Attorney-General George Brandis engaged in a heated discussion about offshore detention centres on Q&A on Tuesday night, but it was the senator’s suggestion wrongly issued debt recovery notices could be resolved by contacting Centrelink that drew one of the biggest audience responses.
The program had heard from Lyndsey Jackson, the creator of a website for people who had wrongly received letters as part of the debt recovery scheme, who said hundreds of people were suffering anxiety as they were forced to disprove the claims.
“Tragically on the weekend we heard that a young man had taken his own life, in part attributed to the stress of having a $10,000 Centrelink debt issued to him from many years earlier,” she said.
Attorney-General George Brandis said there was a simple solution to remedy an incorrectly issued notice.
“When a notice is issued and it appears to the person to whom the notice is issued a mistake has been made, they can contact Centrelink and sort out the problem,” he said to laughter from the audience.
Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek, who was also on the panel, was quick to respond.
“What’s the average call waiting time now George?” she said.
She then asked one of the audience members — a mother of three and former teacher now on a $22,000 disability support pension which was under review — how long she had spent on hold to Centrelink during her last call to the organisation.
“It took me a few weeks every day for 1.5 hours a day to make that call,” Fred Thorpe replied.
Senator Brandis moved to shift the blame for the bungled automated debt collection scheme, pointing out the data matching methodology used for the scheme was introduced in 2011 when Ms Plibersek was the minister for human services.
“I didn’t stuff it up the way you have stuffed it up, George,” Ms Plibersek responded
However Senator Brandis, backed up by political commentator Piers Akerman, said welfare payment reviews were fundamental for ensuring support was going to those who needed it most.
“People are not entitled to the benefits they claim do need to be identified, and because there are millions and millions of claimants of various forms of transfer payments under the welfare system in Australia that is going to have to be done by various techniques, including automated techniques,” Senator Brandis said.
Barrister and human rights advocate Julian Burnside weighed in on the matter, disagreeing and saying it was “inevitable” some people would take to much and it was better to avoid reviews which placed people under undue anxiety.
“When a system of social support is being set up, you can either make it lean or you can make it slightly generous. Either way, problems will emerge. Make it too thin, some people will suffer. Make it too generous, some people will rort it,” he said.
“…We need to decide as a matter of social policy that we would prefer to be generous and be taken advantage of on occasions than be mean and have catastrophic outcomes.”