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Robo-debt: Centrelink workers threatened with prosecution as bosses try to stem the leaks

Public servants at Centrelink have been threatened with disciplinary action or even criminal prosecution as their bosses at the welfare agency try to stem the flow of internal leaks about the agency's "robo-debt" campaign.

Several workers have gone public about the debt recovery debacle since the controversy emerged last month and now Centrelink's parent department, Human Services, has issued a stark warning to its 36,000 staff about the consequences of leaking.

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Centrelink criticism

The new system that recovers welfare overpayments has raised millions according to the Social Services minister, who has hit back at criticism, saying there have only been a few complaints.

The department, which has gone to extraordinary lengths and expense in the past to track down and crush internal dissent, issued its latest warning on Tuesday after several media stories featuring insider accounts of the data matching program's failings.

The controversial program will not face the scrutiny of the Commonwealth Auditor-General, it was confirmed on Wednesday, with A-G Grant Hehir saying he does not want to double-up on the inquiry underway by the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

But the welfare agency's debt push looks certain to face Parliamentary scrutiny with Labor, the Greens and the Nick Xenophon team looking likely to use their numbers in the Senate to establish an inquiry into the controversial program.

Protesters occupied Human Service's Minister Alan Tudge's electorate office on Wednesday, demanding an end to the data matching program which is soon to  be stepped up and extended to up to millions of pensioners, parents and disabled Australians.

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DHS human resources boss Adrian Hudson wants workers to follow the official "Public Interest Disclosure" protocol which keeps allegations in-house, warning that public servants will not be "protected" if they take their concerns elsewhere.

The main workplace union, the Community and Public Sector Union, says the department is "monstering" its workers in an effort to keep its failing secret.

Mr Hudson told DHS employees in a memo sent on Tuesday that they could be protected, in "limited circumstances", if they made disclosures, under Commonwealth whistleblowers protection legislation, to managers in the department.

"Disclosures made under the public interest disclosure arrangements and leaking are not the same thing," Mr Hudson wrote.

"Outside of the PID [Public Interest Disclosure Act], act an employee who makes a disclosure externally will not be protected and may be committing a criminal offence or be in breach of the [Australian Public Service] Code of Conduct." 

CPSU Deputy National President Lisa Newman said on Wednesday that DHS was simply trying to cover-up the detail of the mess it had made.

"The mess was caused by the poor decisions taken by senior DHS managers and the Government," the union official said.

"DHS staff work hard to help ordinary Australians and are frustrated that the agency has been run into the ground and that service standards are totally unacceptable.  

"DHS management is trying to keep its many problems secret.

"Adrian Hudson could be better spending his time than monstering staff with threats.

"Instead, perhaps he could spend some time listening to their suggestions on how to fix this situation so that people who've done nothing wrong stop being sent debt notices."  

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, whose Human Services Minister Linda Burney is leading the push for a Senate inquiry, described plans to go after age pensioners with the data matching program  as a "disaster"

But Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was dismissive of the inquiry push, saying Centrelink was acting appropriately.

"Centrelink has a responsibility where it identifies the discrepancy between what the recipient has reported and what the employer has reported to seek an explanation and that is being done," the Prime Minister said.

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