Centrelink is Bullying Australia’s Most Vulnerable for Debts it Cannot Prove
Just this week, I just quit my job here in Australia to begin a dream position overseas. I worked hard to get to where I am today, picking up as many casual hours as possible while I was at university. I supplemented my income with youth allowance, as I come from a family that struggled to make ends meet on a farm and worked multiple jobs to get me through school.
I have an accrued HECS debt of over $30,000, but you know what? It’s all worth it, I thought to myself as I pressed the ‘Book’ link on my computer screen and purchased my flight to move abroad for the next chapter of my life.
I was flushed with a rush of excitement at the thought of my dreams coming true. To celebrate, I left my computer to sit in a park and truly soak in and appreciate how far I’ve come.
It was then that I received a text message.
“Hi, please call 1300 781 401 immediately to discuss an important matter. Quote **** when you call. Thank you, Dun & Bradstreet.”
Important matter? I wondered. I contacted the number, and the woman on the phone asked for my personal details. As I started giving them to her, I stopped.
“Wait – what’s this in regards to?”
“Your $5200 debt owed to The Department of Human Services.”
That very moment felt like an entire house had fallen on me. My chest and throat closed, my heart sank and my eyes welled up. I began explaining that it was obviously some kind of mistake. I was then told to contact Centrelink.
I am one of the more than 230,000 Australian citizens who is having to deal with a sudden and uncontrollable amount of anxiety and stress due to being accused of owing Centrelink thousands of dollars.
As a part of new campaign, government policy requires anyone who has received welfare in the last six years to have their payments cross-checked with ATO records. Seems fair enough, right? Wrong, because the algorithms have been proven to cause errors and be based on false calculations, which, according to the Labor Government, is grounds for the entire program to be suspended,
“At least 30,000 Australians have received letters from Centrelink saying that they owe money that they do not owe,” said Linda Burney, the Shadow Human Services Minister. “What I am saying and what the Labor party is saying to the Minister is suspend the system until you get the algorithms right. You cannot use the ATO average of a 12-month salary to send letters of debt to people, because many of those people have only been working for a small part of those 12 months.”
This means that innumerable Australians – up to 20 per cent of the thousands contacted – have been hit with a debt that does not even exist.
Centrelink’s debt recovery program began in July 2016, and even in its early stages, complaints surfaced about problems with the system. According to Crikey, when calculating a person’s annual income from a monthly salary, the averaging algorithm does not take into account those who were employed on a casual basis, out of work for a duration of the year or not earning consistent income every week.
This means that anyone who received payments to help them get through university and went on a trip abroad is most likely part of the tens of thousand affected by a glitch in a system that wrongly averages out your earnings for the year and assumes consistent employment.
Sound confusing? Well yeah, it is. But don’t worry: if you can’t understand how the numbers work and whether your debt actually exists, you can be placed on hold for hours every day, only to be transferred onto different departments and then told to go online to access a website that is constantly playing up.
And if the continual brick walls and potentially false accusations of debt lead to stress, anxiety or – for some – suicidal thoughts, it’s all good, because Centrelink is referring you to Lifeline so that you can talk about your feelings.
So what exactly is Centrelink requiring me to do then?
They are requesting information about payments from six years ago, which is longer than the five years the ATO requires you keep your records. I need to provide proof of income for every fortnight since 2011. This requires me to contact numerous previous employers to request these documents. For me and many others, obtaining old income data is impossible, because I’ve lost touch with former bosses, not to mention the likelihood that my pay slips were not correctly filed or kept on record.
I believe that I’m one of the many who have been contacted in error. But if it’s not my debt, then why don’t I just piss off out of the country and leave the government to sort their shit out? Because, as it turns out, being in debt to the government will result in a Department Prohibition Order (DPO) against me. This means that upon boarding my flight to my dream job next week, I will be refused exit from the country.
So here I am, stressing about the possibility of my own government accusing me of attempting to flee the country because of a debt they are not even certain I owe. Attempting to maneuver the system is putting me and the thousands of others affected under unnecessary strain, especially considering many of those accused are our country’s most vulnerable –the unemployed, retirees, carers, single parents, Indigenous Australians and people with disabilities. Heck – $5200 is my savings for travelling the world or covering my cost of living for months: an amount equivalent to a one-night Christmas party piss-up for a corporate businessman.
In its pursuit of $4 billion of allegedly overpaid benefits, Centrelink has proven itself a hypocritical, money-hungry government department. If they can accuse Aussies of being guilty until proven innocent, we should be able to do the same to them: if their debt-recovery system is accurate and not creating false debts based on computer errors, they need to prove it, and until then, this is #notmydebt.