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Centrelink scandal: Labor and Greens likely to force inquiry into debt recovery system

7 February 2017
Christopher Knaus
The Guardian

Labor and the Greens have proposed a wide-ranging Senate inquiry into the Centrelink debt scandal, which would examine how the system went “so dismally wrong at the expense of struggling Australians”.

The Labor senator Doug Cameron and the Greens senator Rachel Siewert gave notice of their proposed inquiry to the Senate on Tuesday afternoon and it is likely to pass a vote on Wednesday, with One Nation and the Nick Xenophon Team previously expressing support

The proposed terms of reference give the inquiry until May to report on a range of issues, including the impact of the system on vulnerable Australians, the scale of errors being made, the capacity of Centrelink’s phone, online and physical officesto deal with surges of demand, and the adequacy of complaint and review processes.

It will be asked to scrutinise the process of imperfect data-matching that underpins the debt recovery system, which had human oversight largely removed from July. 

“In an attempt to claw back money from struggling Australians accessing our social safety net, the government has caused a monumental mess that they refuse to back away from,” Siewert said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg as we know so many people are yet to receive the debt notice, it’s only going to get worse.”

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Lawyers continue to examine the legality of Centrelink’s actions, while unions, welfare groups and the progressive political group GetUp continue campaigns to have the system shut down.

GetUp set up a website to allow individuals to simultaneously dispute wrongly issued debts, submit freedom of information requests and contact Coalition ministers about their case. 

The group’s national director, Paul Oosting, said 1,000 people had now used the tool. Oosting said the government was deliberately bullying vulnerable Australians into paying false debts.