The stories of Australians targeted by Centrelink with dodgy debt notices haven’t abated, and the experiences show that the government’s assurances of fixes in the system haven’t led to a more efficient or humane system. Blogger Andie Fox wrote a comment piece for the Fairfax papers on February 6, outlining her experience with Centrelink: her ex-partner hadn’t lodged tax returns, which meant Centrelink’s automatic data matching system tallied up a debt in Fox’s name for Family Tax Benefit she had claimed. Fox mentioned that privacy laws had hampered her ability to prove her relationship was over and that her ex-partner’s actions shouldn’t impinge on her. Yesterday, The Canberra Times published a piece by columnist Paul Malone with the headline “Centrelink is an easy target for complaints but there are two sides to every story“. The supposed second side of Fox’s story was explained by Malone:

“But Centrelink has a different story.

The agency says Ms Fox’s debt is a Family Tax Benefit (FTB) debt for the 2011-12 financial year which arose after she received more FTB than she was entitled to because she under-estimated her family income for that year.

The original debt was raised because she and her ex-partner did not lodge a tax return or confirm their income information for 2011-12.

Centrelink says that after Ms Fox notified the department that she had separated from her partner, the debt due to her partner’s non-lodgement was cancelled.”

He also includes the number of letters and phone calls Centrelink says it made to Fox. As many journalists would know, asking any government agency about a particular person’s issue usually comes up with the response “we don’t comment on individual matters”, but in this case the Department of Human Services thought it was totally appropriate to reveal information Fox hadn’t in her original comment. In a blog post titled “Is this what happens when you criticise government?” Fox wrote:

“Paul Malone, a journalist for Canberra Times, has since obtained personal information from my Centrelink file (I’m still not entirely sure how privacy legislation allows this) in order to write an article about my story from the government’s perspective.” 

“It seems the story most neglected is not the helpless ‘client’ of Centrelink, so often powerless in the face of an enormous bureaucratic machine, but the Centrelink machine, itself.”

Fox also noted that Centrelink didn’t have the correct contact details for her — something she had worked out with the agency. We’ve contacted Fox to ask if she will be taking the matter further with DHS and were told that a complaint has been made, and an investigation launched.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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