Hundreds of protesters gathered in Melbourne on Tuesday afternoon to fight the automated Centrelink debt recovery system, vowing maintain the rage until the program is abolished and Ministers Alan Tudge and Christian Porter resign.
Organised by the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union, the protest saw speeches from Greens leader Richard Di Natale and representatives from the National Union of Students and Centrelink Class Action.
The highly controversial Centrelink debt recovery system cross-checks clients’ financial information with data from the ATO and automatically sends out 20,000 “please explain” letters each week where it finds anomalies.
It has been criticised for miscalculating debs and targeting vulnerable individuals who do not actually owe any money. The government has itself conceded that about 20 per cent of these notices are incorrect.
The Opposition has called for a senate inquiry into the issue while the Commonwealth Ombudsman is currently investigating the program. Regardless, the government continues to stand by the system, saying it is working as it should.
Senator Di Natale confirmed to protesters that the Greens would support the Senate inquiry.
“When we return to Parliament next week we will be ensuring that there is an inquiry into the Centrelink mess,” Senator Di Natale said.
“Make no mistake, we will have, as of next week, a Senate inquiry into this debacle and we will do what we can to ensure that ordinary Australians in this country are looked after,” he said.
“We’re going to fight it all the way.”
The protesters marched through the Melbourne CBD towards the Liberal Party offices, and heard from speakers how false debt letters have impacted Australian pensioners and students.
The Centrelink process is “unbelievably poor public policy”, Community and Public Service Union deputy national president Rupert Evans told the protesters.
“What we’re seeing with this Centrelink debt debacle is the human cost of appalling public policy,” Mr Evans said.
“It’s just a disgraceful situation that people are facing.”
The digital systems used to enforce the debts were fundamentally flawed, Mr Evans said.
“If these so called debts were being reviewed by a human being, hundreds of thousands of them would not make it past the gate,” he said.
“This is the problem with a cheap algorithm, with a computer program that cannot recognise it if you put [your employer’s name] with one letter wrong.
“Centrelink workers over the last five years have seen 5,000 of their colleagues lose their jobs, which is symptomatic of this government’s approach and attitude to public services, public servants and those of us that rely on the public services we all pay for.”
During his speech, Mr Di Natale said the Centrelink debacle represents a wider class issue in society.
“This Centrelink debacle is the epitome of a system that is stacked against ordinary people, that privileges politicians who want to build their investment portfolios and go on holidays and charge the taxpayers,” Mr Di Natale said.
“Many of these people have done nothing wrong and need some support from government but are made to feel worthless. That’s not the Australia I grew up in.
“It’s no wonder people are angry and it’s no wonder that politics as usual is not cutting it anymore.”
A common theme of the protest was a determination to continue the fight until real change is made, not just with the suspension of the automated debt recovery protest, but with the welfare system as a whole.
“We will be demanding that this government doesn’t just call the dogs off, but actually recognises that the support we are providing to people who need it consigns them to living in poverty,” Mr Di Natale said.
“We will be ramping up our campaign to increase Centrelink payments, to give people in New Start enough money to put food in their mouths and look after their loved ones, and we’ll be doing what we can to ensure that everyone in Australia is afforded the dignity and respect that they deserve.”
Parliament resumes on February 7, where Labor and the Greens will demand a Senate inquest into the Centrelink process, which will likely pass with support from the Nick Xenophon Team and One Nation.