People punished for government mistakes | Editorial

There’s a stink of injustice emanating from the federal government’s latest attempt to stick its hands in the pockets of Australian citizens.

The Department of Human Services issued an unwelcome Christmas greeting to thousands of people late last year, as it sent debt notices across the nation in an effort to claim back overpayments from welfare agency Centrelink – many dating back several years.

A new computer system that cross references income details of Centrelink clients with Australian Taxation Department records made this possible.

Centrelink, Maitland branch.

Centrelink, Maitland branch.

The trouble (for the government) is, thousands of people have come forward to say they have been incorrectly targeted.

A Commonwealth Ombudsman investigation into the issue has begun and the Opposition is baying for the government’s blood, rightly calling for the claw-back to be shelved. Instead the government has continued on its merry way, despite the serious complaints, even demanding that people disputing their debt notice start paying immediately while their case is being considered.

Considering the purpose of Centrelink, to provide financial assistance to people in need, this is a deplorable response.

Among the Hunter people who claim to have been stung is a 22-year-old woman who holds down two jobs (she was hit with a $5000 notice) and a 41-year-old Metford man who received benefits for six weeks while he was between jobs three years ago (he got a $3000 notice). If these people and the others who are crying foul across the country are proven correct, it means they have unjustifiably become collateral damage to a government money-grab.

Even if Centrelink has overpaid people in the past, this issue begs the question: what sort of Big Brother nation we are living in where the government can delve into records across various departments – years after alleged over payments – and demand their due when it suits them?

If the barista at your coffee shop mistakenly under-charged you for your caffeine fix one day, they would have no right to try and demand the difference next time you turned up to buy a flat white. It would be their mistake to live with. But governments, similar to utilities such as gas, electricity and water, can openly punish average people for their own costly mistakes. If that continues, the only lesson anyone learns is to distrust governments.