Transcript: LAFM Tasmania, Interview with Brian Carlton

10 August 2017

The Hon Alan Tudge MP

Minister for Human Services
E&OE

BRIAN CARLTON:       
Let me bring in here Alan Tudge, the Federal Minister for Human Services. This is the Centrelink issue I was just referring to. Minister, good morning, welcome to Tasmania Talks, how are you going?           

ALAN TUDGE:
G’day Brian, I am very well thanks, yourself?

BRIAN CARLTON:       
I am very well thank you. Was it absolutely necessary to scare the willies out of Centrelink recipients by whacking an AFP logo on and threatening them with jail on this mail out that is happening again?

ALAN TUDGE:
I do not agree with the premise of the question there. I do not agree that it does scare the bejeezus out of people. This is a straight forward letter which says “are your details up to date?”

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] I can send you some emails Minister, with respect, I can send you some emails that will render your opinion useless.

ALAN TUDGE:
Well…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Invalid. Inaccurate.

ALAN TUDGE:
Brian…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Wrong. People are scared by this. I mean I am getting them myself Minister. I have got one in front in me from one of my listeners. More than one.

ALAN TUDGE:
Brian, what this is about is targeting particular areas which we know are likely to have high incidences of welfare fraud and welfare…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] What - based on postcodes?

ALAN TUDGE:
This is based on detailed analysis from the AFP and from data analysis. They do that work and they identify the areas where…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Via postcode. Via postcode.

ALAN TUDGE:
…and so then when you get an area - then some people get letters asking them and reminding them to update their information.

Why do we do this? Because we know that while the vast majority of people do the right thing when they receive welfare - they are constantly updating their details, be it their income or their relationship status - the unfortunate reality is Brian that some people do not do the right thing and either deliberately or inadvertently fail to update their details.

When they do that, and particularly if they do that deliberately, then they are defrauding the taxpayer, they are defrauding other Australians.

This work, Taskforce Integrity, already has uncovered about $30 million of over-payments, including, I know one instance where it was a person who owed more than $100,000. 

BRIAN CARLTON:       
Yeah okay Minister, nobody is arguing that. What we are arguing – I’m perfectly happy for people to get advice from Centrelink or a note saying please make sure you update your details with us, it is very important, there are consequences should you not do this, blah, blah.

Sending out a letter unsolicited to people who have done absolutely nothing wrong with the AFP logo on it, threatening them with a criminal record and prison sentences is overkill.

ALAN TUDGE:
This work has been…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Especially when they are not targeted Minister. These are not targeted letters.

ALAN TUDGE:
It is targeted. It is targeted based on geographical areas.

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Yes, targeted on postcode, not allegations. Minister, Minister, it is not targeted on the basis that the individual receiving the letter has done anything wrong.

ALAN TUDGE:
But it also makes no allegation in the letter either. The letter…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] It is threatening. It is threatening. I am sorry I have got a copy of it in front of me Minister. It is threatening.

The final para- the second final paragraph; committing welfare fraud can result in dot a loss of payment; dot, a debt to be repaid; dot, attending court; dot, a criminal record; or dot, a prison sentence. Pretty clear. 

ALAN TUDGE:
And that is the state of play that if you deliberately, if you deliberately, knowingly, fail to update your records or give wrong information then that is committing welfare fraud…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] I understand but these letters are being received Minister, these letters are being received by people who have done nothing wrong. They are being monstered by their own government. You are scaring the willies out of them. Please stop it.

ALAN TUDGE:
With all due respect Brian, the letter itself says and I will read it out so your listeners know the rest of the letter.

It says: “We are sending this letter to remind you of your ongoing responsibility to keep your information up to date. If you regularly update the Department on changes on your circumstances I would like to take this opportunity to thank you. It is never too late to report a change. The quickest way is to do it this way.” It says – it goes on, “the majority of our customers do the right thing and tell us about any changes to their information, however we know that some people make honest mistakes and other people deliberately withhold or provide false or misleading information.”

So it actually goes through – it thanks the person if they have already updated the information. And then says that many people make honest mistakes but there are in fact some people out there that unfortunately do rip off the taxpayer deliberately.

BRIAN CARLTON:       
Right okay.

ALAN TUDGE:
And this effort is aimed at uncovering that and it has uncovered a great many…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Oh I am sure. I am sure it has Minister. I would also suggest to you that sending out a letter to people who have done nothing wrong is sort of a fishing exercise in a very real sense.

The Australian Government, it heads, the header up on the top right hand corner, the Australian Government, Department of Human Services, Centrelink, and then the AFP logo.

Down the bottom it is signed by Andrea Quinn, Assistant Commissioner, brackets, AFP. The letter comes from the AFP, not from Centrelink. You reckon it does not scare the willies out of people?

ALAN TUDGE:
This person is the head of the Taskforce Integrity Unit…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] I understand that but they are getting a letter with a Centrelink logo on it.

ALAN TUDGE:
[Indistinct]…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Minister, they are getting a letter with a Centrelink logo on it, signed by an AFP member. That is intimidation. It is intimidation. 

ALAN TUDGE:
I have read out the details of the letter so that your listeners can be aware of what that letter says.

As it says, it actually reminds people of their responsibilities, it thanks them if they have already updated their details…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
Yep. Yep, yep.

ALAN TUDGE:
…and it does say that if you have – that many people inadvertently fail but some people deliberately do so.

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Yeah okay. Well what if they are a Senator?

ALAN TUDGE 
And I think…

BRIAN CALRTON:       
[Interrupts] Minister, what if they are a Senator and they have misled not only the Parliament but the Australian people?

They are not going to have to repay the money that they took fraudulently aren’t they? Because you all agree that they should not have to do that.

ALAN TUDGE:
[Indistinct]…

 

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] So you are okay – let me just – the double standard here Minister is extraordinary. 

ALAN TUDGE:
No, no, if there is fraud committed – if there is fraud committed by anybody…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] The double standard is extraordinary.

ALAN TUDGE:
If there is fraud committed by anybody Brian, it is an offence and there have been parliamentarians or ex-parliamentarians…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Right so all of these senators – all of these senators who have had to leave the Parliament under a cloud of citizenship they will be paying back the money they took from the taxpayer will they? Over the time?

ALAN TUDGE:
My…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Because they provided misleading information?

ALAN TUDGE:
There are currently members of…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Two sets of rules Minister, aren’t there?

ALAN TUDGE:
…former members of the Labor Party from the New South Wales Parliament who are in prison right now.

BRIAN CARLTON:       
There are two sets of rules aren’t there Minister?

ALAN TUDGE:
They are in prison right now Brian.

BRIAN CARLTON:       
There are sets of rules for politicians and then there are sets of rules for the general public.

You can intimidate the hell out of ordinary people who have done nothing wrong by sending them a letter that blurs the lines of responsibility somewhat significantly; Centrelink, AFP, on the logo, signed by an AFP person, threatening them with jail and because of a bunch of reasons about non-disclosure be that voluntary – sorry - be that deliberate or other wise and they have to pay back the money.

Why don’t the bloody politicians have to when they do the same thing?

ALAN TUDGE:
As you know there has been a great many politicians who have had to pay back money and there are some ex-politicians now who are in prison in New South Wales. Labor – former Labor Party members…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Not one, not one of the Senators…

ALAN TUDGE:
…of New South Wales.

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Minister, not one of the Members of Parliament who have had to retire, get out of the place, because they are there illegally, will be forced to pay back their salary. This is a double standard. You people are hypocrites. 

ALAN TUDGE:
The other thing I would say Brian is that in relation to this Taskforce Integrity which you are having a go at me in relation to, I think what most taxpayers do expect is that there is integrity in the welfare system.

I think the taxpayer is quite happy to support those who are down on their luck at any particular time…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
Yeah damn straight.

ALAN TUDGE:
…who might be out of work, who might be have a disability and the like…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Yes, yes, yes. And what we do not want is innocent Australians being monstered by their own government. 

ALAN TUDGE:
They also expect there to be integrity in the welfare system and we have a robust system of ensuring that and recouping money when it has been over-paid.

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Yes, except from politicians who give misleading information. 

ALAN TUDGE:
We currently have…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Except for them.

ALAN TUDGE:
[indistinct].

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Minister you reckon you have got no complaints? Minister I am, going to pop you on hold, have a listen to Jane in Ulverstone.

Jane in Ulverstone, Hello Jane, welcome to Tas Talks. The Minister is on the other line listening to you. Talk to me.

CALLER JANE:
I cannot believe his attitude Brian. I have to tell the Minister that I have got clinical depression and to get that letter just sent me over the edge. I battle every day and I am on anti-depressants and…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
What did you think when you got the letter Jane? What was your impression? What was your feeling when you read it?

CALLER JANE:
When I saw the Federal Police logo on there, I was just so frightened. I thought I have not done anything, I do not know what they want of me and then yesterday I got an SMS message saying that the taskforce is in Devonport but I could not reply to that SMS.

It was bad enough getting the letter but then to get yesterday the SMS. I just don’t know what to do.

I am just so frightened about it and he does not seem to realise that someone with clinical depression who is battling day to day, something like this can just tip you over the edge and you feel like you are being bullied.

BRIAN CARLTON:       
Jane, Jane, have you ever had any issues with Centrelink in terms of being – in terms of overpayments?

CALLER JANE:
Never.

BRIAN CARLTON:       
Have you ever provided them incorrect information?

CALLER JANE:
No.

BRIAN CARLTON:       
Okay, Jane hold there for me. I will come back to you. Minister Tudge, these are the Australian citizens, elderly, vulnerable Australians that you are scaring the crap out of. Will you please stop it?

ALAN TUDGE:
First of all I would like to say to Jane I am sorry about her condition and we have social workers in our Department and…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] No you are not, you are sending her letters that are giving her grief Minister. You are not sorry about any bloody thing. 

ALAN TUDGE:
Brian, with all due respect you have asked me a question and please give me an opportunity to give an answer.

BRIAN CARLTON:       
No, no, but do not give my listeners platitudes Minister. You do not give a rats. You have just defended exactly the program that has given my listener, Jane from Ulverstone, a huge amount of grief and you do not care.

ALAN TUDGE:
What I am saying - what I am saying is we have got very good officials, very good social workers in our Department…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Oh bollocks. You have got a terrified elderly woman. A terrified elderly woman. 

ALAN TUDGE:
And the second thing I would say, the second thing I would say to that woman is that the letter that she received has the line in there in the second paragraph, it says, “If you regularly update the Department on changes to your circumstances I would like to take this opportunity to thank you.”

It sounds like she has done that from what she has said, in which case there is nothing more that she needs to do and the letter itself…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Oh that is very reassuring, so every elderly pensioner – every disabled person is going to get a personal call from you are they Minister?

ALAN TUDGE:
No, no the letter itself says that. I am reading a line from the letter Brian that it actually says, “I would like to take the opportunity to thank you…”

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Minister, Minister.

ALAN TUDGE:
That is what the letter says Brian.

BRIAN CARLTON:       
Minister, the practical…

ALAN TUDGE:
You have got that in front of you.

BRIAN CARLTON        
Yes I have a copy of it sitting right in front of me.

ALAN TUDGE:
And it does say that does it not?

BRIAN CARLTON:       
Yes it…

ALAN TUDGE:
You can confirm that that is in the second paragraph?

BRIAN CARLTON:       
Yes it does. But it also says down the bottom in very bold; a criminal record or a prison sentence.

You can cherry pick the letter to your heart’s content Minister, but you are scaring the crap out of Australians you are meant to be looking after. That is your job.

ALAN TUDGE:
And it says customers and let me again repeat the reference to that …

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] This woman has done nothing wrong.

ALAN TUDGE:
Let me repeat for the reference so your listeners know. It says, “Customers who deliberately withhold or provide false or misleading information…”

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Well then you get your many scouts out to find out who those individuals are and you prosecute them until the cows come home Minister and you would get no argument from me for doing so.

But sending out spray letters to people who have done nothing with an AFP logo and threatening them with jail is inappropriate.

ALAN TUDGE:
It says first of all in the letter that if you have done the right thing, thank you for doing the right thing...

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Well why don’t you guys cook up a whole bunch of other things Minister, that will cause you to lose government?

ALAN TUDGE:
…that if you deliberately withhold or provide false or misleading …

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] You guys want to get elected. Unbelievable.

ALAN TUDGE:
...information it could be committing fraud. Now I think…

BRIAN CARLTON:       
[Interrupts] Unbelievable.

ALAN TUDGE:
I think the everyday Australian taxpayer wants there to be integrity in the system.

BRIAN CARLTON:       
Yeah we do Minister. We want the same set of standards applied to the everyday Australia as is applied to Members of Parliament which is clearly not the case.

Just remove the logo, remove the AFP, remove the threats. Ask the people to update their information and be done with it.

If they choose not to, and they are in breach of the law then chase them down as individual. But spraying out stuff like this to innocent people is not something that a democratic government does. You do not deserve to be in power.

ALAN TUDGE:
Well thank you for your time Brian.

BRIAN CARLTON:       
Yes thank you Minister. Thank you.