Top lawyer accuses Centrelink of running ‘elaborate sham’

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A prominent Victorian barrister has criticised Centrelink’s robo-debt recovery program as an ‘elaborate sham’ and wants to challenge the scheme in the Federal Court.

Gavin Silbert, QC, who retired as the state’s chief crown prosecutor in March, told Fairfax Media that the Department of Human Services had ignored its legal obligations and was acting like a bully towards some of the nation’s most vulnerable people.

Mr Silbert has been providing pro bono advice to a client that he knew, who was asked by Centrelink to repay a debt of $10,230.97, accrued between 2010 and 2013. His repeated requests for explanations on how the debt was calculated have been ignored and his client last week received a letter threatening to impose interest charges on the original debt.

Mr Silbert is keen to launch Federal Court action to test the legal basis of the robo-debt program and the Government’s apparent unwillingness to provide particulars.

“I’m itching to get this before a court,” he told Fairfax Media.

The robo-debt program, introduced by the Coalition government, calculates debt by taking a fortnightly average rather than discovering the exact amount that was claimed.

Department of Human Services general manager Hank Jongen defended the robo-debt recovery scheme and also explained that a review by the Commonwealth Ombudsman had found that the method of calculation complied with all of the relevant legislation.

“Of the thousands of DHS payment cases that go the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), the vast majority of decisions made by the department are affirmed,” Mr Jongen told Fairfax Media.

“When decisions are set aside or varied it’s almost always because new evidence has been provided by the customer or obtained by the department.”

Earlier this year, Professor Terry Carney, a member of the AAT for 40 years, said that robo-debt recovery often involved enforcement of “illegal” debts that were sometimes inflated or non-existent.

Prof Carney explained in an academic paper that the program calculates welfare recipients’ income, and averages it over fortnightly periods rather than discovering their actual income for each and every fortnightly period. The latter, he says, is the proper basis for calculating the debt.

He says when Centrelink asks for payment of alleged debts or evidence to disprove them, “most vulnerable alleged debtors will simply throw up their hands, assume Centrelink knows that there really is a debt, and seek to pay it off as quickly as possible”.

The welfare agency did this even though a report by the Commonwealth Ombudsman in April 2017 “demonstrated that most debts calculated this way were greatly inflated, and that some were false (zero debts)”, he says.

Have you fallen foul of Centrelink’s robo-debt collection scheme? Have you had success with an appeal?

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Written by Ben

125 Comments

Total Comments: 125
  1. 0
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    Mr Jongen is a yes man and what ever he is told goes.

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      Henk mentioned that on the wireless – “I am only a public servant and I have to follow the rules introduced by the current government”. I don’t blame him (would not want his job), gets up people’s noses all the time on one side and on the other you have an administration bent on saving from Centrelink. He simply cannot win a trick.

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      His contracted position – as opposed to former public service tenure and ‘absolute’ “independent” advice to government – is now compromised, and has been since the heady days of Hitler Howard and his changes to senior public service positions to create of them contracted ones, thus suborning their ‘independence’ and making them direct servants of the government of the day.

      It wasn’t only Hitler Howard … Labor had a hand in it to for the same reasons…. basically so as to control the allegedly independent public service directly from Der Fuhrerbunker.

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      Re. “Only a public servant” Yep sure but what does his salary amount to ?? Bet its a lot more than most of us will ever see !!

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    Robo debt? Well which government brought that one in? The same one which lowered the the assets test to a level which would knock out many retirees whilst NEVER comparing our pension system to overseas trading partners, something this lot always do where money for the top end of society is concerned. Tax cuts anyone?

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      Mick you will find your beloved Labor bought in Robo debt. Liberals just fixed it so it did a better job. If people do the right thing then they simply have nothing to worry about so it therefore a great way of making people be more honest.

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      Wrong again OG – the automated debt recovery system is entirely the work of your beloved LNP https://auspublaw.org/2017/03/centrelinks-robodebt-system/

      Read the report and educate yourself so you won’t have to make stuff up to suit your ideology.

    • 0
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      That was my understanding too maelcolium.
      Another advertisement from OG for the boss methinks.

    • 0
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      Mick, agree with you 100%. The LNP almost lost the 2016 election, and you can bet age pensioners and other retirees helped to bring that result about, the main reason being because Abbott and Morrison changed the assets test for which they will never be FORGIVEN OR FORGOTTEN….And you can bet the age pensioners won’t miss this grubby lot at the coming election, when they’ll be routed, and never to be heard of again. And good riddance..

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      OG It’s wrong to assume someone is not honest. I always kept Centrelink uptodate with my mother in law’s bank details. Interest being her only income other than the pension. We were advised that she earned more than allowed (interest?) (6 months prior) and so she must repay a certain amount. We didn’t query it and paid. I wonder if I should have checked their calculations (which weren’t provided). We received a letter saying her pension would be reduced every fortnight (after paying the amount due!). How far behind are they?! How do others cope when budgeting payment to payment?

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      And I do not forget or forgive the ALP (Rudd in particular) for making the missus work another 18 months. He changed the retirement age without talking to anyone; mind you the other mob might have done the same but at least Howard went to an election with the 10%GST proposal. With an offer of work life extension before the election the ALP would never have been elected. The extra 2 years came right out of left field!

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      They run courses on how to rip of Centrelink so no wonder they assume people are not honest.

      Yes Labor changed the age you get the OAP but retirement age is any age.

    • 0
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      OG, who runs these courses, come name names or are you talking about the courses that Centrelink actually run.
      Or is it just another comment plucked out of the air.

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      This is OG’s standard ‘slag off Labor’ comment. Required to pick up his pay cheque from party HQ.
      A pity none of the BS ever makes any sense and not able to be corroborated with facts. Who needs facts when you are trolling though. That takes effort and a leg to stand on. OG has neither.

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      Yes OG. Would love to see who they are where you said “They run courses on how to rip of Centrelink” Where is that info ??

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      Old Geezer it is LNP policy that has millions of workers on casual fortnightly zero hour shifts. If the Government really wants a HR system that crazy and with workers needing government top ups because hours worked are unpredictable then they need a system that works. Just dividing by 26 doesn’t do that. These people would need to pump in figures fortnightly. It’s insane. Just one more failure through looking after bosses and letting worker’s pay the price for it.

      Go back to a 40 hour week with decent conditions and share a bit of the profit with those creating it through their labour.

  3. 0
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    At last.
    How about a royal commission into these guys and the staff.
    The psychological damage they do to people in desperate conditions is something out of a David Copperfield novel.

    • 0
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      Another farce like the Banking RC. No thanks.

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      Another troll comment.
      The banking RC has shown how the average punter is treated by the top end of town. Ripping off customers & clients just for their own greed. Even the dead where subjected to the ongoing greed from the banks.
      The only RC that’s been shown to be a farce was the one into unions that found nothing.
      The banking RC was fervently opposed repeatedly by this greedy government until the Nationals had had enough from the banks & their treatment of farmers etc forced the Liberals into backing down.
      Just remember OG Madam guillotine was used on the the top end of town & their supporters that made the poor poorer & the rich richer.

    • 0
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      OG – so ONLY Royal Commissions into Labor and into unions are allowed? And the abnking RC uncovered nothing?
      Troll comment. YLC needs to remove you from this website.

    • 0
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      Mick etc you can’t honestly say the Banking RC achieved anything other than making it so much harder to get finance resulting in an accelerated tumbling property market. Banks will do nothing different and continue to make mega profits.

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      Nothing wrong with a tumbling property market – it’s been overblown for years now if not decades, ever since the advent of the Mandatory Dual Income Family as the yardstick for economic activity, and has been due for a fall for ages…. those who will suffer are the parasites and vultures who invest in property … cancellation of negative gearing will not affect HOME owners… and if investors then choose to leave their properties lying fallow – it’s their loss…

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      Yes let’s get rid of this negative gearing BS & no grandfathering either. As of today it stops, no compensation, no warnings just, as of today no further negative gearing.
      But it won’t happen as a lot of Pollies use negative gearing & would be out in the cold. So be it.

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      Trebor, I agree that property values have been inflated, but a lot of good, honest battlers will be badly hurt by reduced property values. Consider the outcome if your property value falls to less than the mortgage and you have to sell due to a job transfer, illness or job loss. Think about the strugglers who borrowed heavily to buy a property to secure their future, only to find that when cancellation of negative gearing makes the mortgage unaffordable, they have to sell for way less than they owe on it. Many folk in this situation are far from wealthy. Many I know don’t own homes because they are in the military and forced to move about frequently, so they buy investment properties to secure their eventual retirement. I know a few who bought in Townsville and now struggle to find anyone to pay rent for the property and literally can’t give it away! In your state of envy and resentment, you grossly oversimplify things. Stop the ASS-U-MEs and investigate the circumstances of some who would be cruelly hurt by falls in property values. And consider the potential effect on society. It’s a bit like franking credits. Your envy of those who benefit from them appears to blind you to the true facts.

    • 0
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      OGR – Trebor’s a simpleton. Legend in his own outdoor dunny

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      You could try growing up, Loathie… it is you who are the simpleton – you don’t even know the difference between a budget forecast and cash in the bank (DUHHH) …… but you still crow on….. everyone laughs at you and knows you are full of it, and are nothing but some kid with a big head and nothing inside it.

      Rainey – you are arguing for the old certainties that people used to enjoy – of having a job etc and being in one place to raise a family and create genuine wealth – not just the current nonsense that Loathie tosses about – of some doing it fat while many do it thinner and thinner…

      The boy is simple…

      But back to the subject – you simply cannot guarantee those things any more – and pushing more and more people, via immigration to prop up demand, into a steadily lowering economy for the many will not solve the problem, only make it worse when the collapse comes.

      That ‘worse’ will be in more ways than just loss of property investments….

    • 0
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      We could – and SHOULD go back to those old certainties, Trebor, if we had competent government instead of self-interested egomaniacs who have no idea what real life is like and don’t care (a bit like Lothario, actually, boasting about saving 90% of his salary and then trying to imply that he knows what hardship looks like!)

    • 0
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      Absolutely, another Royal Commission just waiting to happen. Labor keeping quiet?

      Good on the barrister – hope YLC keeps us updated.

    • 0
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      The problem with failing property price is that people don’t feel near as wealthy and the more prices fall the less they will spend. Consumer spending keeps our economy ticking along nicely. If consumers tighten their belts then the economy suffers and we will be quickly in recession.

  4. 0
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    Robo-debt is a disgrace. It makes assumptions and calculations (often based on averages which is different from how the act requires) then asserts you have been overpaid without the detail that needs to be provided and asking you to collect the info to prove you were not overpaid. Previously Centrelink (and before that DSS) had to get that info from employers and financial institutions and actually calculate any debt (or underpayment) based on the information collected. (I worked for DSS/Centrelink for 15 years)

    On top of this the media make the assertion that anyone with a debt has committed fraud, when only a fraction of overpayments are the result of fraudulent intent (e.g. if you get paid arrears in wages that you were owed following a Fair Work investigation, you may well incur a debt).

    Dealing with Centrelink is difficult and confusing for most people and robo-debt makes no allowance for this, instead causing often unnecessary distress.

  5. 0
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    We all know that Centrelink’s robo-debt scheme is a sham, but no one has challenged them,..until now that is…
    But more the shame attaches to this shameful government for authorising it. Neither Turnbull nore Morrison or anyone else have said anything against it…Even Labor stays quiet about it.
    But this Govt will be exposed at last for the mongrels they are, and we will have Mr Silbert QC to thank.

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      It works because the end of the food chain does not have the will or the funds to go to court. If the bastards tried this on with the top end they’d be snowed under with litigation and would remove the behaviour within days.
      I feel sorry for the bottom end of society: raped relentlessly by the top and their governments and given up irish to fight the bastards.

  6. 0
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    Was extreme collateral damage to over 20,000 innocent welfare recipients necessary, just to weed out a handful of mongrels?

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      Agree with your sentiment. They would have known who the crooks were and could have gone after them one at a time. As with all things that requires funding to do and the bastards want to employ nobody so the automated method was developed.
      Perhaps compensation needs to be awarded when the wrong people have been hounded. That would resolve the problem.

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      Totally agree with yo hS AND mICK.

    • 0
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      What damage ?

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      Take of your LNP blindfold Lothario.
      Damage to one’s health due to undue stress & anxiety just as one example, use your brains for once

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      If you didn’t rort the system , why wud you be stressed and anxious ?
      Sounds like a ploy to get more money from taxpayers

    • 0
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      that comment only proves you are a brainless troll for the LNP.

    • 0
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      Correct 1984.

    • 0
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      The worst of it is that they don’t catch the mongrels. The cheats have connections and are savvy to all the legal loopholes. I know one who, despite being perfectly fit and healthy, has been bludging on disability for 40 years. Inherited $1 million recently and stashed it in a foreign bank and is still collecting. Built of lavish waterview mansion and moved a gay lover in on carer benefit, paying rent, and collecting rent assistance. Knows every trick in the book to rort the system and steal. I’ve reported many times, but there’s never even an investigation.

    • 0
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      Hmm – yes.. the ATO is getting on to those who stash cash Offshore… as Loathie knows full well – with his claims (LMAO) of expertise in such matters….

      Amazing story, Rainey – but I believe you. there are some who get away with things that others would not even dream of….

  7. 0
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    how about fighting for the money the government owes carers?? paying us 3.50 an hour to be on the job 24/7 its a scam and down right slavery but no one seems to care for carers

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      Hear, hear… a carer on pension should get a double pension just to cover the costs of transport etc…. one OAP and one Carers …

      At the very least a significant increase in Carer Allowance to cover actual costs….

      I must begin keeping a diary…. and starting a campaign….

      Today:- Trip to Disabled’s art class… spent $3.20 at library to copy medical travel forms …. time spent … two hours driving, three hours waiting and running errands,one hour shopping with her, half hour lunch with her friend = total time minimum of 7.5 hours. Kms traveled 156.

      One full day’s work at CommCar driver rates or taxi…. or chopper pilot rates if you are a Bronnie…. private jet if you are a WA MP ….

      Thursday:- Doctor’s appointments. Start 9.45 am, appointment 11 am, second appointment 2.00pm. Shopping and running around for her in between for family etc. recreation time at a club. Drive home, arrive 5.00 pm. Total time spent 7.25 hours, distance traveled 172 km.

      Another full day’s work……

      Just an example….

    • 0
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      Your choice TREBOR, your responsibility.

  8. 0
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    There is a God

  9. 0
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    Was Robo -dept. ever legal or just a farce introduced by the wost Federal Government in Australian history.Rubbish O.G.you are always wrong at least you are consistent.

  10. 0
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    “…a review by the Commonwealth Ombudsman had found that the method of calculation complied with all of the relevant legislation”. – And in their minds that makes it perfectly ok to totally ignore it alltogether if that ‘method of calculation’ that complied with ‘all the relevant legislation’ causes false debt to be generated and destroys peoples lives. Perfectly fine to totally ignore if that ‘method of calculation and relevant legislation’ sets the public up for false debt.

    This is evidence of how stupid and morally bankrupt people can be. It just proves what social commentators have recently said, that society in general has plummeted into standards of indecency and depravity.

    • 0
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      Where’s a pro bono lawyer when you need one?

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      ‘legislation’? Again that clearly shows that the legislation needs to be changed. Again – it is unconscionable that any person demand money repaid without stating how, when, where and why, and also place the onus of proof on the victim.

      The only avenue in which this can be resolved is a court, which demands evidence in full on money matters.

      Bring on the court case….. as I said – which ever way it goes, it has to be done to clear the air.

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