Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services

Transcript: ABC 7:30, Interview with Laura Tingle

29 July 2019

The Hon Stuart Robert MP

Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services
E&OE

LAURA TINGLE:

The point of sending the debt notices to dead peoples’ estates. What chances have their relatives got of tracking down what the matter’s about and then, they might not even know where their relatives worked?

MINISTER:

Laura, first of all great to be with you and you raise a particularly good question. Normally in matters where someone has passed away, if the debt is substantial, it gets raised with the estate. Or an assessment is made as to whether it’s economic to actually recover and in many cases, the debt is foregone and waived.

LAURA TINGLE:

But the problem here is a more generic one about the robodebt system which is that people get assessments just saying ‘you owe us X thousand dollars’. It doesn’t tell you when that debt may have been raised or what it relates to. Can you understand why people are perplexed and a bit angry about this?

MINISTER:

I certainly understand that Laura. I always encourage people, if in doubt, contact the department. In the last four or five years the department has recovered $1.9 billion in overpayments. And we have a legal responsibility to do that. So I guess it’s a type of a mutual obligation, people need to keep their affairs or their income assessments up to date. You know, using myGov is one example. And of course, we cross check it with the ATO and if there’s a discrepancy a discrepancy notice is raised. And that’s the legal requirement we’ve got. And if citizens just keep their income up to date, if there’s any questions contact the department, I think we can avoid many of these issues.

LAURA TINGLE:

But isn’t there an inherent problem here? Tax office data is annual, people’s income can be lumpy it can only apply to some parts of the year, and this seems to be one of the reasons why when you compare it with income figures, it’s often wrong. And in the meantime it might be 6 or 7 years since these apparent debts were incurred. How many people keep those details for so long?

MINISTER:

Which is why we encourage people to contact the department. Bank records, of course, are always available for seven years. And the department won’t be going back after seven years in terms of recovering that, because there’s no way for people to actually have their records they need for it. We’d simply encourage people, contact the department. On any discrepancy notice you receive, there’ll be a phone number on it, or another way to contact the department, we’d really encourage Australians to do that.

LAURA TINGLE:

Well one of the problems that people have is that they can’t actually just go into a Centrelink office and talk about it with somebody. Why can’t they do that?

MINISTER:

They can. They can use an Omni-channel approach Laura. They can keep their details up to date using myGov, they can use a telephony channel, or they can go into a Centrelink office to have a discussion or provide documentation.

LAURA TINGLE:

But we’re told that when you go into a Centrelink office you are referred to the telephone services or the online service.

MINISTER:

If you’re there to provide documentation you can actually provide documentation to actually demonstrate the income you’ve earned. Otherwise there’s a customer service officer there to speak to or indeed they may refer you to an online channel in the department or indeed a phone service.

LAURA TINGLE:

Why can’t the federal government give more details about what the debt is? I mean, for example, you had to repay almost $38,000 worth of expenses from your home web service and I’m sure that the Department of Finance would’ve outlined what it was that they felt had been inappropriately or mistakenly charged by you. Why can’t other taxpayers get some details of what it is they’re supposed to have incurred as an extra debt?

MINISTER:

Well when a discrepancy notice is sent out to people, the first thing they’ll receive is to say ‘hey we believe there’s a discrepancy, please contact us’. And that’s what we want people to do. We want them to actually contact the department so a sensible conversation can be had about what we believe the discrepancy is, and ways that that can be ameliorated and be solved. There are social workers on hand. There are compliance officers on hand. We’d rather that conversation occur first.

LAURA TINGLE:

Don’t you think there are essential problems though in the robodebt system Minister? I mean, for example the fact that income’s measured or assessed against business names, not against ABN numbers. Would you concede that there are problems with the system that the government should be reviewing?

MINISTER:

That’s one of the reasons why we ask people to contact us. It is a difficult area because we’re asking people to go back in some cases a number of years. But it’s important and there’s a legal requirement upon us to ensure that our highly targeted welfare system has the right people getting the right money at the right time. That’s why we look at past income we check it against a tax return. We raise a discrepancy and then we encourage Australians to give us a call. And that’s really my message this evening. If in doubt, call. Contact the department.

LAURA TINGLE:

Are you spreading the net of robodebt calls? Our story tonight is looking at the possibility of people with DSP and Age Pension debts also being brought into the net.

MINISTER:

There’s been no change in terms of widening the compliance program across income support measures.

LAURA TINGLE:

And your brief in the new job is to improve the experience of people dealing with the government. Do you really think that it’s a satisfactory way for the government to behave? I mean, do you think that this can be improved?

MINISTER:

There’s lots of ways we can improve service delivery across the Commonwealth Laura. Which is why the Prime Minister has given me the charter to work towards Services Australia and we’re currently working through a planning process in that regard. We want a service for Australians that is simple, that’s easy. If they go online, we want it to be - heaven forbid - delightful. That’s where we want it to be. A real experience Australians can actually get the information they need quickly. Can we improve it? Absolutely.

LAURA TINGLE:

Well finally, there’s a lot of pressure building for a change in Newstart and an increase to a more sustainable level for people on income support. What’s your personal position on the level of Newstart?

MINISTER:

Laura it can be difficult getting by when you don’t have a job. No question about it. That’s why the Prime Minister has always made the point that the best form of welfare is a job. And we’re going to do everything we can to ensure people have every opportunity to get a job.

LAURA TINGLE:

Thanks for your time tonight

MINISTER:

Thanks Laura.

Page last updated: 30 July 2019