Monday, 13 March 2017

The optics are bad for the Turnbull Government in 2017

On 9 December 2015 the Tenterfield Star reported that Federal Nationals Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce had been spending big on electoral offices and travel:

BARNABY Joyce has gone on the defensive after he skyrocketed to the top of the pile for claimed expenditure.
The Member for New England has registered $1,073,991.45 in expenses over the first six months of 2015, new documents have revealed.

A year later and, in addition to another hefty bill for office facilities, from January to June 2016 Joyce received the following payments from the Dept. of Finance:

$76,459.42 air travel costs for self & family members
$23,668 accommodation in Canberra & when travelling
$17,907.20 private car costs
$12,123.98 chauffeured car for self & family members.

So it comes as no surprise that this meme appeared in March 2017:

Following hot on the heels of these media reports., 8 March 2017:

Figures provided to the department today show Human Services launched more than 103,000 assessments into overpaid welfare recipients in November and December alone.
The department ramped up its recovery efforts in September with the number of assessments increasing from 844 in August to more than 62,000 the next month.
Overall, about 216,000 investigations were launched from September to December and 133,078 debts were recovered.
More than 97,000 people were charged a “recovery fee”as they had not provided information about their income or a reasonable explanation for the lack of information.
Five and a half thousand people had their debts waived as they were under $50 and were not cost effective to pursue or because there was an administration error or unusual circumstances.
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, chair of the senate inquiry, said the government “should be ashamed” of calling in debt notices over Christmas.
“A large portion of those had a recovery fee applied, meaning struggling Australians are paying debts they may not owe as well as additional recovery fees,” she said.
“I continue to hold deep concerns that people are complying and paying debts off that don’t exist - 2875 people so far have had their debts reduced to zero since the program began but I suspect many people are still in the process of reassessment and review.
“Unfortunately the Department couldn’t provide these figures and took that question on notice.
“I fear far more people did not challenge the debt so the figure could be far worse.
“It is a shame the Department has steadfastly supported the system with some adjustments despite overwhelming evidence that it is causing great distress to struggling Australians.”
Centrelink’s “aggressive” debt collection tactics came under fire at the Senate inquiry.
The inquiry heard elderly welfare recipients have received inaccurate debt notices of thousands of dollars, generated by the automated system, before it was confirmed they owed just $50.
Senators also heard private debt collectors, engaged by Centrelink to recover debts, have threatened to seize clients’ assets or take them to court if they failed to pay what was owed to the agency.
The Community and Public Sector Union raised concerns Centrelink staff have faced increased aggression from welfare recipients since the scheme launched.
Staff have dealt with swearing, threats, physical aggression and spitting as clients faced increased financial stress from debt recovery notices, CPSU national deputy president Lisa Newman said.
The union is pushing for the scheme to be suspended while the government reviews it.
Australian Council of Social Services bosses raised concerns that Centrelink was not subject to consumer protection laws.

The Sydney Morning Herald, editorial excerpt, 11 March 2017:
More than 36,000 of those letters did not result in any debt to Centrelink. What's more, about 6600 welfare recipients first learnt of their alleged debt from debt collectors.
Mr Tudge blamed those people for failing to update addresses on their Centrelink files.
While his department head Kathryn Campbell claims the system has been adjusted to reduce that risk, she also blamed welfare recipients – for not replying to the initiating letters.
Worse, Ms Campbell said she would not discuss potential solutions to systemic flaws with the Australian Council of Social Service or unions representing staff who have to handle the backlash.
The justification Ms Campbell gave for not meeting with unions or ACOSS was that the media was interested in the issue. The justification Mr Tudge gave on ABC radio was that unions and ACOSS "frankly have a philosophical objection" to widespread compliance checks.
 The Herald suspects Mr Tudge and his department have a philosophical objection to legitimate public scrutiny.
Thank goodness the media are holding the department and the minister to account because, failing that, thousands of people would be demonised in secret and there would be no Senate committee inquiry exposing the flawed process.
The committee began public hearings this week into the error rates of debt notices; the government's response to concerns raised by affected individuals; whether the debt recovery scheme complies with Australian privacy and consumer laws; and the adequacy of the data matching of Centrelink and ATO information.
Deputy Commissioner of Taxation Greg Williams told the inquiry the ATO had "reached out" to the Human Services Department as flaws emerged in the robo-debt system, but was told its help was not required. 
"We are involved in identity matching and the provision of data, but we are not involved in the data-matching that occurs on the DSS/DHS side," Mr Williams said. "We are trying to maintain the level of integrity in the role of the ATO in this exercise."
The Senate inquiry is also accepting submissions from people who have been forced to deal with the system. 
The first submission on the committee's website comes from a "a teacher, university lecturer and single mother who has been working part-time since my son was nine months old". She tells how the system "impacted my mental health and caused significant stress over the Christmas period. Not only did I suffer, but my inability to fully engage with family at this time also impacted them." She spent eight hours on the phone with Centrelink only to find that her debt was $0. "Apparently this was a mistake and a day later … it was up to over $1300," the submission says. "On receipt of the second letter I broke down in tears again ... it turned out I had been overpaid by Centrelink less than $1.80 a week. I am hard-working, smart and determined to fight this because I knew I reported my income to the best of my ability. There will be a lot of people who are not in the mental headspace, or have the ability to work out that Centrelink are wrong."
The price of a system with insufficient human oversight and flawed safeguards is too great. The Senate committee should propose alternatives that offer taxpayers value for their welfare dollar without demonising innocent people.

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