Vinnies urges government to stop 'intimidating' poor Centrelink customers to pay off its own deficit


Catholic social services organisation St Vincent de Paul Society has called on the federal government to not use Centrelink as “a weapon of deficit destruction”.

“Centrelink should not be used by the government as a blunt weapon to achieve a deficit reduction on the backs of people who already carry the greatest burden of inequality,” said St Vincent de Paul national council CEO Dr John Falzon.

The charity has demanded that Centrelink’s data-matching system – which has been responsible for thousands of false debt notification letters — be suspended while its shortcomings are ironed out.

Many of the letter recipients are disputing their alleged debts with Centrelink. Critics of the system — including independent MP Andrew Wilkie and Labor human services spokesperson Linda Burney — have said the problem is much larger than official stats suggest, as some customers have paid a debt they don’t believe in, due to the intimidating nature of the notices.

Wilkie stated last week that some letter recipients had contacted him on the verge of suicide, while the official Centrelink social media account was found to be referring customers to Lifeline.

Falzon said “people should not be intimidated and hounded for money they do not owe”.

“The government has a responsibility to provide social and economic security to its people. This should not be delivered as if it were charity and should never become a means of profit. Nor should it be overshadowed and accompanied by humiliation and shame.”

The St Vincent chief agreed with the Community & Public Sector Union’s prediction yesterday that Centrelink staff would not be able to cope with this issue on top of the others they’re already working on.

“The department of human services has been decimated by funding cuts and outsourcing to the private sector, eroding its capacity to deliver services,” said Falzon, adding that privatisation was not the answer to fixing the woes.

The Centrelink data-matching scheme is currently the subject of a Commonwealth ombudsman investigation.

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