Time for the truth behind Centrelink controversy and Andie Fox

Since my column was published last Sunday, there has been a great deal of comment in the media and in Parliament about Centrelink, the government and my actions.

The following outlines my role.

On Monday February 20, I watched the ABC's Q&A and heard Attorney-General George Brandis say people with Centrelink problems could simply contact the agency and sort them out.

I thought this statement was fantasy. For a few weeks, I'd had in the back of my head the idea that I might write a column on this matter. I noted the disability pensioner's complaint on Q&A; I was aware of ABC 7.30 Report presenter Leigh Sales' Twitter complaint about her difficulty in getting through to Centrelink; and I knew of statements by people who said they were victims of Centrelink's robo-debt recovery operations.

I had also bookmarked blogger Andie Fox's column of February 6, published in Fairfax media outlets, which seemed to me to be the strongest and most detailed account of the problems with the agency.

I contacted Fox and asked if her matter had been sorted out. She responded to several questions and, at the end of our email exchange, she offered me best wishes with the article and said she was glad it was continuing to get attention.


Based on the problems she had encountered, I asked Centreink several questions.

"You will be well aware of the laughter at Senator Brandis' suggestion that people with Centrelink problems can simply contact Centrelink. The Canberra Times recently published an article where a woman tried to do just that.

"I ask: How long does it take, on average, for a telephone caller with a debt query to get through to someone at Centrelink? In recent months, what is the longest time a caller has had to wait?

"Is it true that if a person goes to a Centrelink office, they will be redirected to a terminal and asked to try to solve the problem themselves? What if there is no specific box that relates to the client's complaint?

"Why is a de facto being chased for her partner's debt in the first place? Surely Centrelink should be chasing the man himself? Isn't this a case of gross incompetence on Centrelink's part?

"Is it true that people have a three-minute window when they get to the Centrelink window, as stated by Ms Fox?

"Is anything being done to make Centrelink more responsive to its clients' needs?

"Please do not hide behind the screen of privacy in relation to this matter. You can answer these questions in relation to a general inquiry. Please do not hold up your response because you have a problem with a particular question."

To my surprise, I got answers to my questions in a series of emails from Centrelink and the office of the Minister for Human Services, Alan Tudge. They said Fox's case was not a robo-debt matter.

Her current debt was a family tax benefit debt for 2011-12, which arose after she received more family tax benefit than she was entitled to because she underestimated her family income for that year.

It should be noted here that Fox chose to publish her personal details in her original 1200-word article, saying the debt Centrelink was chasing was her ex-de facto partner's fine for non-lodgement of tax returns.

Taking her at her word, I had put her allegations to Centrelink and wanted to know why it had chased a woman for a debt that was actually owed by her former de facto partner.

Now with their response, I went back to Fox. In a series of emails that followed, she responded that she was very surprised Centrelink was sharing personal information about her case with me and provided more detail to clarify her side of the story.

Some of the political and media comment about the privacy issue in this matter is misinformed.

For example, speaking to a motion she moved in Parliament on Tuesday, shadow minister for human services Linda Burney said Centrelink had leaked Fox's private details, including her relationship status. In fact, Fox revealed her personal relationship status in the article she wrote and submitted for publication.

She complained there was no box in the Centrelink form to explain that "the debt they are chasing is your ex-partner's fine for non-lodgement of tax returns, as was the situation in my case. There is no box in any window to select for explaining that his failure to lodge his tax return in that final year together is why the family tax benefit you claimed and filed a tax return for is now seen by Centrelink as fraud."

She also discussed the problem of documenting that a de facto relationship was truly over.

Fox went to the mass media with her story. She decided to make it a matter for public discussion.

Second, I've been asked what public interest is served by raising this matter.

Centrelink has an obligation to distribute benefits in accordance with its governing legislation and regulations. No more. No less.

There is a public interest in assessing its performance and, in doing so, Centrelink and its staff have a right to a fair hearing.

There is a danger in the populist cries that all government agencies are incompetent; all politicians are in it for what they can get; taxpayers' money is always wasted; etc.

To those who say Centrelink and the government should not have responded to Fox's public account of her situation, or that I should have refused to take note of their response, I ask: do you want journalists to dig for the truth? Or do you simply want social media that panders to your prejudice and ignores many sides of an argument?

I do not know the whole truth of the Andie Fox case.

I have no doubt that many, many people have difficulty in dealing with Centrelink.

I have no doubt that Centrelink makes mistakes.

I do not like robo-debt generated letters.

But I do think Centrelink, the government and all government agencies have the right to respond to allegations made against them.

And I do think responsible media has a duty to publish such responses.