Humanity needed in welfare fight

Australians don’t expect their leaders to be super human. Just human will do.

Because being human implies a certain amount of humanity and a willingness to embrace that common thread in us all, from the most privileged of political representatives to those who are just barely getting by.

What we do expect is leadership. And we do expect a Minister with responsibility for human services – services for humans – would demonstrate the values and traits of humanity and leadership combined. And we don’t just expect it, we have entrusted those we voted for in the Federal Election with the means to do it.

When a natural disaster hits one of our communities hard—when people are threatened and have no capacity to access food, may lose all their meagre savings or a loss of property and the stress and anxiety of that situation could overwhelm them—we always rally together to help, to support and to ease their pain.

The current Centrelink debt fiasco is, sadly, measuring up as a human disaster.  There are now too many frightening examples of letters and subsequent poor treatment of individuals trying to prove their innocence.

Old frail people surviving on a pension with limited access or capacity to use an online system – our grandparents. Young people studying hard and living on an allowance and maybe some ad hoc casual work, trying to set themselves up for their future – our children.

Mums and dads in Tasmania, trying to survive in a highly casualised labour-market that forces them in and out of casual or part time work, off and on support payments – our families, our neighbours.

Those made redundant as businesses have closed down or the public service or university has reduced its workforce – our colleagues.

People who are unwell and unable to work for short or long periods of time, people with mental illness, anxiety, and those doing it hard and who, for various reasons not of their own making, require some support – our friends.

These people are receiving notices saying they owe thousands of dollars. Can you imagine getting a letter that says you owe $5,000 or $15,000 or $30,000? Can you imagine it taking weeks to try and resolve, going to bed every night not knowing what will happen? How many of us can find pay-slips from 6 years ago, from an employer who no longer exists? Living day to day and having an unproven, alleged debt incrementally deducted from your bank account, your pay, or your current Centrelink payment while you try to prove your innocence?

To be clear, TasCOSS and our national counterpart ACOSS does not oppose debt recovery action where an overpayment may have occurred. It is important for governments to ensure that the support payments made to people or taxes that are paid by individuals and corporations are monitored rigorously to ensure they are accurate. What we do oppose is a system error rate that clearly indicates an overall flaw in the automated approach. We oppose a system that treats people as guilty until they can prove themselves innocent, and in the meantime, have no support to provide this proof from the system alleging the debt. We oppose debt collectors causing high levels of anxiety and stress and an automatic 10% recovery fee for an alleged debt not yet proven. We oppose the lack of capacity for Centrelink to cope with the volume of demand from this mess and the call-centre and frontline staff being so overloaded that individuals have to endure extreme delays and wait times that compounds their anxiety. Importantly, what we do oppose is the most vulnerable within our community having to navigate their way through an impossible process that should never have occurred. The risk to them, as humans, is high and the duty of care sits with the government to ensure these people are protected and supported. This duty of care is being ignored.

There is a lack of any acknowledgement or any attempt to say “we got it wrong and now we are going to fix it”. And the most frightening part of the entire mess may be the vacuum of leadership from the Turnbull Government to acknowledge the problem of their making exists and to act decisively, show leadership and stem the damage. How hard can it really be for an elected human to stand up for other humans and say ‘we all can see this isn’t working properly, we are sorry, and we will stop this from continuing?

We cannot treat Tasmanians like this. Tasmanians are hardest hit because we have a greater number of our population receiving income support. The median household income in Tasmania is $40,749 and families work hard to make ends meet. The majority do the right thing. Tasmanians need leadership from the Tasmanian Liberal Senators to stand up for them in Canberra. They need to get out and talk to the people most impacted. They need to listen and to understand. They need to demonstrate leadership that matches the decisive actions of Andrew Wilkie, the Tasmanian Labor Opposition and the Tasmanian Greens Senators who are, through the Ombudsman and the Auditor General attempting to have this fiasco suspended pending an enquiry.

The challenge now, what we are all waiting to see, is can this government finally show real leadership — become a bold decision maker—to admit to a mistake and fix it. It is unforgiveable to pretend everything is going “as intended”. Unless the intention was to cause stress, anxiety, despair and soul destroying interactions with a system that cannot cope with the pressure it has now been put under.

It is an opportunity for our elected representatives to demonstrate that they are just like us; human enough to make mistakes and brave enough to own up to them, fix them and move on. How much longer can they ignore the evidence, the pleas from so many community leaders to stop this debacle as a matter of urgency? The Centrelink ‘debt’ recovery process is so clearly flawed that it must be suspended immediately for the good of all and the continued integrity of our social security system.

The priority of the Tasmanian community sector is the wellbeing of all Tasmanians impacted by this disaster. We will ensure that Tasmanians who need help are supported to navigate this system and be able to talk to a fellow human being.

The wellbeing of the Australian people should also be the priority for the Turnbull Government, who were, after all, elected to represent and protect the needs of people, not algorithms.