The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Chris Bowen

Chris Bowen

Minister for Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law

9 June 2009 - 14 September 2010

Transcript of 27/05/2010

Interview with Leon Byner

5AA Adelaide

Thursday, 27 May 2010

SUBJECTS: Strengthening job seeker engagement with Centrelink, Centrelink fraud

LEON BYNER:

Chris, good to have you on the program again.

CHRIS BOWEN:

Good afternoon to you, Leon. Good to talk to you.

BYNER:

Chris, it seems to me that if you don't hire extra staff for Centrelink, it will be very hard to have a timely interview?

BOWEN:

No, Leon, because as you would imagine, last year when we were in the midst of the global financial crisis we were preparing for unemployment in Australia of over eight per cent and unemployment now is heading towards 4.75 per cent. So that obviously takes some of the load off Centrelink and we're using technology a lot better as well. Last year we announced that we'd use the technology of the Internet, voice recognition on the telephone –

BYNER:

Yeah, but you still have to have a face-to-face interview.

BOWEN:

Yes, and this is my point, Leon. The combination of those two things, the reduction of the unemployment rate and using technologies smarter, means we can free up resources for Centrelink staff to be doing more face-to-face interviews with the people we're concerned about in terms of the unemployed and mutual obligation, primarily which are young people and people who have a poor record of compliance with the mutual obligation regime.

BYNER:

Well, if they have a poor record, you dock them, don't you?

BOWEN:

We do, but we need to be talking to them more regularly, and this is an interesting point, Leon, and something I didn't fully appreciate until I became the Minister for Human Services. As you can imagine, I spend a bit of time in Centrelink offices behind the scenes, just watching how they work, and up until now, the interviews have, frankly, been quite a 'tick and flick' type arrangement. They last about a minute and 30 seconds of that is on compliance, so 'what have you been doing to find a job?' and it's frankly limited value.

So we're going to very substantially increase the length of the interviews and get them much more focused on mutual obligation and compliance. What are you doing to find work, tell us what job interviews you've done, and focus on that and checking we're getting the right information. If somebody's doing the right thing and looking for work, then we'll be talking to them about what more we can do to assist them, but if they haven't been doing the right thing we'll be talking to them about lifting their game and being more active in looking for work.

BYNER:

So you're telling the public you have the resources where if they require a face-to-face interview they can get it.

BOWEN:

Absolutely, absolutely, and we'll be requiring more common or more regular face-to-face interviews for this particular group. In some cases, once a fortnight, in some cases it might be once a month, but certainly much more focused than it currently is.

BYNER:

Alright. Now, this is something of more of a question on notice, but a caller rang in today who had a son on the Gold Coast, 16, kid got into trouble, was going to go into detention, so dad went over there and brought him back. That's all been sorted out. He was getting an allowance, but now he's staying with his family and because of what they're earning he can't get any assistance at all.

BOWEN:

Look, I'm happy to take it on notice and obviously everyone's circumstances are different.

We have just changed the Youth Allowance regime quite substantially. That comes into place on the 1 July, which deals with a lot of anomalies that we found in Youth Allowance.

So if your producer's got the details, I'm happy to get them off her after the interview and we can have a look, and it may be affected by the changes that Julia Gillard has taken through on Youth Allowance, but I'll need to have a look at it.

BYNER:

Okay, well Chris, I didn't expect any more than that.

BOWEN:

Sure.

BYNER:

It's good that you offered to do that because that caller was quite concerned about his son.

BOWEN:

I understand.

BYNER:

And I think he's done the right thing and showed some leadership, and hopefully that kid will have a good future and not behind bars.

BOWEN:

Absolutely, and that's what it's all about.

BYNER:

While I've got you there, how much money generally do we recover every year in payments that were wrongly actually paid or shouldn't have been paid? You have a round figure for that?

BOWEN:

Well, it's a very interesting thing, Leon, and we have a number of mechanisms to chase down people who have received payments fraudulently and we do a lot of covert surveillance. So we have private investigators checking on people, particularly in relation to the Disability Support Pension where there are a number of high profile, pretty startling cases of people who have not been doing the right thing. Again, I must stress the majority of people on the DSP do the right thing, that a small minority do the wrong thing.

But we have, interestingly, the Fraud Reporting Line to Centrelink. I'm very pleased with the amount of money we recover through that Fraud Reporting Line. It's in the vicinity of $100 million over a period and it's very, very substantial. So people often ring the Centrelink Fraud Reporting Line and they don't hear anything back and they think, 'Oh, Centrelink haven't done anything about it'. It's not true. We can't get back to the people who make the report and say, 'This is what's happened' because that's a breach of privacy but we do follow it up. Centrelink is very proactive and chases those matters through very assiduously.

So whether it's on the Centrelink website or ringing the Centrelink Fraud Reporting Line, if you know about somebody who is doing the wrong thing by Centrelink, I'd encourage you to let Centrelink know.

BYNER:

Do you use covert surveillance in situations – this is a general question – where there is a question over two parties living under the same roof as to whether or not they are friends or more.

BOWEN:

Covert surveillance isn't always the best way to get to the bottom of that. There is a process which Centrelink goes through. I see this a bit, Leon, and this is often a difficult situation where sometimes people say to Centrelink, 'Look, I'm with my wife or my husband, we live in the same house, but the relationship's broken down and we decided to stay in the house for financial reasons or for the good of the kids, but we're not actually a married couple anymore, we don't share money now.' That obviously puts Centrelink in very a difficult situation trying to work out if somebody just is, frankly, lying to us to get more money or if it's genuine situation and it does happen.

So Centrelink has a range of questions which we ask people in that situation to justify, and Centrelink people come out to the house and assess the situation and make their best judgement. It is a tricky one, because there are people who genuinely are in that situation, but obviously you can't be too careful because you can see situations where people would, frankly, make that up in an attempt to hoodwink Centrelink.

BYNER:

Sure. This is a question that is not a political one because both sides of politics would be faced with this and have been, but it's an interesting one: the platonic or non-platonic nature of a friendship between two people under the same roof who might be eligible for benefits. Why does sleeping with them mean that their rate of money that they get from the taxpayer in support would be different?

BOWEN:

Well, it's a bit more complex than that, Leon, as you can imagine. The test that Centrelink provides or makes people go through is whether it's a relationship, and whether it's platonic or non-platonic is a factor, but it's not the only one. There are plenty of people who are in a loving relationship, but for one reason or another it has become platonic, but that's not the only factor that Centrelink takes into account. There are a range of them.

I have to confess I'm not an expert on exactly everything that Centrelink takes into account, but I know that they take a very nuanced approach and they talk to people about the nature of the relationship and what form it's taking, and make their best assessment based on all the evidence they have before them as to whether it's a genuine one or not.

BYNER:

Alright Chris, thank you for coming on today.