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"I considered suicide": How Centrelink debt notices are affecting Australian women.

“It was demeaning, embarrassing, and if it wasn’t for my son… I considered suicide.”

“It was dehumanising. I had only lost my husband months before… I was grieving.”

These two sentences represent how two women, from two different walks of life, in separate states felt – when they received a Centrelink debt notice.

Or more exactly what happened when they tried to deal with the fallout of a Centrelink debt notice.

This week, it was revealed more than 2030 people died after receiving one of these notices between July 2016 and October 2018, according to Department of Human Services data.

It’s not known if that amount of people died as a direct result of getting the letters, but we know all of those people did receive a letter.

We also know that 663 people in that number were classified as “vulnerable,” which means they had complex needs like mental illness, drug use or were victims of domestic violence.

The Centrelink letters are sent out through an automated system. In the old system, it equated to about 20,000 a year, but thanks to a new system in 2016 – it’s generating 20,000 letters a week.

Side note: on the topic of debt… post continues after video.

Video by MMC

Gabriella* received one of those letters just last year.

She received it when she was trying to come to terms with the death of her husband who had died in a boating accident a few months before.

She was left with two young children trying to work out how to move on with life.

She had never received anything from Centrelink, she hadn’t needed to. But Centrelink had sent her $13,000 in weekly increments, and they wanted their money back.

“The stress… I was already dealing with enough… I knew I didn’t owe them money,” she told Mamamia.

Turns out Centrelink had been sending her money that she hadn’t applied for – which had been bouncing back for months.

“I made a phone call first, they realised they’d made a mistake. But she [the person on the phone] couldn’t fix it.”

She was given a different number.

“I spent hours on the telephone waiting for them to answer [to help]. It’s impossible to get through,” explained Gabriella.

So instead, she was forced to take a day off work and go into the Centrelink office itself.

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“She looked at me like I was lying,” Gabriella told Mamamia, of the moment she explained her story – yet again.

Gabriella is most frustrated at the time and effort she had to put in to fix this wrong. A wrong that was made by an automated letter, and which cost her a days’ wage, and almost cost her $13,000.

“Time and effort when you’re grieving… is really hard.

“I am grieving, but I am pretty stable… my head is pretty OK. But there are people who get these letters and they are not OK,” said a teary Gabriella.

“I am actually in the mental health industry, so I am probably more equipped than a lot at noticing triggers in myself. But what if I wasn’t?

“My situation never should have happened, if there had been a human being looking at my account they would have realised it was bouncing back.”

“It was dismay. It was a shock to the system. It is scaremongering, they don’t explain anything, and it’s very… dehumanising,” she said of her experience.

Gillian can relate.

As a single mother living in Margaret River, and with no parental support from her child’s father – she was receiving single parent payments.

When her son was 18 months old she started to work from home as a beauty therapist.

Business was going well, and she hired an accountant and a bookkeeper to help her keep on top of everything.

If you haven’t caught up with the news, here is what’s happening. Post continues after the podcast.

Around the same time she was applying for a bank loan to buy a commercial premise for her business, Gillian was sent a letter.

It told her she owed $23,000 and she was being investigated for fraud.

“I nearly had a heart attack. I nearly fainted,” she told Mamamia.

It turns out, her accountant hadn’t been declaring her single parent payments on her tax returns.

“I contacted Centrelink, I spent hours on the phone, I begged for an account manager I could go and see in person,” said Gillian.

“Every time I called I got a new person, they were judgemental and they treated me like a thief. It went on for months,” she continued.

She’d heard of a woman in Busselton, Western Australia, who had been jailed for the same ‘crime,’ and she became even more terrified.

The Australian Tax Office also got involved and added another fine – she owed them $150,000. Except she didn’t.

The tax office have no category for beauty therapists only hairdressers, and they were using those formulas to assess her business.

“The formula for hair and beauty are completely different. You spend $120 on a facial, I spent $40 dollars on products, I get the difference. A hairdresser pays $6 for products and you pay $150,” she explained.

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That fine was eventually wiped. But she had to pay the Centrelink one. It took years.

“I know some people are genuinely fraudulent, but lots of people are genuine – mistakes are made – the way they [Centrelink] dealt with it was demeaning, embarrassing – I almost had a nervous breakdown,” said Gillian.

“I considered it [suicide]. I thought ‘I can’t go to jail’, I can only imagine what would have happened if I didn’t have my accountant to prove my case,” she said.

“If it wasn’t for my son…” she added.

Department of Human Services spokesperson Michael Keenan denied in a statement to Pedestrian.TV any link between the notices and customer deaths.

“Any suggestion that the debt recovery efforts have contributed to deaths is simply not supported by the facts and statistics,” it stated.

But Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, who has been fighting against the Centrelink debt letter system for years, particularly since the start of the new system, has been speaking to a lot of angry and fed-up customers.

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me they’re just paying, because they can’t fight anymore and they can’t bear to take it further,” she told Mamamia.

“We have no idea how many of the people who are paying actually don’t really owe anything. There have been a large number of debts that have been reduced,” she continued.

Rachel will be going over the figures uncovered by Human Services tonight at an estimates sitting in Canberra.

“The government need to be investigating this to see what impact it’s having on people – I am most concerned about the ones that have ‘vulnerability’ tagged on their accounts,” she said of what she hopes will come from tonight’s meeting.

“We have had families tell us [a debt letter] has contributed to someone taking their life.

“But I am not out there saying ‘this is directly related’ because the evidence isn’t there – we can’t prove from the figures the exact cause of death. But there is evidence, in my belief that we need to be investigating this further,” said Rachel.

If Gabriella and Gillian’s stories are anything to go by, the system needs a serious reboot and has lost the trust of a lot of people.

When Gabriella was told after her saga she was actually eligible for payments since her partner had died, she had a very blunt answer for them:

“No way… I can’t face this again is what I told them,” she said.

“I can’t emotionally face the trauma of having to explain and justify myself [to this system].”

Gillian’s sentiment is the same.

“I will never take another cent from them,” she told Mamamia.

*Name has been changed

If you have been affected by this story please contact your general practitioner in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support, or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

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