivileged might themselves been short-changed and sought out for just redress?

  3. MichaelW

    I was paid no pension for 10 months due to a stuff up by Centrelink, I eventually received back pay and fortnightly payments after contacting a financial adviser and sorting it out with Centrelink staff who were very helpful. Where’s my 10%?

  4. bobrafto

    170,000 notices 20% error rate or more that equates to 34,000 people or more being harassed and if this was under Labor, the murdoch hacks would be all wanking themselves into a lather.

  5. Phil

    Thanks Eva Cripps – there’s no shortage of commentary on this disgraceful episode but yours certainly lines the issue up exactly as it is.

    I hope this is the final nail in the Turnbull government’s coffin (funeral to be held post election 2019) because surely no voting conservative could still be supporting this obnoxious and incompetent government – with exceptions like the entire fossil fuel and mining sector and its creepy lobbyists, the Chamber of Commerce, and of course that obscenely wealthy woman who owns the Job Active Network contract who is pals with Health Minister Ley – she with the compulsive property acquisition syndrome and who despite a plethora of higher education qualifications can’t figure out what on earth is meant by ethics and morality.

  6. JoeRotor

    Anyone hat proves their ‘debt’ is actually false or BS please take the time to fill out this form for compo & make them pay!
    Although i doubt many will get anything the amount of hours required to chase these claims up alone should provide our masters with some genuine hassles and maybe show just how many REAL people are affected and refuse to be abused.

    https://www.humanservices.gov.au/customer/forms/ss509

  7. Bruce Watson

    I am surprised a Law Firm hasn’t offered a class action.

  8. paulwalter

    Despite all this disruption, they refuse to cease the use of it?

    This alone is more astonishing than the opening debacle, which is itself astounding.

    You wonder at what pathology can revel so in brutality and sadism, yet permit cabinet minsters to flagrantly leach off the public to the tune of tens, probably hundreds of thousands of dollars, as a sort of joke.

    Even Blind Freddy can see it is monstrous so why has it not been halted?

    What about going after the Multinations who owe tens of billions, if they are desperate for a buck?

  9. Roswell

    “You wonder at what pathology can revel so in brutality and sadism, yet permit cabinet minsters to flagrantly leach off the public to the tune of tens, probably hundreds of thousands of dollars, as a sort of joke.”

    That sums it up for me too.

  10. keerti

    This “government” is at war with it’s employers!

  11. jamess

    I for one do not believe they have collected $300 million so far. They are proven LIERS.

  12. crypt0

    “taking lessons from the lowest of predatory scumbags.” ???
    There should have been a “Sarcasm alert” prior to above statement !
    This LieNP “government ” IS exclusively composed of the lowest variety of predatory scumbags !…
    FFS !!! They are writing the book !

  13. jamess

    Bruce using Facebook may bring a class action to fruition.

  14. Matters Not

    paulwalter

    What about going after the Multinations who owe tens of billions

    But probably don’t – ‘legally’ speaking. International companies, local companies and all types of individuals endeavour to operate within the ‘law’, albeit within their interpretations of same. If they are found to operate illegally, then they must pay up and suffer penalties as well.

    That most are found to operate within the boundaries of the ‘law’, should provide a clue as to what needs to be done – even to the thickest among us. You have to change the law . Now who’s proposing to do exactly that? Sounds of silence? In short, they are not serious.

    Those who really ‘count’ are unaffected. And so it goes.

  15. corvus boreus

    To his credit, Bill Shorten has gone so far as to make a strong and unambiguous statement in defense of the wrongfully accused, and called for a suspension of the inherently flawed automated system.
    .
    “This farce has to end.
    This stuff-up has delivered a summer from hell for thousands of people who have done absolutely nothing wrong.
    They are hounding ordinary Australians for debts they do not owe.
    It’s a toxic mix of incompetence and cruelty.
    I’m saying to the Prime Minister, just admit you’ve stuffed this up and suspend the program now.”

    http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/centrelink-debt-recovery-drive-has-caused-summer-from-hell-bill-shorten-says-20170108-gtns33.html

  16. Wayne Turner

    CLASS WARFARE LNP STYLE. – This is no mistake,and the fact they approve and continue with this says it all. This is done on purpose.

    While they rort their entitlements.And continue on their other gravy train “negative gearing”.

    The word SCUM.Comes to mind with this poor excuse for a government.

  17. Steve Laing

    This government will never admit it was wrong. Never. Because if that absolute was broken, then it’s not such a large step to believe there may be other things they are wrong about, and for your average Tory that just won’t do. But they are in a pickle and they know it, which is why Malfeasance is nowhere to be seen – he is busy trying to work out how to blame someone else for this suppurating sore of a issue, without losing any more of the little power he has left.

    The wheels are well and truly off the wagon now.

  18. Ricardo29

    I notice one report yesterday said it was Labor that began the information gathering. It was a throw-away line but I expect it be picked up and amplified, after all they are still, nearly four years on, blaming Labor for just about every problem that crops up. Shameful bunch of responsibility avoiders.

  19. kerri

    I wish someone would doan expose on Sarina Russo? There are many online vpcooments on how her employmrnt agencies don’t emply but huge government subsidies.

  20. Dennis Bauer

    (1) The productivity of the working population (the economy’s sustainable productive capacity); and (2) What proportion of the real goods and services produced is made available in the form of real assets needed and desired by retirees? Taxes do not fund the pension bill”.
    Technology is taking all the jobs, there wont be that many jobs, also if your a large company you can have sky scrapes full of lawyers and accounts to make sure you stay with in the bounds of tax evasion,……….And if your on welfare. Not a very level playing field, Name one Civilisation in the past 10 or more thousand years that has not come apart because of inequality.

  21. paulwalter

    Ricardo 29, centrists always start these things up small scale, with specific targets in mind, then the conservatives get in and employ them often for purposes contrary to those originally intended The house cat becomes the lynx.

  22. John L

    Demagogues, Solzhenitsyn reminds us, are stunted and shallow people. “Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty,” ……..

  23. David Bruce

    Australians are not mean spirited people, so why are our politicians so different?

    I notice Finland is conducting trials of a “living wage” for 2000 people. Norway already provides a living wage to all Norwegians from their North Sea Sovereign Wealth Fund. I will be asking my local member when they plan to introduce a Living Wage policy in Australia.

    The way I see it, every adult Australian is entitled to a living wage of AU$ 600 per week, currently! This will be funded from the mining and petroleum resource rental tax on corporations. If our politicians can’t get their act together, it is up to us to give them a shove in the right direction. People will say it should be means tested, and circumstance change, so I suggest all adult Australians should receive this. If the wealthy get it too, maybe they will invest it in their children? Others may prefer to try their luck on Keno or pokies.

    In my research on this matter, it appears it encourages people to seek additional income by gainful employment, not quit their jobs to idle away their time!

  24. Jexpat

    corvus boreus:

    Bill Shorten also happily went along with doubling of the statute of limitations period, so that the government could (as he knew they would) harrass and abuse people for matters going back 6 years- rather than the more reasonable period of 3 years.

    Think about it. How many people have records or personal recollections going back 6 years to substantiate their claims?

    Labor is far from blameless in all of this.

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