The Federal Government has been accused of cultivating “a climate of fear” and treating welfare recipients like “numbers in a data set”.
A Senate inquiry has heard evidence from community advocacy groups and unions about Centrelink’s debt recovery program, which was automated in mid-2016 in a bid to save money.
The Australian Taxation Office and the Department of Human Services (DHS) will appear before the inquiry on Wednesday afternoon to respond to the accusations.
The automated scheme has produced nearly 170,000 notices of potential overpayments since July, with many Australians incorrectly told they have outstanding debts
DHS officials have told the inquiry that close to 6,600 Australians were contacted by debt collectors about supposed debts before they were contracted by DHS or given a chance to contest their records.
Coalition ministers and the DHS have repeatedly defended the system, saying Labor governments also sought to automate compliance programs.
Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) chief executive Cassandra Goldie said the Centrelink program had worried manroy Australians “sick”, and accused the Government of cultivating a “climate of fear”.
“We also know that because of the communications from the responsible minister in the lead-up to this program being unleashed, that there was a perception created that if you do not comply you may go to jail,” she said.
“This has been completely unacceptable in terms of the tone associated with this exercise.
“We believe the actions of the Government has culminated in creating a serious climate of fear around this program.”
Recipents ‘worried about retribution’
ACOSS representative Sussan Heylar said the program had undermined public confidence in the Government and left many welfare recipients worried about retribution.
“Some of our members have wondered whether partly what people are being encouraged to do is to stay out of the Centrelink system and discouraged from exercising their entitlements in the income support system,” Ms Heylar said.
Community and Public Sector Union secretary Nadine Flood said Centrelink was “an agency in crisis”, with staff becoming expert in Band-Aid solutions to systemic policy failures.
“It is important we note there has been a disturbing cultural shift imposed on staff in Centrelink and the Department of Human Services,” she said.
“It has increasingly gone from an agency focused on treating people like people, to one that focuses on treating people like numbers in a data set.”
The union also claimed the department had been monitoring staff who were concerned about the program, with many hesitant to communicate by work email.
Greens senator Rachel Siewert called for the inquiry in January, and agreed that the agency was in crisis.