Teflon-coated politicians – no heart, no brains, no ethics

I must admit I didn’t know in advance that on Tuesday there were rallies all around the country in protest against the overpayment recovery system used by Centrelink which has seen thousands of people wrongfully issued with overpayment notices until I heard the Radio National report in the evening.

Googling, the only other report I’ve found was of the Melbourne rally, which, inter alia, said that over the last five years Centrelink staff have seen 5,000 of their colleagues lose their jobs. Also this item about strike action by staff last December. CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood said:

    “Medicare, Centrelink and Child Support staff are frustrated and worried by the Turnbull Government’s mean and illogical public sector bargaining policy. These working mums and dads are asking us if they can go on strike again to bring some attention to this unfair situation, as they face their third Christmas without a pay rise.”

    “DHS staff work every day to help ordinary Australians but they’ve been doing it pretty tough themselves for three long years as the Government’s frozen their pay while trying to strip essential rights, such as the family-friendly conditions that allow a call-centre worker to balance shift work with raising a family.”

And so on.

It seems likely that the Government has eliminated its capacity to take a humane approach to overpayment recovery.

It’s a shame the press seems to have given up on this issue as worth reporting. Remember in the Rudd years when the Oz ran negative stories about school halls on the front page every day, completely distorting the fact that only something over one per cent of the projects encountered significant problems. That meant that a few hundred cases were seen as typical of over 24,000 successful projects.

I thought I’d share the correspondence I had with Jane Prentice about Centrelink fail: Ashgrove pensioners billed for $45,000. This was my letter:

    Dear Ms Prentice

    As one of your constituents I am writing to ask whether you really understand what your government’s debt recovery program is doing to vulnerable people. Living in the area, you would know about the Ashgrove pensioners who were given 28 days to pay almost $45,000 on pain of losing their pension and access to cancer drugs worth $2000 per month. Eventually they were found to owe about $3,600 each, and the excess $37,000 extracted from them was repaid 6 months later.

    Governments are supposed to support vulnerable old people, not harass and bully them.

    My wife works in home care for the elderly, and says this kind of stress could potentially bring on a heart attack. Luckily they had a son to help. Otherwise, left to the tender care of Centrelink, they would have been stuffed.

    You can read about it in Quest News online from the link given at my blog – http://www.climateplus.info/2017/01/26/centrelink-fail-billed-ashgrove-pensioners-for-45000/

    Kind regards, but sorry, no respect.

    Brian Bahnisch

Seems she prefers Mrs Prentice. Never mind, here is the reply from her office:

    Dear Mr Bahnisch

    Thank you for your email to the Office of the Hon. Jane Prentice MP, Federal Member for Ryan with your concerns about Centrelink.
    To ensure that the most vulnerable and in need amongst our community are cared for we must maximise the welfare dollar.
    The previous silo approach to welfare meant that sadly there are some in the community who are receiving payments to which they are not entitled.
    The current process is not designed to cancel payments, rather it is about coordinating welfare support.
    Australia has one of the most generous and fair welfare systems and Mrs Prentice is always willing to provide assistance for individual cases.
    Thank you again for raising this important matter.


    OFFICE OF THE HON. JANE PRENTICE MP | Federal Member for Ryan | Assistant Minister for Social Services and Disability Services

I had forgotten Mrs Prentice’s ministerial responsibilities. She is in cahoots with Christian Porter who is Minister for Social Services, and Alan Tudge who is Minister for Human Services. Clearly, what I got was a standard reply, no doubt available to government members everywhere.

In the old days you would send in your letter by snail mail, and the standard reply would at least be signed by the politician. Modern communications have made our politicians more efficient, but teflon-coated, encased and remote. In this case the reply did not actually connect with the substance of my letter.

A couple of comments about what the missive said.

It says that “the current process is not designed to cancel payments”, yet that is exactly what it threatened to do.

It says “Australia has one of the most generous and fair welfare systems”. I have read that our welfare system is well-targeted and one of the most sustainable. I have never read that it was generous.

Here we are not talking about the “welfare system”, we are talking about the pension system. I have already linked to The Conversation Fact Check that found one in three of our pensioners are living in poverty.

This handy chart shows us as, apart from Korea, champions in the pension poverty stakes:

We have 34% in poverty, against the OECD average of 12%, with 22 countries below average, and 12 above.

Under the heading of financial sustainability, the only countries spending less as a proportion of GDP are Iceland, Korea and Mexico.

We are not being generous; no doubt being “fair” means we treat everyone rather badly.

Australia does make it to third place as the best place to retire in a different listing, but this article makes it clear, after erroneously referring to pensions in the title, that superannuation and private contributions are also included in the source index, the Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index.

Demanding money with menaces

Doug Hynd in another thread drew attention to a media release from the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights who find “the whole procedure is quite unethical and a complete abuse of legal process”, and tantamount to “demanding money with menaces”.

This is obvious from the Ashgrove story. Pensioners aged 90 and 88 were sent a letter of demand to pay $45,000 within 28 days, on pain of losing their pension and access to cancer drugs worth $2000 a month. This amounts to a brutal assault on them by a government with responsibilities to support them. Prentice’s stated offer to intervene if anyone in Australia had a problem is surely a sick joke. Fairness of process should not depend on ministerial intervention, and it beggars belief the an appeal to her would have made a difference.

A leaked memo shows Centrelink staff are told not to process debt disputes in person:

    Centrelink management has ordered frontline staff working in branches not to process disputes over the Federal Government’s controversial debt claw-back scheme and instead refer welfare recipients to an online portal.

    An internal Centrelink memo obtained by 7.30 said staff “should refer customers online to undertake the intervention” and “must not process activities in relation to the Online Compliance Intervention”.

    The instructions, available on Centrelink’s internal communications system, also told staff in bold text: “Do not cancel the activity under any circumstances.

Ben Eltham’s comprehensive article details the experience of people trying to work the online system. Also:

    New Matilda has spoken to a source inside Centrelink who confirms that the robo-debt dragnet is completely broken.

    “It’s a flawed system,” the source told us. “To use an analogy, it’s like using a sledgehammer to perform open heart surgery.

Morale within Centrelink, he says, is at rock bottom.

So we have here a ruthless, uncaring government which sees people in terms of lifters and leaners, of deserving and undeserving poor, willing to do actual harm to its constituents in the pursuit of not just every last dollar owed to it, but whatever it can prize out of the old, the sick and the vulnerable.

The government is also bullying and exploiting its own staff to the point of extortion.

And the press seems to have lost interest.

17 thoughts on “Teflon-coated politicians – no heart, no brains, no ethics”

  1. I’ve always taken the ” poverty line ” stats with a grain of salt because it’s formulated on median rather than mean averages.

    That said, it’s unlikely bureaucrats are any better at efficiently recovering rorted funds than they are at setting up unrortatably funding schemes .

  2. I’ve always taken the ” poverty line ” stats with a grain of salt because it’s formulated on median rather than mean averages.

    Jumpy, a serious question, what effect does using the median rather than mean have on the results?
    My admittedly cursory reading of the latest figures indicates the values are just an update of the index first established in 1973, so am I correct in assuming you are critiquing the original Henderson inquiry?

  3. Hands up those who have used, or tried to use the


    website for Centrelink matters?

    Our experience has been that it is slow and unreliable. Messages to us, go missing. We were told we could enter particular data through it (and therefore should) but it wasn’t possible.

    Badly designed and not up to dealing with the volume of traffic, it seems.

    Two other points:

    1) we rarely need to use. my.gov I pity anyone who is required to use it dozens of times a year.

    2) this is uncannily similar to the 2016 Census debacle, but goes on and on every day, every month. Why isn’t the Press onto this? Could it be that readers of Fairfax, The Australian etc. are just oh-so-bored by welfare stories?

  4. When you say:

    For example, the OECD draws the poverty line at 50% of the disposable household income of the median Australian. Furthermore, it assesses household disposable income by deducting taxes but not the cost of housing.

    we are defining poverty as relative poverty. So if real income for all Australians goes up by the same percentage the number of “people living in poverty” will stay the same even though the real income of people on the poverty line has gone up.
    If we are serious about measuring progress in the fight against poverty it has to be measured in terms of the cost of a basket of goods and services that is appropriate for someone living near the poverty line.
    As for comparing countries we should be asking what the figure really means.

  5. Spot on John, reducing the cost of essentials is key.

    With the ” poverty line “calculated as it is, if the 20 richest US Citizens ( Gates to Sorros ) migrated to Australia, thousands more would be below the ” poverty line ” without any reduction in anyones standard of living.
    If Mean was used, only 10 would.
    But if these folk came here, the Nation would be far better off .

  6. OECD lazy, then.

    I think Henderson used “a basket of goods”, which is your preferred method, John. Makes sense to me.

    OECD basically producing a measure showing where older citizens are located in a national income distribution?

    For income inequality, the Gini coefficient is widely admired, because it automatically ignores absolute incomes. And as I understand it, if the “Jumpy Twenty” arrived, it would scarcely change.

  7. My wife put in her pension application the local Centrelink office – worked well – helpful cheerful staff. Wouldn’t touch the mygov website with a barge pole. Fortunate we are close to the office and can do business in person

  8. Yes Douglas, our local Centrelink staff are good. We too are lucky in living near the office.

  9. If the top 20 US income earners migrated here the benefits would be modest to Grand depending on the metric one uses. I can see no downside.

    Yet the income inequality stats would rise, ” poverty line ” would be higher equating to more people below it , and tall poppy envy would go into overdrive.

  10. Jumpy, I think you have got it wrong, or in other words arse about.

    It’s not my field, but from zoot’s link it seems the Henderson poverty line was originally derived from a basket of goods and services, but to update it they have indexed it to ‘household disposable income’.

    This ACOSS site makes clear that they use the median, that is the point where 50% are above and 50% are below. So if Gates, Soros et al came to live here the difference would be negligible, as it’s only 20 extra in 10 million plus households.

    The main point here is that however you calculate it, Australia’s pensions are not generous.

  11. Thanks for the ACOSS link Brian. Their (linked) explanation of the methodology employed was enlightening, if mind boggling.

  12. Dear Brian,

    Thank you very much for writing to your local Federal Member about the abuse of residents of your neighbourhood. If only more people would take the time to speak up against the abuse of bureaucratic authority and speak up against injustice ….


    Graham Bell

  13. Interesting article by Alok Patel, Canberra Times online:
    Centrelink debt debacle shows government is unprepared for digital revolution.

  14. Some Centrelink staff planning to strike next week. Govt lawyers in a Fair Work Commission hearing, attempting to prevent the strike.

    Guardian Australia online.

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