The union for under-fire Centrelink workers has labelled the government a woeful disgrace, for failing to act in response to the debt recovery debacle.
Hundreds of thousands of Aussies have received letters demanding debts be repaid, only for them to be found to be bogus on investigation. In one case, there was a demand for $9000 from a client who actually owed just $90.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman has announced an investigation into the debt collection system that was introduced with the aim of clawing back up to $4 billion in overpaid welfare, but the government is still refusing to put the system on ice in the meantime.
The Community and Public Sector Union's Lisa Newman says workers have been warning of the dangers of an automated system like this for years, saying the lack of human oversight would lead to problems.
"What we're seeing is an entirely predicable and outrageous consequence of poor decision making"
"It's a perfect storm. We are very concerned about the safety of our members and also, they are very concerned about the impact this is having on their communities. It's heartbreaking for them to see the kind of results"
"While there's been no reports of violence yet, having to deal with people that have been accused of racking up debts and then being told to prove themselves innocent of that is just an anathema to the way that these services should be provided"
"The fact that they've been instructed to hand out referrals to (Crisis Support & Suicide Helpline) Lifeline is just a sad indictment of a massive service delivery failure"
Newman says morale amongst Centrelink workers has never been lower.
She says the answer is simple, but two-pronged:
"One is to stop the process and to fix it so that it's not generating the level of erroneous debt claims that it now is. They should roll it out when they're assured that it is absolutely as correct as it can be."
"The second thing they need to do is increase their permanent staffing workforce so that they've got trained, permanent people to deal with the issues that people need to address when they call or visit Centrelink."
Newman says the response from the Minister of Human Services, Alan Tudge, is inadequate.
"It's woeful. The Minister suggested that there was no problem. The department have told us there is no problem and there is nothing to see here."
"Quite frankly, that response is laughable. Somebody needs to be held accountable for the complete chaos and mess that we see at Centrelink."
Tudge, meantime, is standing defiant and continues to refuse requests to scrap the scheme.
"No we won't be. There's an important principle here that we're trying to implement and that is to ensure that there is greater integrity in the welfare system. We want to ensure that people get the entitlements that they're entitled to... no more, no less."
WRITTEN BY: Claire Sherwood @clairesherwood_