Centrelink's robo-debt crisis: Who is Hank Jongen?

Newsflash everybody: Hank Jongen is not the boss of Centrelink.

And the public servant who has acted as front man for the "robo-debt" crisis engulfing the nation's welfare system is not in charge of the Centrelink's giant parent department, Human Services, either.

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Defending Centrelink

The head of the Department of Human Services has fronted a Senate hearing defending the online debt recovery system that has seen people pay what they don't owe.

Yes, it's easy to get that impression when Mr Jongen is introduced in a TV or radio interview as "the general manager" of Centrelink or the Department of Human Services.

It makes it look or sound like the person at the top, or close to the top, a real decision maker, is fronting the media to defend those decisions, being accountable.

It's an impression that Mr Jongen and his small army of taxpayer-funded spinners do nothing to correct either.

But Mr Jongen is not an operational or policy decision maker. He is a spin doctor, a comms man, a media spokesman, albeit a highly paid one.


Now, it is true that one of his official titles - Mr Jongen has had many, over the years - is general manager.

But there are more than 30 Department of Human Services bureaucrats sporting the title "general manager".

And, no, none of them are the boss either.

Journalists, TV and radio producers are busy people, if someone says they're the general manager of a government department, it doesn't get checked.

But of course, DHS never explicitly claims that Mr Jongen is running the whole show, just that he is "general manager". Sort of sounds like he's the boss, without actually telling a fib.

Clever eh?

We asked DHS if it had ever corrected the record when media outlets referred to Mr Jongen as the boss of the department, or if it was concerned that the public might be getting the wrong end of the stick.

This was the department's response:

"Mr Jongen is a general manager in the Community Engagement Division, and is the department's official spokesperson.

"He represents the department on this basis."

Now, that might be handy for everyone to know. Just so we're all clear on where we stand.

When Mr Jongen invited members of the public to email him "directly", they were invited, implicitly, to believe they were contacting a decision maker. But they were not.

Mr Jongen has been called many things down through the years. Back in the 1990s, he was variously, "National Manager" of Centrelink, national manager, Communication of Centrelink, Assistant Secretary, information and public relations for the Department of Social Security, or sometimes just plain old and more accurately; "spokesman".

But his job has always been more or less the same.

It can be hard to keep up, but more recently, as in mid-2015, Mr Jongen was the general manager, communication, according to the department's annual report.

A year later, his title was simply "departmental spokesman".

For the record, the real boss is Kathryn Campbell, Secretary of the Department of Human Services.

She has not been interviewed in the media since the robo-debt crisis erupted.

But why would she, when she has a "general manager" to take the fall instead?

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Correction. A previous version of this article referred to Grant Tidswell as being responsible for Centrelink's service delivery. Mr Tidswell is no longer in that role.


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