Society is judged on how we treat our most vulnerable - Liberal's robo-debts debacle event affects Santa

MS BIRD (CUNNINGHAM) (18:16): I am probably more sad than anything else to be speaking to the motion on this report, which is before the chamber. I want to heartily endorse the comments made by my colleagues the member for Bruce, the member for Paterson and, just prior to me, the member for Hindmarsh in talking about how significant the issues raised in this report are.

A truth that many of us should keep at the forefront of our minds is the sentiment—I do not remember the exact quote—that a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable. It is something I believe should lead the principles with which we—both those of us in this parliament and those who hold an executive position in the government—approach public service. This report tells us very clearly that there has been a significant failure—in particular, in this case, by the relevant ministers—to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our community. My colleagues outlined many examples of the difficulties and challenges these people are already dealing with in their lives, particularly those who have a disability—whether they were born with that disability; whether they acquired it through one of a variety of unfortunate circumstances, such as a car accident or a workplace accident; or whether it was the result of some form of illness or a required medical intervention that then had a traumatic impact on them. These people are already dealing with challenges in their lives, and they are seeking to have quality and dignity in their lives. They should have no doubt that in our community they have every right to expect dignity and respect. That means that when, as a government, we engage with people we should do it in a way that sustains dignity and respect, not in a way that not only takes away dignity and respect but adds to the trauma and difficulty they are experiencing in their lives.

The report before this chamber, the report of the inquiry of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit into the Auditor-General's report 18 of 2015-16, titled Qualifying for the disability support pension, is sadly a very damning report—and, I might say, by a government controlled committee. It raises very serious questions for both the relevant ministers, Minister Tudge and Minister Porter, about how their departments' interactions with these very vulnerable people are managed and how both fairness and integrity are sustained in that process. We should not forget that the disability support pension is there because we expect it to provide support to people who are permanently disabled Australians, who are unable to work or unable to work for very many hours.

There were numerous concerns raised throughout the inquiry, and they still remain unaddressed. The committee has recommended that both the Department of Social Services and the Department of Human Services conduct a complete end-to-end review of the administration of the entire DSP program. It is recommended that the DHS publicly report the results, the costs and benefits of the government's DSP evaluations. I think my colleague the member the Hindmarsh outlined that recent data shows that only 1.6 per cent of the recipients who have been subjected to what was a very scattergun review through 2016 have actually been moved off the DSP. And that does not measure the effects on so many others put through that process, who got through the process despite being under extraordinary pressure and having unreasonable demands on their time, on their resources to be able to do that—all for a saving of 1.6 per cent of recipient receipts. So this is a very significant report, and it should be given very, very serious consideration.

The committee itself received dozens of submissions and heard significant amounts of evidence. I want to highlight some issues that I understand my colleague the member for Bruce has also outlined. Twenty-one days is an insufficient time frame to obtain medical specialist reports and provide documents. I do not know how many of those who devised such a time frame actually have experienced the reality of trying to get access to specialists—let us not even go into the out-of-pocket costs that you are now increasingly subjected to from that process as a result of some other changes made by this government—but 21 days was just an unreasonable and insufficient time. The reviews were also very poorly targeted, and the vulnerable Australians who were targeted by them consistently ran up Medicare bills—and, as I said, increasingly higher Medicare bills as we have seen the rollback of the support given to people financially as out-of-pocket costs go up.

Communication was appalling. It resulted in wrong decisions, that, of course, then led to very costly, very time consuming and, I have to say, very stressful appeals having to be undertaken. There were the increases in the time taken to complete those assessments and reviews, and the failure to crosscheck basic data within Centrelink with the state and territory governments that would have stopped pointless reviews of profoundly disabled people living in 24-hour state-based residential care. There was a serious lack of publicly available data regarding DSP service delivery and performance, and an ad hoc approach to evaluating the effectiveness of significant program and policy changes. These are all really significant and important issues to be raised in terms of how we treat very vulnerable people. I just want to add in the time left to me that this is, sadly, a reflection of a broader approach by this government and these ministers towards people who need support in our community.

I know there was some evidence around the robo-debt debacle that was also inflicted on many of these people and on people more broadly, and, as I understand it, is about to be rolled out onto a whole lot more very soon. In my area, I had representation from Kerrie from Mount Keira. She became a widow in 2013, and her three young children lost their father. Four weeks before Christmas, she received a letter saying she owed more than $4,000 for payments received in the 2013-14 financial year. She was very distressed because she had painstakingly, through her grief, done everything to ensure she was correctly claiming her payments following her husband's death. She was sent this letter in error, and had to spend many hours trying to get through to Centrelink while also working full time, studying and raising her children. It turns out it was an administrative malfunction in the Centrelink app that led to an overpayment as Centrelink had not processed the pay slips that Kerrie had provided. This led to the overpayment. The debt was subsequently halved.

Murray of Warrawong was working as a part-time truck driver due to poor health. He reported his earnings as required and retained an accountant to lodge his tax returns to make sure he was doing the right thing. He was also sent a debt letter asking him to provide documentation. He had begun working full time part way through the year—a good thing, but he certainly paid the price. He had to take time off work and contact previous employers to get the required paperwork as he did not have his pay slips. He also received a second letter regarding the 2015-16 year. It took a 90-minute phone call to sort it out. He particularly said to me that, given the government is giving big business a tax cut, he felt this process made it even worse for him.

Sue of Wollongong is a contract worker who correctly reported her earnings at the time and yet received a debt letter for more than $5,000 for a time when she had had three employers. Centrelink did not have her updated address, so, of course, she was one of those who ended up with a debt collector chasing her. She could obtain pay slips from two of the three employers, but the third had a problem with their system.

I do not want to forget John from Warrawong who is a 62-year-old Santa. He also received a debt letter from the government. These people, each and every one, are just a sample of the people in my community who were doing the right thing and were treated with great disrespect by that appalling robo-debt debacle. (Time expired)