Transcript: 3AW Melbourne, Drive with Tom Elliott

26 January 2017

The Hon Alan Tudge MP

Minister for Human Services
Australia Day, Australia Day Awards, Centrelink’s Online Compliance System


Our next guest is the federal Minister for Human Services. He's beavering away at his ministry on Australia Day. Alan Tudge, good afternoon.


G'day Tom, happy Australia Day.


Same to you. Now, are you actually working today?


I have been, as the local member today, so I've done a bunch of Australia Day events, from a citizenship ceremony to an awards ceremony, I spoke at retirement villages.

It's always a busy day I think for most of the members of parliament, but a really good one.

Everyone's positive and optimistic, and of course all of the new citizens are proud as punch about becoming Australians.


Just before we start talking about Centrelink and your efforts to recover debts from people who are on Centrelink benefits, does it worry you as an MP, a federal MP, that almost as many people seem to be protesting against Australia Day as celebrating this date?


Well I don't think that's right, Tom. I think most people, in fact the vast majority of Australians, go out there and celebrate today.

I've been out in my electorate at multiple events and everyone is celebrating and talking about what it means to be Australian and the great attributes of this country, and we should rightly be proud of what we have as a nation.

There's always things to improve, but I think there's no other country that beats Australia, and I'm certainly very proud of it.


Senator Richard Di Natale, leader of the Greens, was in my studio two days ago and he said we absolutely have to change the date of Australia Day, we need a new national holiday on a new date.

What do you think?


No, I don't agree with that. I know why he is saying that; he believes that it's a hindrance to reconciliation.

I think that we do need to do more for reconciliation and have been an advocate of that for some time as you probably know, Tom.

But this is a day when all Australians can celebrate, and I think we do do that; we've done that for many decades now and I don't think we should be changing it.


Okay, now several weeks ago you announced that you wanted to recover money from people who are on Centrelink benefits - so people whose circumstances had changed, or people whose private income was higher than previously reported and to whom too much money might've been paid.

Now, the Labor Party and various welfare groups seized upon this and said that it wouldn't work and that you were targeting the less fortunate in society and so forth. What's actually happened now?

What have you done to alter the system?


So this has actually been a system which has been in place now for many years across successive governments, and in essence what it does is, it checks the self-reported income information that a person supplies to Centrelink with what the Australian Taxation Office has on your file, and where there's a discrepancy between the two it asks the person to explain the discrepancy if they can.

Sometimes they can, but frequently they cannot because they may have underreported what their income was, in which case then a debt notice is issued and they have to pay it back.

Now, what's been occurring in the last few weeks is the Labor Party is saying our system is completely ruined, and look at all of these people who have been alleged victims of this process.

When in fact, what the analysis which has been revealed in The Australian shows is that many of those so-called victims actually do owe money back to the taxpayer because they didn't declare a job, or they under-declared what their income was, or …


[Interrupts] It seems to me that you need to be able to accurately measure up the Tax Office database with the Centrelink database. Are you confident that both those databases are reasonably accurate?


We're confident that the databases are accurate, and obviously we do our best in terms of that data matching, and when there's a discrepancy, what occurs is then the person is asked, you know, can you please explain why there might be a discrepancy here.

Now, sometimes there might be a discrepancy, Tom, because the employer put down in the Tax Office file, for example, that you worked from July through to December, when in fact you only worked from July through to October.

So when that is corrected any discrepancy is fixed.


No, I think in theory that all sounds great - and by the way, I'm all for making sure that people don't over-claim public or welfare benefits. But from what I've heard, Centrelink's data and its database is basically a basket case.

It's just not that good, it's very hard to rely upon it.


No, I don't think that's right, Tom. The Centrelink data - they do have detailed data on peoples' files, what they've reported.

Whenever I've had to go and check up on a case which has been made public and find out what actually happened, they've got very detailed records of every interaction with people and what people have reported.


Okay, so how much money do you reckon, or how much are you hoping to extract out of this process?


Well we're hoping to extract that $4 billion over a four year period. Now, to put that into context the welfare budget is about $150 billion a year, so it's still a relatively small percentage of that.

You know, you're talking $600-plus billion over four years, compared to $4 billion that we might recoup.

Now, in some cases - and this has been revealed in the paper today - there are people, for example, who had businesses and they declared that they only earned $8,000 when in fact they earned $45,000 in that particular year.

Now, if that's the case you shouldn't have been receiving a Centrelink benefit, and if we discover that then we will be asking for that money back on behalf of the taxpayer.

I know it's tough, I know that no one likes to receive a debt notice from anywhere, but at the same time we've got to be fair to the taxpayer, and the taxpayer pays an enormous amount of tax to support the welfare system these days.

I think they're happy to support the welfare system when it's targeted, going to people in need, and when there's integrity in that system.

But when someone's been overpaid because they've under-declared their income, then I think they rightly expect that money to come back.


Final question. I noticed in the Australia Day honours today that former Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been given an AO for her services basically to politics.

Do you think politicians, either serving or retired, should get these rewards just for doing their jobs?


That's a good question, Tom. Julia Gillard, I didn't think much of her as a prime minister, but obviously it does take an extraordinary individual generally to become prime minister, and in her case she was the first woman to become prime minister which is obviously something special as well.

So at the end of the day, she got that gong that was determined by the Australia Day Council - good luck to her.

There's so many other people even in my own community that we recognised today though; I think they're the real heroes in Australia, that are doing the hard yards in volunteer work week in, week out.

They're the people that I really like to celebrate.


Thank you Mr Tudge. Alan Tudge there, the Minister for Human Services.