Social Security Minister Christian Porter boasts they’ve raised $300 million in Centrelink ‘debts’ and the majority of those pursued for alleged debts have not complained. I am one of those people. This is my story.
In March 2016, I received a letter from Centrelink stating my income declared to the ATO for 2012/13 differed from the income declared to Centrelink.
Of course it was different! I received Newstart payments up until early January 2013. I worked for three days in September and declared my earnings. I started working again in January and my Newstart payments ceased around this time. I finished working in late May and started receiving Newstart again as of about 25 June 2013. So most of my income was not declared to Newstart because I wasn’t registered with them when I earned the bulk of it.
Periods of employment 2012/13
24-26 September 2012 (Employer A)
7 January 2013 – late March 2013 (Employer B)
28 March 2013 – 5 April 2013 (Employer A)
23 April 2013 – 31 May 2013 (Employer A)
While I appreciated that Centrelink would need to do audits from time to time, I was annoyed that they had overlooked the fact that I was not receiving Newstart for about half of the financial year.
Confident this error could be cleared up with a phone call, I rang Centrelink and explained their oversight. An officer told me I needed to lodge payslips to confirm my income. Her customer skills were poor but her conflict escalation skills were awesome. By the end of the call, I was fuming.
I had been registered with Centrelink off and on for a number of years and had always complied with their requirements. By the time this debt saga started, I had been happily independent for over 12 months and I resented having to deal with their jargon, bullying and condescension once again.
And what a waste of government resources, I thought. Surely anyone defrauding Newstart would not be detected through this process; they’d be working cash in hand.
I obtained copies of my payslips from employer A. (In my confusion, I didn’t think they were interested in Employer B.) I took them into my nearest Centrelink office and explained to an officer that there was a discrepancy with my payslip dates because Employer A pays their casual employees a couple of weeks after the actual pay period. For example, my payslip for 24-26 September stated it was for the fortnight ending 19 October. He suggested I note this on my submission and I complied.
Life went on. I had put the matter to rest and all was good.
And then, around 27 May 2016, I received a Centrelink account for 6 Oct 2012 to 19 Oct 2012 amounting to $180.92. The due date was 30 May.
Confident this error could be cleared up with a phone call, I rang Centrelink and pointed out that I had not worked in October. I conceded there was a discrepancy between my payslip dates and the actual period of employment, but pointed out that I had previously explained this. I also pointed out that the total amount of my payslips from Employer A was consistent with ATO records. The officer advised that I would need written confirmation from Employer A about the date discrepancy. She granted an extension, advising me to lodge the information by 10 June and to hold off on paying the account.
After the phone call, I discovered a second account enclosed with the correspondence. This one was for 19 June 2013 to 2 August 2013 and amounted to $140.88. Curiouser and curiouser. I hadn’t worked during that period. Moreover, none of my payslips were dated for this period.
Confident this error could be cleared up with a phone call, I rang Centrelink. The officer stated that the 2nd account related to my income from employer B for 7 January 2013 to 11 January 2013 and the calculation of working credits for 19 June 2013 to 2 August 2013. She claimed that I had not declared my income when I had started working on January 7. I was certain that I had declared it but I did not have proof.
So the account specified it was for June to August, yet Centrelink’s officer was telling me it related to early January. And the alleged non-declaration in January had affected my working credits for 19 June 2013 to 2 August 2013 yet, I had only re-registered with Centrelink in June, so I wouldn’t have carried over any credits.
Bewildered, I told her I was sure there had been a mistake but I couldn’t prove it. She suggested that I provide copies of payslips from Employer B.
I obtained written confirmation from Employer A about the payslip date discrepancy and copies of payslips from Employer B. I submitted this information to Centrelink on 6 June, along with a two page letter, which included a request that, should they determine any amount was still owing, they provide me with their calculations, including the relevant period of employment and the assessed amount of income.
On 7 June, I received a letter from Centrelink advising that my ‘debt’ was overdue.
Hoping this error could be cleared up with a phone call, I rang Centrelink. An officer confirmed they had received my latest submission and advised me to ignore the letter demanding payment. She said she would do a ‘multi-calculation’ later that day and would advise me of the outcome by letter.
On 14 June, I came off my afternoon shift to find I had received a text message from Dun & Bradstreet asking me to contact them. A quick internet search told me that the call was probably in relation to a Centrelink ‘debt’. On 15 June, I received a call from Dun & Bradstreet while walking the dog, but it dropped out.
Despondency setting in, I rang Centrelink and reminded them I had been told I did not need to pay anything as yet. An officer told me they ‘encourage’ people to pay their ‘debts’ regardless of pending reviews. I asked her about the outcome of the ‘multi-calculation’. She initially said it hadn’t been done. Then she told me it had been done and the debts had not changed.
She said the debt for 6 Oct 2012 to 19 Oct 2012 was still owing because I had been paid in October and hadn’t declared it. I pointed out that I had provided proof from Employer A that this payment was earned in September and that I had declared this income during the relevant reporting period as required by Centrelink. She insisted that I should have declared it again when I received the payment.
It had been a long fall down this rabbit hole, but I had finally reached the bottom. I argued with the Caterpillar at length, until she finally decided to check with the Cheshire Cat. I stared at the vacant mushroom and listened to the muzak while they conferred.
The Caterpillar appeared again and announced that the Cheshire Cat had decided the October account would be amended to zero but the June to August 2013 account would stand. I agreed to pay the latter immediately, but reminded the Caterpillar that I had requested full details of calculations. She said they would send this information by post. I paid the debt.
I received a letter from Dun & Bradstreet dated 14 June demanding payment of both accounts. I rang them and explained the matter had been finalised.
I did not receive any further information about the curious account I had paid. I had intended to pursue the matter but I couldn’t climb back up the rabbit hole.
In December 2016, I received a letter from Centrelink. I put it aside for about a week. Just before Christmas, I forced myself to opened. The letter stated my income declared to the ATO for 2014/15 differed from the income declared to Centrelink.
(Of course it’s different! Most of my income was not declared to Newstart because I wasn’t registered with them when I earned the bulk of it. Blah, blah, blah. You know the rest.)
The cut off date to ‘confirm my employment income’ had already lapsed.
Then I received a Centrelink account dated 21 December. It covered the period 26 November 2014 to 3 February 2015 and amounted to $628.30.
Here we go again.
(Breaking: I’ve just been to the letterbox. Another letter from Centrelink! This one tells me the $628.30 includes a debt recovery fee and I will receive a separate notice about how to pay it.)
I will fight. I will complain. I will demand information about that curious 2013 debt. And this time I won’t give up.
With apologies to Lewis Carroll -
If Christian Porter can explain it, I’ll give him sixpence. I don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it.
I'm horrified that the Government is running this extortion racket.