HECKLER

<i>Illustration: Simon Letch</i>

Illustration: Simon Letch

A RECENT survey reported in the Herald found that the federal government, through its agency Centrelink, was ''preoccupied with finding people who are receiving assistance for which they do not qualify''. And it does so through an elaborate data-matching program which cross-checks income and personal details held by a number of government agencies, chief of which is the Australian Taxation Office.

Centrelink is not without clout, holding the power to stop pension payments and welfare benefits whenever it wishes. When it joins forces with the ATO, an arm of government which is a law unto itself, a powerful coalition is forged capable of striking fear into the hearts of the hardiest of welfare bandits. Fair enough.

I just wish they would pick on someone their own size.

And certainly not on a 90-year-old pensioner friend of mine, in the terminal stages of dementia who, a few weeks ago, received a letter from Centrelink, threatening to stop her pension.

It seems that when the Centrelink computer was talking to its ATO counterpart, they stumbled across two tax file numbers in my friend's name, which didn't compute. She has paid no tax nor filed a tax return since she first went on the pension some 30 years ago. How she ended up with two tax file numbers defies comprehension. It certainly mystified Centrelink, whose knee-jerk response was to demand more information. If this was not provided, her pension would be stopped. The irony of this demand coming on stationery headed ''Department of Human Services'' did not escape me. Just as well there was not an ''e'' tacked on to ''Human''.

In the seven years I have been, in Centrelink jargon, my friend's ''nominated person'', I have provided reams of paperwork about her to various government agencies which now have on their combined computers her complete history. Enough information for them to realise a woman confined for the past seven years to a dementia ward is a most unlikely rorter of the system. But computers, it seems, are infallible although not necessarily intelligent, and the stupid automated response was to send out that threatening letter.

After almost an hour on the phone listening to recorded music, repeated suggestions to go go online and warnings of long delays, I got to speak to a real person, who made no apology for the letter. ''It's the law. We have to give you a warning before we stop the pension.'' ''But why stop the pension?'' ''Because the ATO says there is a wrong tax file number.''

You can't win. This is what happens when the emphasis shifts from providing to policing. Centrelink and the ATO should be ashamed.

Garth Clarke