CANBERRA -- Centrelink's "robodebt" automated debt recovery system has again been exposed as faulty, with confirmation that the government sent out nearly 20,000 debt notices in just a few months which were later either reduced or erased entirely.
In response to a question in writing from Labor MP Steve Georganas, human services minister Alan Tudge revealed on Tuesday that, as of March 31, there were 19,980 debts which have been either amended or reduced to zero. This figure is only accurate up to the end of March, almost five-and-a-half months ago, meaning the number may be even higher today, as more Centrelink recipients lodge appeals against their debt notices.
"How many Centrelink clients who were notified of a debt or the likelihood of a debt with Centrelink through its Online Compliance Intervention system, have subsequently had their debt (a) reduced, and (b) cancelled completely?" Georganas asked.
Tudge replied that 7456 people had had their debt reduced to zero, while another 12,524 had their "debt Reduced but not zero." NSW had the most debts reduced to zero, with 2234.
The NSW Central Coast postcode of 2250 and the Bundaberg area postcode of 4670 in Queensland had the most debts reduced to zero, with 37 and 43 debts respectively.
From late last year, many thousands of Australians across the country received correspondence from Centrelink claiming there is a discrepancy in their records, and asking for updates and clarification. People have received debt notices for many thousands of dollars, and many claim the debt notices they received are incorrect, too high, or just plain false.
Many of the disputed debts can be traced back to the new automated data-matching process, which allegedly sometimes counts income from the same job twice or incorrectly averages income across an entire year.
Some people have received debts for a time they weren't even on Centrelink; others have been told to pay the debt even if they dispute it; and despite the Commonwealth Ombudsman launching an investigation, Tudge continued to maintain that everything was working well.
Georganas and shadow human services minister Linda Burney slammed the revelations around the number of incorrect debts.
"These are absolutely shocking results and reveal the extent to which Mr Tudge has fudged the management of the robodebt debacle," the pair said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon.
"Over a nine month period, the Government erroneously and unnecessarily set debt collectors on 20,000 innocent and vulnerable Australians, who were in need of income support at that point in their lives. Minister Tudge made them feel frightened, anxious and like criminals, and he should apologise."
Georganas and Burney cited a Senate report from June which criticised the rollout of the automated debt recovery system and recommended the plan "should be put on hold until all procedural fairness flaws are addressed."
"To this day, the Government has refused to act on these recommendations – an absolute insult to the thousands of decent and vulnerable individuals who are reliant on income support at a difficult and uncertain time in their lives," the Labor MPs said.