The Federal Opposition has called for a Senate inquest into the Centrelink debacle with Shadow Minister for Human Services Linda Burney saying the government had its “head in the sand” on the issue.
The government has continued to back the highly controversial system, which cross-checks ATO information with figures provided by welfare recipients to Centrelink. If the system identifies a discrepancy, a notice is automatically sent out, with 20 per cent of these being incorrect.
About 20,000 of these notices are being issues each week, and they have been slammed for miscalculating debt and accusing individuals of having non-existent debts at a rate of 4,000 a week.
Ms Burney will call for a Senate inquiry into the program when Parliament returns next month. It will require support from the Greens and three crossbenchers to pass.
“We believe there needs to be a parliamentary inquiry to absolutely drill down into how this mess came about, who is responsible for the testing of this automated system, and how difficult it is for people to remedy through Centrelink,” Ms Burney tells InnovationAus.com.
“It is critical that Minister Tudge and the PM actually take their heads out of the sand and realise there is a massive injustice being undertaken here, and the responsible thing for any caring government would be to halt the system and fix the problem.”
Ms Burney says she was “quietly confident” the motion would pass, with the Greens also previously calling for an inquiry, and the Nick Xenophon Team also highly critical of the program.
The inquiry would take submissions from members of the public impacted by the automated debt recovery system. Those involved in delivering the program would also be questioned under oath.
A spokesperson for the Department of Human Services declined to comment on the proposed inquiry.
Human Services Minister Alan Tudge finally addressed the controversy on his return from holidays last week, announcing some very minimal changes to the system but saying that it is largely working as planned.
“This is the system as it was designed to work,” Mr Tudge said in a statement.
“Seeking information from welfare recipients when a discrepancy between Centrelink data and Tax Office data is identified is a longstanding practice undertaken by both Labor and Coalition governments.
“The individuals who receive these requests for information have typically received thousands of dollars from Australian taxpayers. It is very reasonable to ask them to take a little time to go online and clarify their information if there is a discrepancy.”
Department of Human Services general manager Hank Jongen has labelled many of the criticisms of the program as “misleading” said in a statement.
But Ms Burney has panned the automated process is “unfair and unjust”.
“Labor has been saying for weeks that we want the system suspended until all of the problems with it are sorted out and the government ceases to send out debt collection letters to people that owe no money,” she says.
“The government has steadfastly refused that call. They say the system is working well despite the fact that they are now scurrying to change aspects of it. They know they have a problem but they’ve painted their way into a corner.”
The Shadow Minister says that her office, along with every other MP, has received several complaints from constituents about the Centrelink mess.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman is also conducting an own-motion investigation into the issue, with Social Services and Indigenous branch director Louise Macleod scheduling meetings across Australia with people who have been impacted.
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie has already released his statement to the Ombudsman, outlining several reports from Centrelink whistle-blowers that have contacted his office.
These claims include that Centrelink officers are being given a quota of six to ten debt notices per day and have “little to no training” in the debt recovery program.
“The system’s a complete dud and must be fixed or binned,” Mr Wilkie says in a statement.
“The computer says debt, but often there’s no debt. By knowingly issuing these questionable debt notices and collecting money that turns out not to be owed, this government is stealing from taxpayers.
“I’m appalled by this, appalled that the government has been aware of the problem for many weeks and taken no action and appalled that the Minister is claiming that there are no problems.”