ANDREW WILKIE: Australians ‘pushed to brink of suicide’ with Centrelink debt letters

Photo: Andrew Wilkie – Independent for Denison/ Facebook.

Federal MP Andrew Wilkie has claimed the Centrelink data-matching furore has driven some citizens to the brink of suicide and that the Commonwealth ombudsman has agreed to look into the issue.

Centrelink has copped criticism in recent weeks for sending letters accusing people of owing it money. Many recipients of the letters have disputed that they have debts, with a social media campaign highlighting the angst among those who have been wrongly accused.

The notices were generated from big data analysis after information from other government agencies such as the Australian Tax Office were brought in to be cross-checked against Centrelink’s own records.

“The government has terrified countless people, ruined the Christmases of many and even driven some people to contemplate taking their own lives,” Wilkie said.

“This crude data-matching process is spitting out numerous incorrect debt notices. You don’t have to be a genius to tell that taking someone’s yearly income and dividing by 26 is not always going to produce accurate results if only because people’s circumstances change.”

The independent member for Denison announced Wednesday that he had referred the matter to the Commonwealth ombudsman, and later confirmed to Fairfax Media that the ombudsman has agreed to investigate.

“The minister should have personally intervened and put a stop to this program as soon as these issues were discovered. But instead he is in the media claiming that the process is working fine when it obviously isn’t.”

On Tuesday, social services minister Christian Porter went on ABC radio citing figures that just 0.16% of the 169,000 letters sent since July had provoked complaints. Department of Human Services general manager Hank Jongen has also denied that the letters are debt notices and said that “no decision to raise a debt or otherwise is undertaken until the customer has been provided an opportunity to correct the information that the ATO have provided”.

Wilkie said that citing the low complaint rate is no measure of the success of the data-matching scheme.

“It’s deeply misleading to claim that the program is a success because of the relatively low complaint rate, when this doesn’t take into account the number of disputes or reviews that have been lodged. When questioned about the number of disputes, the minister refused to answer.”

Centrelink’s new data system was brought in to rein in unjustified welfare costs. Human services minister Alan Tudge appeared last month on Nine Network’s A Current Affair to threaten jail sentences for those who don’t pay the alleged debt.

Meanwhile, in addition to Wilkie, the scheme has been panned by the Labor opposition, Legal Aid Victoria, the Australian Privacy Foundation and the Australian Council for Social Services, according to the Guardian.