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Alternative facts in the Centrelink debacle



Over Christmas 2016 and the early weeks of 2017, Centrelink's new policy of automated online debt collection has been subject to conflicting reports, making us wonder what version of truth we might best believe.

Centrelink branchThe Minister and the department head are sticking to the assertion that everything is working fine. It would be surprising if these assertions were deliberate lies.

Yet there is another version of the truth, and it is compelling. It is seen in the growing list of people talking publicly about the distress caused to them by being falsely tageted. The journalists who are prosecuting this side of the argument are not fools, and it is hard to see that the Commonwealth Ombudsman would start an investigation if there weren't some reasonably sonorous alarm bells.

The outcome will no doubt be that there is truth on both sides. And we should say straight up that, ignoring the dismally low level of most benefits, we believe that where a person has received money they are not entitled to, that needs to be recovered.

However that still leaves the problem of the manner in which these debt notices were sent out, the timing, and the tone in which citizens have been addressed by their government.

No doubt we will trawl through the adequacies (or otherwise) of the planning and thinking put into setting up this automated system. Anyone that has tried to interact with Centrelink knows the difficulties in the bureaucratic nature of the beast.

If you have income cycles which differ to its reporting periods, if you are moving in and out of work (very common when you are trying to get a job), if your children reach certain milestones or you meet a partner, difficulties will be created in your relationship with Centrelink.


"We are left with a fracture in the way we treat each other and a lack of respect from a government to its citizens."


Until now humans have raised the debt notice after looking at the individual situation of each case. Automatic systems to date have been good at repetitive and routine decision making, leaving the humans to the more complex and individualised cases. The irony is not lost on us in the social services sector that the Department of Human Services is one of the first to step so far into automation.

Another difficulty with the process is that the adversarial manner that it set up is unlikely to allow Centrelink to learn from the cases it reviews.

A 2008 study by Anglicare Tasmania explored the experiences of people who found themselves in debt to Centrelink. Their stories were analysed and their community legal centre files reviewed. The research revealed a pattern of overpayments, poor communication by Centrelink and a lack of assistance to deal with the problem of Centrelink debt.

Yet most people, at some stage in their life, will benefit from the public purse. This could be through education, vaccination or health, not to mention the fact that most of us will get some form of welfare benefit at some stage of our lives, aged pensions and family tax benefits being the mainstream ones.

Many people caught in this current debt recovery process are now working. They thought they had ended their connection with Centrelink years ago.

It may be that Centrelink has tried to run before it could walk in terms of technology and system design. It may be that in this culture of never admitting a mistake it will be difficult to back down and build a better process. Those facts and alternative facts will wash out in the next few weeks as Parliament returns, as Senate Inquiries are called, and as the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman publishes its findings.

In the meantime we are left with a fracture in the way we treat each other in this country and a lack of respect from a government to its citizens. And yet there is a swing in public sympathy towards those caught up in the mess: that offers some cause for optimism in what we can expect of our communities.


Kasy ChambersKasy Chambers is Executive Director of Anglicare Australia.

Topic tags: Kasy Chambers, Centrelink



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Existing comments

"In the meantime we are left with a fracture in the way we treat each other in this country and a lack of respect from a government to its citizens." The fact that a computer system produced a faulty outcome does not warrant a conclusion (not a fact) that "In the meantime we are left with ... a lack of respect from a government to its citizens." The Census system failed. Is that interpreted as a lack of respect? If there is a lack of respect, it may date back eight years to "A 2008 study by Anglicare Tasmania....", but not to computers per se which, if programmed illogically or malignantly, can cause stock market aberrations. Are those instances of government disrespect too? It's a herd mentality to assume that because the spirit of the times seems to be 'anti-establishment', every government (ie. 'establishment') inefficiency that comes to light must be of motivations that are malignant towards the ordinary individual. Christian critiques of society should be careful not to mirror unwittingly the gloom of the secular left because what the secular left sees is a mixture of agenda and their particular psychology.

Roy Chen Yee | 03 February 2017  

"It's my job to help you". Imagine those words being said to you when you are at the end of your tether. When you've told your story to them. Too many of us have heard those words. Instead of doing a job, maybe anything but would be acceptable.

Pam | 03 February 2017  

Based on experience in other areas of Government (not Centrelink), I suspect senior Centrelink management was the prime mover in using the fully automated system as soon as possible. I can imagine the Minister accepting PS advice and agreeing to recommendations, then being left with the political mess when the problems came to light. Talk about facts and alternative facts! Caseworkers and other face-the-public Centrelink staff have different experiences than the Minister and Centrelink higher-ups. That much is obvious. The fact that the flawed process was supported for so long politically while Centrelink clients were assumed to be guilty unless they could prove that Centrelink was wrong (surely a reversal of the need for proof) was itself a pretty clear sign that the process lacked respect. We’ve seen it in other areas – Border Force is an example, also some staff at government shopfronts, who show little respect for the public. It shouldn’t be like this. The government has a right to reclaim money from people who were not entitled to get it. The problem is not why they are doing it; it is how they are doing it.

Brett | 03 February 2017  

Indeed "everything is working fine" - if the intention is to bamboozle and intimidate people into paying "debts" that they don't owe. Re "If you have income cycles which differ... if your children reach certain milestones or you meet a partner...": You don't need any of those situations to get into trouble. It suffices that Centrelink and the ATO have recorded an employer under different names. Centrelink staff are under instructions NOT to fix such errors unless the victims point them out (the memo to that effect has been leaked). Re: "the adversarial manner... is unlikely to allow Centrelink to learn...": Centrelink doesn't need to learn anything. It already knows EXACTLY how maliciously it is behaving. Re "They thought they had ended their connection with Centrelink years ago": And now Centrelink, having advised them to keep payslips for only 6 months, is requiring them to prove their eligibility all over again, hoping that they won't be able to. In most cases Centrelink already has the proof on file - but doesn't look at it unless the victim demands it under FOI and then gives it back to Centrelink! Official "denials" of these facts are NON-DENIALS. Read them carefully.

Gavin R. Putland | 03 February 2017  

I think that you've missed the point Roy. It's not the computer system that is the problem, it's the way that it is being used. There is it seems, or at least is felt, that way that there is a presumption that the notices are correct, or if not, that the onus of proving them incorrect is on the recipient. One doesn't need to be a member of the 'secular left' to contrast this with the attitude of politicians to the use and abuse of their 'entitlements'.

Ginger Meggs | 03 February 2017  

"Staff at government shopfronts who show little respect to the public. " You said it Brett. Medibank the other day. Clients, young couples with little children, not proficient in English, single young people also speaking little English , old people on walking sticks. A ninety minute wait, no chairs, continuous lines of customers,no air con, abrupt , bordering on rude workers stretched to their limits. Survival of the fittest. For people trying to get a new Medicare card , help with claims, and enrollment into the system , a not so friendly welcome to Australia. Where has hospitality and kindness gone from government departments.? Walking along still fragile Bourke street , I reflected on the sad state to which the practices of our city had sunk . And Just Imagine what It must be like on Manus where you are just a number and a "bloody nuisance" into the bargain. The film "I Daniel Blake" " has to be the movie of the year. The theme is playing out right here in "River City". It's little wonder some individuals react in barbaric ways to inhuman treatment and injustice and plain lack of consideration.

Celia | 06 February 2017  

Not cricket, not football, not tennis nor any other competitive sport can possibly overshadow the greatest of all Australian sports - stealing from the taxpayer through government services, a game played from the politicians down. About time we enforced a bit of decency on the Australian persona and gave those naïve poor souls who don't seek to deceive and who obey the rules a fair go. I would have expected the Christians to be right behind the attempt at eliminating what is effectively fraud by some welfare recipients and, it seems, a lot of politicians. The honest always come off second best in this country.

john frawley | 06 February 2017  

Please stop using misnomers such as " alternative facts". It is meaningless twaddle designed to mislead, not inform, and insulting to any thinking person. "Fracture" is a gross understatement in reference to Centrelink ... for many, dealing with Centrelink is akin to receiving deep, penetrating stab wounds through the heart, soul and mind.

Kerry Bergin | 06 February 2017  

The starting point of Government Bureaucracy is that we are all crooks. So, no respect is due to us; no thought of innocent until proven guilty; no thought that the onus is on the Bureaucracy to prove its case. And when the Bureaucracy refuses to be responsible, refuses to admit error or even the possibility, as in this case and others (Census, Energy Supply, to name just two) we get faulty administration, including inadequate software rollouts. This won't be the last case.

Peter Horan | 06 February 2017  

I tend to agree with Kerry about "alternative facts". When I heard the White House rep use the term a couple of weeks ago my first thought was she was having a joke with the interviewer, possibly even a bit of a self-satire. Then I saw she was serious. Now it seems to have caught on and become another euphemism. It reminded me of the old Groucho Marx joke, "these are my principles. I stand by them. If you don't like them, I have others", only this is serious. The comedians will have a hard time satirising the Trump White House. Even Frank Underwood will have trouble competing with Trump.

Brett | 06 February 2017  

“There is it seems, or at least is felt, that way that there is a presumption that the notices are correct, or if not, that the onus of proving them incorrect is on the recipient.” Ginger Meggs, won’t both sides be expected to double-check their information before meeting about a complaint? The Centrelink clerk will go back through the records to work out if incorrect information has been entered into the computer or whether the software that did the calculations was inaccurate. The client will bring to the meeting his or her own records. How is this different from your disputing a pay slip, bill or credit card statement as far as ‘anti-establishment’ is concerned? How is this different from one business disputing an invoice with another business as far as ‘anti-establishment’ is concerned? If you have an agenda or a proclivity to see ghosts, ghosts you will see. As for Centrelink, they will certainly have a proclivity to trust their system because they coughed up hundreds of millions of dollars on it. That's only to be expected.

Roy Chen Yee | 06 February 2017  

Well said Kasy, My youngest daughter is one who has been stung by this mess. First Centrelink claims she owes thousands of dollars stemming from her Uni studies and periods of casual employment , then moves between several jobs over the past ten years or so. I have calculated that she mist have been on benefits for most of her life( ~28 years) to rack up such a bill. Next they wanted pay slips going back at least ten years. Not even I kept payslips for that long prior to my retirement! The problem is lack of staff thanks to so called "efficiency dividends" !. Answer for the bureaucrats at the top- automation and a disaster for those lest able to fight for their rights. No humanity at all from the politicians who seem happy to award themselves ever more perks.

Gavin | 08 February 2017  

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