This has been such a disturbing experience.
Recently, I wrote an article critical of Centrelink’s debt collection processes based on my personal experiences. That article is here. It was written with the intention of drawing people’s attention to how impenetrable the debt collection process can be and also, to encourage women to consider fighting against ‘sexually transmitted debt’.
Paul Malone, writing for Canberra Times, has since obtained personal information from my Centrelink file (I’m still not sure how privacy legislation allows this) in order to write an article about my story from the government’s perspective. The article is optimistically titled, “Centrelink is an easy target for complaints but there are two sides to every story”.
It seems the story most neglected is not the helpless ‘client’ of Centrelink, so often powerless in the face of an enormous bureaucratic machine, but the Centrelink machine, itself.
I am incredibly reluctant to go further into my personal details but here we are.
Among the problems I have with Malone’s article:
The agency says Ms Fox’s debt is a Family Tax Benefit (FTB) debt for the 2011-12 financial year which arose after she received more FTB than she was entitled to because she under-estimated her family income for that year.
As I outlined in my article, when your ex does not lodge his tax return for a year in which you received the Family Tax Benefit it seems your family income will be classified ‘under-estimated’, and consequently, you, who filed a tax return may be required to pay the tax benefit back. My article drew attention to the ways in which this can penalise women.
The original debt was raised because she and her ex-partner did not lodge a tax return or confirm their income information for 2011-12.
My tax returns were up to date before I learned of a Centrelink debt and said tax returns noted my new status as a single parent.
Centrelink says that after Ms Fox notified the department that she had separated from her partner, the debt due to her partner’s non-lodgement was cancelled.
This feels somewhat disingenuous to me. The fine was finally cancelled by Centrelink after acknowledging that their previous decision to impose the debt on me had been a mistake. My notes indicate the process I had to go through took more than 12 months. That seems long to me, and arduous (it included insisting upon a review of my case) – it seems worthy of an article, which is why I wrote it.
But Centrelink general manager Hank Jongen says Centrelink made numerous attempts to get in touch with Ms Fox via phone and letter but many of these attempts were left unanswered.
During the process the department and I discovered they had old contact details for me. This has been a common story across many Centrelink debt stories with false debts escalating to debt collectors before people even realise they have a Centrelinke debt.
You would think a combination of my taking a day off work to visit Centrelink and following that, spending hours on the phone with Centrelink, would be evidence of a desire to both understand the debts and to resolve them. That I remain, to this day, confused about elements of both is a sign not of my disengagement but of a very complicated, demoralising and problem-ridden process.
However, I would also like to acknowledge the efforts of a couple of individual Centrelink staff members. Due to an editorial decision about word length their supportive comments were not included in my article. But I would note that they sounded almost as sad about the frustrations I was experiencing with Centrelink as I was, and in the end I couldn’t help but think we were all trapped in a kind of maddening maze.
Thank you, also, to the lawyers who came forward with suggestions after reading my article. All my love to those who work in this system and who wish for the system to work justly.
Something is going very, very wrong in government policy at the moment. But I am filled with hope because it has also brought out some very, very good people.