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Turnbull Government ought to be shut down for fraud

By David Tyler

Australia is way ahead of the game in terms of using government policies and processes to punish and isolate our most disadvantaged citizens so the Government can reduce its welfare spending a few million. We now allow our Government to implement the work of sociopaths and threaten poor citizens with imprisonment on the basis of half-cocked ‘automatic computer-matching’ algorithms that are allegedly tracking welfare fraud. (Bill Mitchell Professor in Economics and Director of the Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE), at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia).

“Bill Shorten’s skin is so thick it puts a rhinoceros to shame”, snipes Liberal hit-squad reservist, retired SA senator Amanda Vanstone who is rostered on this week to kick off the government’s perpetual rubbishing of the Labor leader.

She would know. Her own political style was brutal: “Let me put my dancing shoes on, ” she said on learning of the death, from stomach cancer, of fugitive Christopher Skase in 2001. At the time, she was the minister responsible for pursuing the fugitive. More recently, on Nine ‘s election eve commentary, she thrust her hand in Maxine McKew’s face.

“Talk to the hand, the face doesn’t want to listen.” The hand was almost as controversial as Turnbull’s victory speech.

She’s got her hand up again this week. Handy Mandy’s attack is a bid to help a government in crisis over its Centrelink debt collection disaster while continuing the line that its policy failures are always Labor’s fault. Shorten and Tanya Plibersek invented the scheme, Vanstone writes, so they have no grounds, whatsoever, to criticise it.

Centrelink “does an outstanding job,” she dashes off, in pursuit of a red herring, because it is so big and complex and deals with 4.5 million (sic) “mindboggling permutations”. She reckons she knows. She once “had the welfare portfolio.”

Someone else can tell her it’s now more like 7 million. If they can get past the hand.

Vanstone and Welfare? Now there’s an winning double. It must be Liberal policy to choose the worst possible fit, like Greg Hunt, the Minister for killing the environment, for Health. Dutton for refugees. Who would have thought, Alan Tudge, another MP, like Ms Vanstone, with an empathy bypass, whose robotic delivery so perfectly suits an automated debt recovery system, would be Human Services Minister today?

Who would have thought a government could be so utterly out of touch that it would follow its debacle, this week, by extending Robo-debt to age and disability pensioners?

Vanstone’s bull-dozing joins Alan Tudge’s verbal sludge. The system is working perfectly, he crows. It’s meant to have a twenty per cent failure. That’s how it works. Fear and surprise worked for the Spanish Inquisition, too. Who knows how much more harm is yet to be done when the scheme is unleashed on age pensioners and the disabled?

Apart from its gratuitous cruelty, Centrelink’s “outstanding job” has public servants pitted against each other by managers, competing for the highest daily quota of debt notices, according to Tasmanian Independent Andrew Wilkie.

There’s a lot of “talk to the hand”, moreover, as thousands of Centrelink clients report, as their attempts to seek help or appeal mistakes and miscalculations are brusquely pushed aside. Fobbed off. Threats to seize or garnish bank savings have been reported. The “outstanding job” clearly includes extortion and obtaining advantage by deception.

“If the government was a private company it would go out of business or be shut down by regulators for fraud over the Centrelink debacle,” says former Digital Transformation Office head Paul Shetler. Talk to the hand, says Vanstone.

Vanstone is an expert in the straw man.

“What is it about us”, she writes, “what kind of bongo juice are we on when we fall for some schmaltzy rubbish suggesting that everyone should be allowed to keep overpayments?”

But no-one is making that suggestion. Liberal MPs caught in travel rorts defend rorting, it is true. Look at Steve Ciobo’s absurd claim that a Grand Final is a business meeting if you are an MP . Sussan Ley says she’s broken no rules. But that doesn’t mean everyone tries to cheat.

Keep overpayments? It’s a tactic to blur the issue, divert criticism. It’s a low ploy that can only increase suffering; further harden the dehumanising nurtured openly by Joe Hockey. the prejudice that the poor are leaners. Take away their humanity: take away their human rights. Scapegoat. Its demonisation of the poor is a domestic version of a cruel government’s denial that asylum-seekers are “legal” – have human rights, are entitled to care and compassion. Vanstone’s mob helped start that with babies overboard in 2003.

Scapegoating helps bury the hoax of broken promises. When authoritarian structures or figures can’t keep their promises to their constituency, they scapegoat, Noam Chomsky warns. “Let’s blame it on people who are even more vulnerable and who are suffering even more than you are. Let’s make it their fault.”

At issue is an employment data matching system between ATO and Centrelink which crudely calculates client’s fortnightly earnings by assuming annual income is earned regularly over a year and generates letters demanding repayment of debt when it discovers or it miscalculates a discrepancy between the two agencies’ records.

Twenty per cent of demands from Centrelink are wrong. Yet many recipients are bluffed or frightened into paying up. 200, 000 letters have been sent since September. The pain and suffering is unprecedented.

In a reversal of natural justice, you are deemed guilty until you prove yourself innocent. Proof may be hard because the Robo-debt claw-back system can search back six years. Workers may not keep their records that long; ATO rules do not require it. Most don’t and the government is counting on it. Yet in contempt of reciprocity, fairness and good faith, if Centrelink owes you money, however, you have only two years to claim it.

Being bullied is the first approach many report. A threatening letter demands debt repayment with a ten per cent processing fee. Alan Tudge, appears elsewhere, to make it clear that defaulters could go to gaol. Attempts to clarify or rectify mistakes are often met with delays. In brief, Robo-debt claw-back is a flawed system, a wrong system, an illegal system before we even begin to consider the social or economic effects.

Bill Mitchell warns that the letters violate recipients’ human rights. Ben Eltham sums up.

Like the government’s last data debacle, the 2016 Census, it’s clear that there are massive IT failures here. This is not just a few glitches and bugs. A government department is sending out tens of thousands of erroneous communications accusing welfare recipients of over-payment. The government is falsely accusing some of the most vulnerable members of our community.”

Cruelly and irresponsibly, Vanstone misrepresents the issue, smears welfare recipients as cheats, parodying Shorten’s case for an inquiry as “We don’t give a hoot if you get overpaid, by accident or design; it doesn’t matter. Keep the lot. You’ve figured out how to get more than your neighbour? Good on you. There’s plenty more where that came from.”

How to get more than your neighbour? The pernicious lie of widespread deliberate welfare fraud is lightly tossed into the mix. It’s an assumption which underlies the whole clawback policy yet it is egregiously, wilfully wrong. Your prejudices are showing Ms Vanstone. DHS reports show a decline over the years in cases brought for fraud. In 2008-9, it recovered $113.4 million out of $87 billion in payments – 0.13 per cent.

There is no evidence to support $4.5 billion is available to claw back. That pot of gold your government is chasing just doesn’t exist, Ms Vanstone. But you can frighten people into paying anyway. Nowhere is there evidence of widespread rorting – for that you would have to look at politicians and their travel allowances.

Familiar also is her emotive plea that welfare is a burden on the taxpayer, yet Vanstone can add a loopy twist. “Take a $3000 Centrelink debt, she says. A person who pays about $26,000 a year in tax has to work for about six weeks to give the taxman that $3000 to dish out in the first place and certainly wants it paid out according to the rules.”

Yet only half of government revenue comes from PAYE tax. The rules? A tax system is part of a fair society it is not about resenting responsibility – “giving the tax man” but a way those who can work are able to help those who can’t. A real drain on the system, on the other hand, is the third of big businesses who pay tax. Yet Vanstone’s mob will give companies a $50 billion tax break.

Putting in the boot comes naturally to Vanstone who holds her own in a Coalition stable which boasts such feral attack dogs as Tony Junkyard Abbott or Senator Ian Macdonald or Peter “Nutso” Dutton. Indeed, her prowess in sinking the slipper once caused a mild-mannered Wayne Swan to call her a political hyena who takes delight in attacking society’s most vulnerable”.[4] Swannie’s too much of gentleman to tell us what he really thinks. Nor does he need to remind us that hyenas hunt in packs.

While she is unlikely to get under his skin, Amanda knows full well that Kill Bill is the only strategy the Coalition has going for it. OK it may well be derivative, out of date and increasingly ineffectual – like the Turnbull government itself but, hey, it’s fun and why debate the issue when you can play the man? Or all that you know.

Vanstone’s attack on Shorten, is a crude bid to redeem Clawback; to rehabilitate the Coalition’s automated debt-collecting process, a process which is part of its war on the poor and allied to its demonisation of welfare recipients – a process which is so wrong on so many levels that it has already done incalculable harm to thousands of Australians .

Vanstone’s chief tactic is to pretend that the only alternative to clawback is to leave overpayments alone entirely. You don’t pay the money back at all. Showing she’s all class – ruling class, the former Howard government minister charmingly manages to combine this misrepresentation with a dishonest slur of dishonesty on all Centrelink beneficiaries.

Yet Amanda is a welfare recipient herself. After retiring from the senate in 2007, she spent three years on the nation’s tit as Australia’s Ambassador to Rome. The job comes with a few perks such as subsidised accommodation, utilities and travel. Taxpayers lavish on the incumbent a multi-storey Italian mansion perched in the hills above Rome’s Piazza del Popolo.

This is not about Amanda, primarily, but the thick-skinned, wrong-headed, morally bankrupt government she represents. Never in Australia’s history has there been such utter heartlessness by the government department cruelly, ironically entitled, Human Services. Never has it been clearer to the Australian public that their government, unwilling and unable to chase revenue from company tax defaulters is prepared to go to war on the poor.

Most victims of Centrelink’s abuse in its Robo-debt-scam-the-poor-the-weak-and-helpless scheme have nowhere to go to get legal help. The basic legal help available from Centrelink will be axed in July. is Last year 150,000 of those who asked for help though community legal centres were turned away. Centres have had their funding cut.

Spare us the barracking, Ms Vanstone. Spare us the lie that the poor are worthless, lazy, dishonest and underserving. Save us your talk-to-the-hand endorsement. No need to put your own boot in. Your government is doing enough of that already. If you are worried about overpayment, how about refunding your government pension for the three years you were Ambassador to Rome. Remove the grounds for accusations of double-dipping.

The money could fund a legal aid centre for poor people falsely accused of fraud because Centrelink has made a mistake and that they are guilty until they prove themselves innocent. Call that an outstanding job all you like Amanda but it’s illegal, it’s immoral and it’s dangerous. Best of all you could back off with your attacks on the poor and turn your journalistic pen to ending rorts in your own political party. Reform is so badly overdue, they are about to undo themselves entirely.

This article was originally published on Urban Wronski.

 

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19 comments

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  1. helvityni

    Too many ‘Amandas’ on the Right (=wrong) side of the Oz politics.

    I wonder what the Italians thought of her, I don’t think Barry Humphries’ Les Patteson was shown over there, it could have prepared them for the arrival of our Mandy….

  2. Ross

    The header for Turnbulls new Independent(?) department for signing off politicians rorts, sorry now phrased as ”work related expenses”, should have a large Australian Federal Police logo and underneath in bold extra large font the phrase;

    “We’ll find you, we’ll track you down and you will have to repay that fraud and you may end up in prison.”

  3. jim

    “Collectively, the world’s richest eight men have a net wealth of $US426bn [$A568bn],” “Such an extreme divide between the rich and the rest risks plunging future generations into political instability, undermining… our democratic institutions and creating economic upheaval.”

    Having so much wealth in the hands of just eight people “highlights how broken our economic system really is”.

    The federal government must introduce tougher laws that force large Australia-based multinational companies to publicly report incomes, employees, profits earned and taxes paid in every country of operation. Libs say, Hell NO we’ll gift them $50 billion “efficiency dividend” and get the poor to pay for it.

  4. Ill fares the land

    I find Vanstone interesting. She is highly intelligent, articulate and forthright. She is also physically repulsive and I for one don’t believe you can totally segregate her physical appearance with her nature. She is, to put it bluntly, a shocker. I don’t think I have read any comment from anyone saying that overpayments shouldn’t be repaid.

    What people have said, variously, is that the system under which these alleged overpayments have been identified is flawed and the methodology employed to collect these debts is, probably very deliberately, aggressive and oppressive.

    I imagine that the instruction to Centrelink has been to pursue these “debts” ferociously” – this is a bit like Vlad the Impaler who struck such fear into his people that he, allegedly, was able to leave a basket of gold in a town square and no-one took it. Vlad deliberately impaled thousands in the most abominable and visible way possible precisely to engender that fear into his own people and to potential invaders. The Coalition is using the same concept to achieve a similar end – make them afraid and they will meekly pay up with nary a whimper of protest..

    And yet, as the article properly points out, Vanstone herself is a political succour. She managed to live it up in Italy at our expense, all the while drawing her ample parliamentary pension. Presumably, this leaching of the taxpayer gives her a unique perspective on how those less fortunate have to be treated. She drew a salary and a pension because of her years of stellar “service” to Australia (that is, when she wasn’t busy stuffing) her face and by god, she is absolutely deserving – so she can readily spot people who apparently aren’t deserving.

    She is also a marvellous example of how a proper analysis based on facts can’t ever be allowed to take precedence over a rant based on lies and innuendo. She is doing her part to fuel the image of welfare recipients that the Coalition has invested in from the first day of Abbott’s rule (and not forgetting Queen Credlin – a veritable modern day Boadicea) – that they are all devious, lazy and undeserving bludgers that are keeping the nation poor. This is part of the myth that needs to be encouraged, because then the rest of us will endorse the Coalition’s vile policies – and this has been partially successful.

    I am not suggesting that welfare beneficiaries should be allowed to rort the system – but neither should politicians. But the former group is viciously targeted and the latter group just carry on with the expectation that while occasionally one of their number will do something stupid and get caught out, the rest will be safe. In fact, I think the others like the Ley debacle periodically – while attention is being lavished on one of their brethren, their own sly activities tend to be overlooked. Unfortunately for them, the Ley debacle seems to have been a tipping point – not what the politicians wanted at all.

  5. Keitha Granville

    What can we do? There must be some way of stopping this cruelty to the less fortunate and putting a clamp on the pollies. Please, someone, come up with something.

  6. silkworm

    “Twenty per cent of demands from Centrelink are wrong.”

    How do we know this? This is only Porter’s say so, and he is probably downplaying the true extent of the error. One Centrelink insider said the error rate was really above 50%. Given the crudity of the algorithm used, my guess would be that the real error is close to 100%, if not actually 100%.

  7. jimhaz

    [I imagine that the instruction to Centrelink has been to pursue these “debts” ferociously”]

    You can be 100% assured of that, seeing as Morrison made welfare fraud such a big part of his savings platform. Also they have taken many actions from the Howard’s time to to ensure an entirely sycophantic public service executive. Even everyday appointments from private industry create additional sycophantic processes – lol these people have no idea whatsoever as to when to sideline or soften ministerial stupidity and coming from profit based areas they have no idea of what a public service should be like.

    Whenever wrong invoices or the like are issued the cleanup takes 3 times the effort per error. It could blow out Centrlinks budget – in which case they’ll turn around and say “Centrelink is too inefficient” and outsource it further.

  8. silkworm

    “A tax system is part of a fair society it is not about resenting responsibility – “giving the tax man” but a way those who can work are able to help those who can’t.”

    It’s a pity that Bill Mitchell didn’t review this article before it went out.

    From an MMT standpoint, this is just wrong. Income tax does not pay for welfare. Taxes do not raise money to pay for spending. Spending (welfare) comes first, and taxation follows (to maintain the value of the currency, or contain inflation). In fact, welfare spending provides a necessary economic stimulus that keeps the economy going. So everyone, please stop using the term “taxpayers’ money.”

  9. jimhaz

    So everyone, please stop using the term “taxpayers’ money.”

    No. Nor as an aside will I ever see the government budget as being fundamentally different from a household budget.

  10. silkworm

    Thank you, jimhaz. You have just shown us what a threat MMT is to the whole Neoliberal enterprise.

  11. J Marsh

    WHAT IF

    What if polies were given a flat rate for expenses, with no extra available if they exceed that amount.
    Would this take care of the indiscriminate spending we see now?
    No more charter flights, if they want to go some where there are commercial flights available
    just need to do a bit of juggling perhaps, work to a budget like us poor people do.

    What if!!!

  12. kerri

    No one could ever accuse the LNP of failing to put themselves in the other person’s shoes!
    Their opinions on welfare stem from their belief of what they would do if they were on welfare.

  13. Wayne Turner

    A shame they can’t be because the GG is one of them.

    Corrupt Australia continues…

  14. jimhaz

    i wonder if the Parakeelia software scam is part of the cause of these office expense increases and they are using it to feed taxpayer money to the party.

  15. Florence nee Fedup

    Just a thought, do MPs pay income tax on the entitlements they receive? From what we read, they aren’t in any way work expenses.

  16. Smee

    This sickened and angered me so much I could only read half the article. I will have to try again later

  17. Maggie H

    Doesn’t Amanda Vanstone enjoy the very generous Life Gold Pass?? Oh, that’s different welfare I guess??

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