Heartless Government’s Automated System Threatens to Stop Pension Payments

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Hundreds of pensioners have been left anxious and stressed over the holiday period after receiving letters from Centrelink which threatening to take away their pension payments.

A Centrelink office in Northern New South Wales has confirmed being contacted by several pensioners who reported receiving letters threatening to stop their pension payments unless they provide updated information to superannuation fund, State Super, by 6 January 2021.

Causing stress and panic

There are fears thousands of pensioners may have received the letter, and have not been able to contact State Super because of the Christmas Holiday closures.

State Super usually provides the information required to Centrelink, but did not in these cases which prompted the automated letters being sent out.

Services Australia says no action is required unless pensioners are contacted again in the New Year.

Robodebt replay?

But the scenario is eerily similar to the problems caused by the Federal Government’s illegal Robodebt system, which sent out thousands of letters to Australians claiming that they owed a debt to Centrelink.

The Robodebt issue came to a head in the December/January holiday period in 2017, when Centrelink staff were inundated with requests for help sorting out debt notices, and began tweeting the Lifeline crisis number.

It transpired that tens of thousands of Australians had received notices with inflated debt figures based on incorrect calculations or misinformation within the system. Others, receiving payments such as Youth Allowance and Newstart were asked to verify their income dating back as far as 2010.

In some cases, people were contacted aggressively by debt collection services and Centrelink threatened to deduct money from a recipient’s current salary until the money was paid in full. Added to this, in 2016, the Federal Government introduced legislation banning anyone owing Centrelink money from travelling overseas.

The stress placed on those Australians affected by Robodebt errors was unforgivable, with some even taking their own lives. A lawsuit brought by Victoria Legal Aid in the Federal Court in 2019 determined that the way the system calculated debts was unlawful.

It was eventually fixed, and the Federal Government settled a class action suit in June this year, promising to refund more than $720 million dollars to people who were unlawfully issued with debt notices under Robodebt.

Even so, it would appear that the Government has not learned anything from the disaster that was Robodebt and is still sending automated letters to some of our most vulnerable community members, many of whom have had a tough year, and at a time when services are closing for an annual break.

Digital divide

The stress placed on pensioners is primarily caused by the fact that these systems are largely computerised. Which means a phone call will often direct the caller to a website, where you need to find a phone number.

Many older people are not only tech-illiterate, but don’t own home computers or have internet access, which means they rely on being able to contact an actual human to resolve issues.

Large corporations, banks, and government agencies are increasingly encouraging users to go online, and that’s causing a significant digital divide, leaving many older Australians isolated and somewhat abandoned.

Figures from the 2017 financial year showed that more than 50 million calls to Centrelink were met with a busy signal. Since then, additional call centre staff have been appointed, but the fact is that it is becoming  harder for older Australians to access services if they don’t have the internet or the time to wait on hold.

Older Australians being left behind

In recent years the Federal Government pledged more than $40 million to its “Be Connected” program to help seniors improve their digital skills, specifically  targeting the 49 per cent of Australians over 65 who aren’t engaging with, or familiar with, technology. This is in line with the Government’s plan for every Australian to have a ‘single digital identity’ for accessing government services online by 2025.

But the pace at which older Australians are being asked to adapt and become proficient dealing in an online world is increasingly fast-paced, and advocates for these older generations say that it’s age discrimination, and many older Australians are simply being left behind.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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