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The Centrelink fiasco

Written By: - Date published: 11:07 am, January 6th, 2017 - 29 comments
Categories: australian politics, benefits, International, the praiseworthy and the pitiful, welfare, you couldn't make this shit up - Tags:

I recently followed Asher Woolf on twitter. I understand that is a nom de plumb. She is a Green Activist based in Melbourne, Australia and her profile says that she is a founder of the Cryptoparty. Wikipedia confirms this and states that the Cryptoparty is “a grassroots global endeavour to introduce the basics of practical cryptography such as the Tor anonymity network, key signing parties, disk encryption and virtual private networks to the general public. The project primarily consists of a series of free public workshops.”

She has a prolific twitter presence with 68.5k likes and has sent over 435k tweets.

She has a clear interest in the rights of citizens against the misuse of big data and recent policy changes at Australia’s Centrelink has attracted her attention and subsequently filled my twitter feed. Her activism is impressive to see and I recommend you have a look at her feed. It is a compelling mix of individual tales of terror over the stress caused and scathing comments about the totally inadequate data matching that has occurred and the complete indifference the Government has so far shown to the issue.

The background is that in pursuit of savings of $4.6 billion the conservative Government in Australia has mandated the use of data matching of Centrelink information with that held by the Australian Taxation Office. Screeds of letters have been sent to previous recipients demanding they justify receiving benefits in the past otherwise repayment will be sought.

The data match is crude, embarrassingly so. And there are lots of false positives. Whereas previously 20,000 letters were sent out a year the number is now 20,000 per week.  And the Government concedes that at least 20% of these are unwarranted.

There is a fundamental flaw in the process. It is matching years that an individual earned a benefit with years they paid income tax, dividing the total taxable earnings by 26 and then presuming that this amount was earned each and every fortnight.  If someone received a benefit for a short period that they were entitled to the data match still says there is a problem if the average earnings are over the permitted amount and a demand letter is issued. If no response is forthcoming within a limited time then the person is deemed to owe the debt and further steps are taken.

There are other identified problems.  The system is flagging cases where employer names and other information have inconsistent spelling across records, and is assuming recipients have more than one job and haven’t declared income

And so people are expected to go through their records up to six years ago to rejustify the receipt of a benefit they had already persuaded Centrelink they were entitled to.

The Government concedes that one in five letters of demand is unjustified. It makes you wonder what the actual figure is. To put that into context if the policy is not changed at least 200,000 Australias will be unjustly terrified in the first 12 months because of faulty data mapping.

It has caused consternation to many including those most susceptible to pressure. In an ironic and cruel twist Centrelink has been tweeting responses to complaints expressing suicidal thoughts with the number for the Australian Lifeline, a service which recently had its funding cut by the Government.

And the infrastructure in place to handle responses is inadequate. Waiting times of over two hours for a response from the telephone system have been reported. The website is incapable of handling a proper response to the letters. Huge cues have been reported at offices. The system is not capable of handling the work generated by the letters. And those that either give up or do not respond through ignorance of the claim will be deemed to owe the money.

To make matters even worse the Government with the assistance of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation recently repealed provisions of the Social Security Act which provided a six year time limit for the collection of these debts.  They could be using older and older and more unreliable data.

See what happens when big data meets right wing belligerence?

Meanwhile in other news …

Update: Thanks Draco

29 comments on “The Centrelink fiasco”

  1. Siobhan 1

    Meantime back in NZ

    “Monthly quotas were imposed at the Ministry of Social Development to prosecute beneficiaries, an inquest into the death of a woman accused of benefit fraud has heard.

    “We had to get one prosecution per month. We had to get $30,000 of debt to be recovered per month,” a former MSD investigator told the inquest into the death of Wendy Shoebridge. “Four cases had to be cleared per month.””

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/87347930/Aggressive-prosecution-focus-at-MSD-preceded-womans-death-inquest-told

    A statement from Labour on new policies for the radical improved in the treatment of Beneficiaries of all types would certainly be a step in winning over some votes from ‘The Disenfranchised Class’ and those of us that actually give a damn.

    • Draco T Bastard 1.1

      It’s amazing how many right-wing policies around the world that are inducing suicide and it’s disturbing that they’re not being held to account for them.

      • simbit 1.1.1

        Coroner found one post-disaster suicide in Chch caused by insurance co. belligerence.

      • aerobubble 1.1.2

        Police road speed rules are the cause of increased accidents, people have this persinal tick, damn lifestylers, they cant or wont obey lots of onerous rules, or worse, do, and take their time watching the speedometer. lol. Its a disgrace that people fear phoning police because they dont want their neighbours to become criminalized by the university of crime. Its not just the right wing governing classes, its te media-corporate alliance that want profits and need eyeballs to spin populations to put favored legislator and legislation, aka ttp went too far lol. How can anyone not have noticed, Trump only becomes President if he kept his ugly mug in the tv lens for months on end, and the media manufactured tolerance for him. Sure, the oil industry should be given a chance to retreat as climate change is so obvious, they broke it. It aint left or right, its the nonsense factory that has gotten tied up in all its self serving lying that it has to contort itself backwards upside down inside out to pass off crappy power whose self delusions are so misrepresentative, profit driven, mostly noe to pay off debt addiction with more debt.

        We need a return to freedom, that a life lived reflecting, time with family, income to resource living, etc.

    • Jenny Kirk 1.2

      Siobhan – you cannot expect Labour to announce all its policies yet – because that then gives the govt the ability to say “me too” with its policies.

      However, Labour has an extensive Policy Platform – agreed by the Party members a couple or so years ago – and this does spell out in detail how Labour expects to treat people . It can be found on the Labour website

      Click to access New%20Zealand%20%20Labour%20Party%20Policy%20Platform.pdf

      Here is an extract from it – which should reassure you that Labour will be treating people much more differently from the way the neo-lib rightwing govts do.

      5.13 Labour policies across portfolios will generate greater security and fairness with all parts of the community playing their part, and everyone benefitting from a fairer and more cohesive society.
      5.14 Labour recognises that there are New Zealanders whose disability, illness, or age is such that they are not expected to be in paid work, and that these people have a right to dignity and security. People who are temporarily out of the work force should be supported and enabled to re-enter the labour market. We recognise the care of people as work, whether paid or unpaid.

      • Siobhan 1.2.1

        I do truly understand that. And I realise I may come across as a Labour basher at a time when we need a positive and radical change of Government.
        However it is hard to generate any energy around a Political Party when ‘The Vision’ must be hidden from the voters.
        I’m not sure ‘nice words’ are enough. It’s important to treat people with respect, and I acknowledge that Labour is ‘nicer’, but what is actually going to change??
        No one has a very good track record..we’ve only just had an increase in benefits, the 1st real increase in core benefit rates for 44 years. 44 years!!!

        “People who are temporarily out of the work force should be supported and enabled to re-enter the labour market.”…my own memory of the early 2000’s was that this change of focus, ‘enabling’ workers back to work, while sounding very good, was the start of some very dubious policies and attitudes at ‘The Dole Office’.

        http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/415592/Beneficiaries-worse-off-under-Labour-report-reveals

        That article is from 2008, the same year Labour declined to increase the Accommodation supplement. (And worth a read for a nice quote from Judith Collins, expressing concern over growing beneficiary debt)

        • Jenny Kirk 1.2.1.1

          Yes Siobahn – I agree that to outsiders it might look like not much as changed, but there were huge arguments and discussion within the Party for months while that Policy Platform was formulated – because so many of us were fed-up with the rightwing neo-libs lousy attitude towards people.
          And not all of those people are yet gone from Labour, but they are in a much greater minority than ever before, and “times they are a-changin’ ” . We have a new Leader who is gradually getting those changes happening – I just hope he gets sufficient media space to show he’ll be a good NZ-proud Leader and not just one who talks big, but doesn’t deliver.

      • Depends if the policies are a means or an end.

        If they’re an end, announcing early and having them copied is a good thing, because that means you’ve built consensus around your ideas. This is why the Greens provide a fair amount of their policy ahead of time.

        I understand that at least some in Labour do view their policy as a means to getting elected instead, which I would suggest is the wrong way to go about things, as it betrays a level of insincerity to a party’s politics. We should be electing representatives who have goals they want to meet in office, and whose policies are their best idea for reaching those goals. If they somehow achieve all their goals, that’s a good indication it’s their time to retire.

        Besides, if your friends copy your policy you can say “see, our ideas are so good all our coalition partners already want them too” And if your enemies copy your policies, even better, because you can not only claim your ideas are winners with consensus, you can also attack them for being slow and/or bereft of their own ideas. 😉 Really, having your policies copied is only a loss if you think novel policies are what wins elections, which they clearly aren’t. Don’t get me wrong, policy is important, but only wonks like us vote based off it to any large degree.

        Releasing early does potentially give the other side more time to figure out attack lines, but it also projects confidence in your ideas and a consistent vision, which have been two key areas that voters haven’t felt Labour has done well in. The other flipside is that having policies out earlier lets you discuss specifics way earlier and gives the party and the campaign a sense of consistency and vision. Besides, National will just focus-group attack lines on the policies pretty fast anyway, so I don’t think there’s as much advantage to Labour holding their cards close as you seem to imply, and that it is at least a tradeoff, if not an inappropriate strategy for them in this particular election.

        • Craig H 1.2.2.1

          If National implemented the policies in full, sure, but they don’t, they only do the bare minimum, and often not even that.

          • Matthew Whitehead 1.2.2.1.1

            Right, which is an even bigger political win when they’re copying your policy, because they’ve effectively admitted your idea is right, but haven’t taken it far enough to work. It’s much harder to argue against having more of a good thing than to simply insist it won’t work at all.

            Debating whose policies are better works a lot like that old adage about debating idiots on their own terms. Once you’ve conceded the terms of a policy debate to the other side, you’ve already lost.

        • The Chairman 1.2.2.2

          +1, Matthew.

      • The Chairman 1.2.3

        “You cannot expect Labour to announce all its policies yet – because that then gives the govt the ability to say “me too” with its policies.”

        That rationale is illogical.

        The opposition can decide to adopt all or part of Labour’s policy at any given time.

        • Craig H 1.2.3.1

          If National want to keep Labour out by adopting all their policies, so be it, but if they do the bare minimum, or less, that’s annoying, and if they then claim the policies are failures because of that, that could be disastrous for election chances.

          Also, Labour has some potential policies which require government resources to develop, so they can’t exactly release them fully-formed, and need to get elected for those.

          • The Chairman 1.2.3.1.1

            Unable to fully formulate policy outside of Government is extremely problematic for Labour. They lack the trust and confidence required for voters to blindly elect them.

            Vote us into office and we’ll formulate our tax policy once in power won’t resonate well with many voters.

            If National adopt Labour policy and poorly implement it or weaken its effectiveness, it advantages Labour in highlighting their incompetence.

  2. Ethica 2

    This is already happening in NZ as Work and Income centralises its information at its Central Processing Unit in Auckland. Unfortunately, it is full or errors. With Bill English’s Social Investment fund all government agencies are starting to share all information – so Work and Income and IRD are already doing it. Beneficiaries have to consent to such data sharing to get a benefit. What is even more scary is that from next year under Bill’s policy people’s names, addresses and family members’ names and other identifiable personal information will also be shared with more government agencies. NGOs which provide services from the Community Investment fund (our public support money) will have to share the personal data of their clients. There will be a basic consent process but no consent, no public money for the service. So more and more identifiable personal data is going to be being collected and shared across government agencies and NGOs, and available for any spiteful cabinet minister to use against anyone who complains. This is how a government does surveillance on its less powerful citizens.

    • Henry Filth 2.1

      For a look at surveillance, you could do worse than look at China’s “Social Credit” system.

  3. AsleepWhileWalking 3

    Wow, that an impressive stuff up.

    The good news is that NZers have managed to avoid being subjected to this due to the fact they never qualified in the first place, unless of course they were on Invalids Benefit and shifted over to Australia for a better life. (IB now SLP is the only benefit where this is possible, but I hear the assessments are even tougher than they are here). Hope there is still someone left in Australia to assist our expats.

  4. One Anonymous Bloke 4

    *Nom de plume. Literally “name of pen”.

    As for the Centrelink data matching, it’s yet another example of the inevitable consequences of right wing hate speech.

  5. RedBaronCV 5

    I knew it was happening but not so much or so soon. I also understand that they have back loaded details for some birth years. (or is it all?)
    However, we can rest assured it will not flag potential overseas tax haven cheats, tax dodgers except at the very bottom of the pile, dodgy employer tactics or any other right wing policies that cause social distress.

  6. Draco T Bastard 6

    It has caused consternation to many including those most susceptible to pressure. In an ironic and cruel twist Centrelink has been tweeting responses to complaints expressing suicidal thoughts with the number for the Australian Lifeline, a service which recently had its funding cut by the Government.

    Ah, so that would be another RWNJ government that should be charged with murder.

    And somebody embed this:

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/C1XKOLTUQAA19o6.jpg

  7. greywarshark 7

    The tags at the top say it all. It would have been unbelievable once, but the oppression of the people becomes more obvious each year. Australia should be a pariah, but in the generic rich man’s stratosphere (and women’s) there is a conformity of minds and what passes as thinking. And in NZ the spending over Christmas is up. All we need to know or think about.

  8. Henry Filth 8

    Big data meets small minds.

    • greywarshark 8.1

      That’s catchy Henery. What does it mean?

      • Henry Filth 8.1.1

        That the people involved have no idea how to make any positive or creative use of the data that they have, but are determined to tinker with it anyway, irrespective of the results.

        Not unlike the recent letter from Westpac NZ to a customer “Dear Asian”.

        Lots of data. Insufficient imagination to use that data.

  9. dukeofurl 9

    Is it so hard for a proper computer matching to match each 26 week period ( strange as I thought the benefits system was weekly like here) to a weekly pay period ?

    It should be even easier as most on benefits wouldnt getting an income at the same time.
    Sounds like Novapay, someone gets a contract to to a historic check and does it in a shortcut way to comply with the broad terms of the deal knowing they will win out in the end as any settlement is political.
    They recently had a disaster with online submissions for their census, which showed even with a big name like IBM the solution provided was amateurish.

    • Draco T Bastard 9.1

      They recently had a disaster with online submissions for their census, which showed even with a big name like IBM the solution provided was amateurish.

      One of those things that I’ve come to learn over the decades is that big names does not automatically equate to quality. In fact, the bigger the organisation can often equate to worse quality as they cut costs and don’t communicate well across departments.

    • Craig H 9.2

      IRD currently only holds monthly data as that’s how often PAYE returns are filed, so can’t break it down beyond that.

      Dividing by 26 is such a lazy, inaccurate kludge, it could only be invented by an Australian…

  10. nzsage 10

    It was an $880K “impulse buy”…the sort of thing we all do, right?

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