Centrelink fail: Ashgrove pensioners billed for $45,000

He’s 90, she’s 88. On July 25, 2016 Centrelink sent them a letter demanding that they pay back $22,239.82 each in excess pension payments. They were given 28 days to pay from the date of the letter. If they didn’t they would lose the pension, it would be put in the hands of a debt collector and interest added. In addition they would no longer have access to cancer drugs, costing $2,000 a month.

No, they were not allowed an extension, or a time payment plan. Pay up, or else!

They scrambled, and with the help of their son, paid the bill.

Subsequently is was discovered that the couple actually owed $3,642.12 each because they had omitted updating their bank account details. Probably they committed the mortal sin of saving some money, I don’t know. The admission of error by Centrelink came on November 25, three months after the deadline for payment. At they time the local Quest News went to press two months later, Centrelink had not returned the $37,000 or so excess payment. The online version says the money has now been returned.

This is not a case where everyone lived happily ever after. Their local member, Wayne Swan, says his office has been inundated with dozens of constituents who have received debt recovery notices. The story reports that 17,000 debt recovery notices have been sent to welfare recipients since July.

The Government which should be taking care of vulnerable people is routinely harassing and bullying them.

This government deserves to die, and if an election were held now it almost certainly would. Essential Report has Labor ahead 54-46 TPP and ahead of the LNP 37-35 on primary votes.

Essential also did a survey on how the debt recovery program was handled, finding people disapproved 48-36, with 16% having no opinion.

There’s more with Paul Karp at The Guardian.

16 thoughts on “Centrelink fail: Ashgrove pensioners billed for $45,000”

  1. If private enterprises ran a scam like this where false claims were sent to people in the hope that people would pay without checking the claim criminal charges would be likely. Particularly so when the scammer knew that many of their victims would not have the information to easily check the claim.
    I wonder if the scam has contributed to any suicides yet?

  2. I seem to recall such a scam in Australia a few years back. Some “publisher of a business directory” sent invoices to hundreds of large companies. Because the fake debts were relatively small, many clerical staff just paid without checking.

    None if the companies had ever sought to be listed.

    Not sure if the perpetrators were found or prosecuted.


    This is much worse, but the perpetrators are known and, it seems, proud of their efforts (judging by recent statements).

  3. I also read this newspaper report about the elderly Ashgrove couple who were billed by Centrelink for an astronomical amount of money when the correct amount (at least according to Centrelink’s revised figures) was a fraction of the original amount. The horror at what’s happened to this couple, and countless others is shared by many in the community, and I wish to suggest respectfully that the time for sharing our horror and despair with like-minded people via blogs and email petitions must be over!! We need to be more actively engaged with politicians, and express our views personally in a reasoned way that cannot easily be refuted or dismissed. After all, it’s much more difficult for a politician to be indifferent towards the evidence-based information and views of concerned, upset constituents sitting opposite them in their electoral office or peacefully protesting outside it first thing in the morning than to it is to ignore newspaper articles and other second-hand reports about what’s happening to individuals and families in their electorates. One of the saddest aspects of the situation is that many of the people who allegedly owe Centrelink money are the least able in our society to advocate on their own behalf. Those of us who are concerned, have the courage of our convictions, and the necessary physical and intellectual strength need to be taking up their cause in a more active and potentially effective manner. We may, at least, ensure that our politicians are armed with accurate information. If politicians hear only the misleading statements that Christian Porter has repeatedly peddled (eg. that people are able to negotiate time-frames for payment of debts in a reasonable manner with Centrelink, and that they are not being “bullied” by Centrelink staff, as many of the affected customers have claimed), they are unlikely to be stirred to take any action.

  4. A thought from long ago….

    Prince Bismarck once said that one-third of students at German universities broke down from overwork, another third broke down from dissipation, and the other third ruled Germany.

    I do not know which third of the student body of this university is here today, but I am confident I am talking to the rulers of America, in the sense that all educated men and women have the obligation to accept the discipline of self-government.

    John F Kennedy, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, October 1960

  5. Hi Nola.

    I don’t have time to make personal representations to politicians, or join protests at their office, so I’ve sent Jane Prentice an email. That was fun!

    In your comment, you suggested that everyone pretty much knows about this and “countless others” and:

    I wish to suggest respectfully that the time for sharing our horror and despair with like-minded people via blogs and email petitions must be over!!

    So if I get you correctly, you are saying that my post was a waste of time and effort.

    I know I don’t get out as much as you do these days, but this was the first concrete case I’ve come across of pensioners being targeted. When I googled, the story was only available at Quest News, the Courier Mail had it but paywalled. The whole business has gone off the boil in the media.

    I thought the Ashgrove case was so graphic and so manifestly unjust that it was worth sharing, so that people can use it if they wish.

    Thing is, from what I can see, conservative politicians especially are impervious to what you call “accurate information”, they work on emotion and values. There was some research in the American setting to support that.

    Here is a case that should cut through to the heart if they have one.

    BTW, the responsible minister is Alan Tudge. Christian Porter was filling in while Tudge was on holidays.

    Also worth noting, is that what happened to these pensioners preceded the use of algorithm-generated robo-letters other than for the dole. They are so pleased with their handiwork that they are going to extend it to pensioners, families and the disabled.

    Nola, not everyone lives in Brisbane, and I think this case was worth knowing about. You’ve made a suggestion to me about how I should spend my time. My suggestion to you, respectfully, is that you consider sharing the link with others via email.

  6. I don’t think either of your posts on this was a waste of time.
    You provided several viewpoints from journalists etc. including analysis from your mathematician son.

    Trusted information is a valuable thing.

    I think you use your time very well indeed, Brian.

    best wishes,
    Artist formerly known as Ambigulous

  7. Ambigulous, thanks for that.

    For the time being posting is part of what I do. It’s not negotiable. No doubt some will be frivolous and a waste of time, depending on what measure you use.

    There will be a period from the end of next month when my dearly beloved has to undergo surgery with a long recovery time. My life and priorities are going to change then for a while, but we’ll see how things go.

  8. Brian: I think a well researched blog that I trust is worth having even if i don’t contribute as much as I like.
    It can be a useful starting or reference point for other areas that I try to influence.

  9. Via you, Brian: best wishes to your dearly beloved for effective surgery and
    ein gut Besserung
    (that’s meant to be ‘a good recovery’); a German friend used the word last year and I’ve been waiting to use it too.

  10. Thanks, Ambigulous, she’ll be right, just something we needed to find space in our lives to have done.

    John D, thanks, and thanks for feeding all the links and support in comments.

    You might be interested in the fact that your ‘phase change materials’ post is the most viewed ever of any posts we’ve published first here. It has been shaded slightly by my Deep origins: language post which was first published at LP.

    We occasionally get bursts of interest from elsewhere, as when Mark linked to my Wealthy pensioners pinged post. He’s like most of my family, they say the blog is great, but they don’t actually read it much.

  11. I duly received a reply from Mrs Prentice’s office, a form letter no doubt used by all LNP politicians.

    Nola has advised that there is a ministerial link between Christian Porter, Alan Tudge and Jane Prentice. Porter is Minister for Social Services, Tudge is Minister for Human Services and Prentice is Assistant Minister for Social Services and Disability Services.

    So they are all in this together.

    The reply was pathetic, and would have taken an assistant in her office 5 seconds if that to organise. So politically my letter is just a statistic, if she gets a lot of them she takes notice, otherwise not.

  12. Brian, I think Nola was saying it is time to be more vocal, to go beyond talking amongst ourselves (on social media) and engage directly with the politicians, else they will not get the message. We can’t fix the problem amongst ouselves, only they can.

    But, I would have never known about the degree of the assault on the elderly had you not posted it here, so more strength to you pen (fingers).

  13. When it comes to action, phone their (ministers) offices. They have to take the call and express your concern to their staff. They are more likely to feel affected if their staff, know the degree of public concern, think ill of them. And phone your local member, even make an appointment for a visit.

  14. Thank you Ambigulous (or Artist?) for your comments.

    Brian, good on you for emailing Jane Prentice. We intend to go and see her soon. As well as being our local Federal member, she ‘s also the Assistant Minister working with Alan Tudge, Minister for Human Services, who is responsible for Centrelink among other areas of income support.

    Brian, you’re right when you say that Christian Porter was commenting on Centrelink matters while Alan Tudge was on holidays earlier this month. However, it’s not unusual for Christian Porter to be interviewed about income support matters because his own portfolio (Social Services) overlaps closely with Human Services, and encompasses policy development on income support, among other things.

    At this stage, I don’t think a final decision has been made about extending the algorythm-generated robo-letter system to other Centrelink clients, apart from people on unemployment benefits. My understanding is that it’s under consideration but not yet finalised.

    This makes it even more urgent and important that public debate about the present Centrelink debacle remains on the agenda, and that politicians should be made aware of the level of fear, anxiety, anger and concern that many people in the community share.

    One of the most iniquitous aspects of the system is that it denies clients deemed to be in debt to Centrelink any pretence of natural justice. Aggrieved people are able to lodge an appeal against Centrelink’s determination that a debt is owed and the amount of the debt, but appeals take months to be resolved. In the meantime, Centrelink demands that clients start repaying their alleged debt within a short time-frame, usually about four weeks after receiving a letter advising them about the debt.

    Centrelink does not exemplify the same standards of promptness in repaying its own debts. As the Westside News article about the elderly Ashgrove couple mentioned, a decision was made last November that the actual debt owed by the couple was approximately $39,000 less than the $45,000 (approx.) originally demanded by Centrelink and promptly paid by the couple’s family. At the time of publication of the article (25th January), Centrelink had not repayed its own debt of $39,000.

    The article certainly illustrates the arbitrary injustice and cruelty of the situation for that particular family. It also highlights the punitive nature of a system that vilifies and bullies people who are among the least able in our community to negotiate with a bureaucratic juggernaut.

    I did not mean to imply Brian that your blog about this issue was a waste of time, and I’m sorry that you interpreted my comments in that way. I think blogging is a legitimate and worthwhile way of sharing information and opinions, and having a stimulating online conversation with people who share similar interests.

    Brian, I know you enjoy writing a blog, and clearly your blog followers are enriched by reading it. That’s what really matters!

    I stand by my opinion that those of us who share a strong concern about the Centrelink debacle need to go beyond the relatively small group of people reached by a blog, and make our concerns known to politicians who are paid by us, their constituents, to listen to our views.

    Whether politicians will be moved or influenced by our representations is another matter; their behavior and decision-making are determined by many political complexities apart from the opinions of their constituents. In fact, it often seems that the opinions of their constituents are among the least influential factors that swing a vote in parliament, or even contribute towards the framing of legislation. Think of the gay marriage issue!

    We can play only a small part as individuals, but I’m suggesting that, in addition to blogging, we also need to make our voices heard in a forum that is potentially more effective in influencing and effecting change. Perhaps our collective voices will be heard.

  15. NOLA

    I have certainly been talking to many friends about it since Brian’s first post a few weeks ago. Personally, I learn a huge amount from the posters on this blog, but I certainly don’t limit my political/social discussions and actions to this venue.

    I doubt that anyone else does either.

    It seems that an email petition can better serve a purpose as a starting point rather than as an end in itself.


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