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Losing oxygen to leakers and the media, Centrelink’s comms fall back to ‘the facts’

25 January 2017
Stephen Easton
The Mandarin

The Department of Human Services has rejected speculation that Centrelink’s automated systems generate incorrect assessments of past income and welfare entitlements in 90% of cases, as further serious claims emerge from the agency’s staff.

The new statement is naively headlined “Let’s talk about facts” — ignoring the important context that it’s hard for anyone to know what to believe out of the mix of anonymous claims from staff, the union’s ongoing campaign regarding working conditions and staffing levels at DHS, the online #notmydebtcampaign, flat-out denials and semantic arguments from the department, and of course opinions in the media.

Today, the nation’s best-known departmental spokesperson Hank Jongen rejects a guesstimate from The Ageeconomics editor Peter Martin that the rate of mistakes in the initial letters could be 90% or more, and continues to quibble about the use of terms like “mistake” and “error” to describe cases that don’t result in a debt.

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Jongen’s latest missive doesn’t address one key complaint that is also at the root of Martin’s speculation — that the online form only asks customers to confirm their earnings across an entire financial year before averaging that across the 26 fortnights, leading to incorrect results and a tendency to assume overpayments have occurred.

Martin also bases his pessimistic assessment on questions that DHS has failed to answer about what proportion of people using the online system are told they were probably overpaid in their initial assessment, and how many have objected to that calculation.

The union, meanwhile, has found plenty more Centrelink staff ready to tell the public what they really think about the online compliance activity, as well as issues like rising customer aggression, reductions in staffing levels and the growth of casual and non-ongoing positions.