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“False Centrelink debt demands are criminal”

29 January 2017
Nijole Naujokas
The Anti-Poverty Network SA, Women in Poverty

The Anti-Poverty Network (APN-SA), in conjunction with Women in Poverty (WIP), is holding a protest rally on Tuesday 31st January 2017 to demand the Turnbull government suspend the “Robo-Debt” Centrelink system that is issuing hundreds of thousands of debt notices, many of which have been proven false, to current and previous welfare recipients.

The rally, to be held at 12:30pm on the steps of Parliament House on Tuesday in Adelaide, in conjunction with the “Dignity, Not Debt” rally being held in Melbourne by the Australian Unemployed Workers Union on the same day, will be an opportunity to voice the anger that many ordinary citizens are feeling at receiving debt notices that are false or grossly exaggerated. Nijole Naujokas, member of APN-SA and WIP, says this is a chance for ordinary citizens to voice their disapproval of the Turnbull government’s treatment of its welfare recipients, and a rebuttal of Alan Tudge’s assertion that there are not many false debts.

“The Australian public are sick of the government’s treatment of welfare recipients,” Ms Naujokas says. “Many of these debt demands are false, inflicting stress, anxiety and worry on Centrelink clients whose only crime is to have been employed in a casual job with irregular hours. If this was done by a private company, it would be considered extortion and criminal behaviour.”

Protestors are calling on the Turnbull government and Department of Human Services Minister Alan Tudge to abandon the new automated system and re-instate the previous system where DHS staff investigated potential debts. When calculating debt, the new data matching system averages out the earnings of a recipient, assuming that person has worked the whole year. This has affected many casual workers who may have worked some weeks more than others.

The APN and WIP are calling for an end to the demonization of Centrelink recipients. They claim to have received numerous complaints that the appeal process for false debts is extremely difficult, requiring hours of phone calls, chasing up years-old pay slips, and that it places the burden on citizens to prove their innocence, which is at odds with the legal principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

“It’s a system that assumes Centrelink clients are guilty until proven innocent,” Ms Naujokas says. “No other debt recovery process is like this. We urge the government to suspend this system and stop the unfair financial harassment of ordinary Australians.”