MERRY CHRISTMAS, CHUMPS! Jingle all the way … to Centrelink

This Christmas time, as we face yet another Covid Crisis, please do spare a thought for all the Christians in our Federal Government, writes Irfan Yusuf.

And so it’s Christmas. Time to celebrate peace on earth and spreading mercy unto all. Time to recall the birth of a special baby in a small town called Bethlehem, a town then and even now under foreign occupation. A baby whose mum fled to seek asylum to escape persecution, though without being locked up by “border security” authorities for years on end. A baby whose life story allegedly inspired the values and politics of our current Prime Minister and many in his government.

Australia is, after all, a Christian country, built on a proud Christian heritage. And when we’re feeling a bit ecumenical and feeling the pangs of guilt for centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust, we’ll throw a “Judeo” into the mix.

Some years back, before international pandemics spoiled Christmases, former Treasurer Scott Morrison announced a special plan for improving the Australian economy by tackling the deficit. Morrison boasted about a welfare fraud prevention crackdown worth some $2.1 billion dollars over 4 years. His words dominated headlines, with much made of the move against “welfare fraud”, also known in tabloid speak as “rackets” engaged in by “dole bludgers”.

From memory, this was December 2017. Subsequently a host of Centrelink recipients had their worst nightmares confirmed thanks to an automatically generated letter. How many must have imagined they were being treated as one of Morrison’s welfare cheats being cracked down upon.

Put yourselves in their shows. Imagine if, in early January, you received such a letter from Centrelink along with an SMS message. What would you do? You could ring Centrelink and wait on line for 40 minutes or so. Or you might decide to get independent legal advice. Most solicitors will be on holidays. In fact, most solicitors know very little about the complex area of social security. If you can’t afford a private lawyer (honestly, how many Centrelink recipients can?) you’ll have to wait in line for an appointment with your local Legal Aid office or a welfare rights lawyer (assuming they’re not on vacation).

Should you manage an appointment, you will be told to get together your bank statements, tax papers and other financial information. This should be easy assuming you don’t suffer from a mental illness, physical disability and/or intellectual disability. And/or assuming you yourself aren’t interstate visiting family for the Christmas and New Year period.

Overpayments are often the result of human error on the part of Centrelink staff. Yet this won’t stop Centrelink from deducting from your existing payment, something they can do without informing you. They can also place a 10% fine unless you can establish you had a good excuse.

But that’s not all. If Centrelink believes you have deliberately or recklessly made false statements or not advised Centrelink of your change in circumstances, they might decide to refer your matter to the Commonwealth Department of Prosecutions.  This means that you not only could have your sole source of income radically reduced but could also face the prospect of a full blown criminal prosecution.

And all this thanks to a draconian system of computer-generated comparison and correspondence, put in place by a Commonwealth government which allegedly combines Liberal and Conservative values in the best tradition of Sir Robert Menzies. When it comes to people on Centrelink, traditional values of protecting the rights of individuals and families is thrown out the door for the same of mantras of selective economic rationalism.

Federal MP’s have access to comfortable offices, to staffers and spin doctors and have chauffeurs to drive them around in plush Commonwealth cars. They have the benefit of extensive expense allowances which they don’t mind using and at times abusing.

Both major parties hack into the vulnerable. Labor tends to introduce draconian changes to Centrelink by stealth, without issuing press releases about “dole bludgers” and “Centrelink cheats” for tabloid newspapers whose American owner chooses not to pay tax. Coalition MP’s, on the other hand, scream the belt-tightening message from the rooftops.

Coalition MP’s cherry pick the legacy of Robert Menzies. They wax lyrical about the need for individual rights and liberties to be protected, especially from unions, special interest groups and minorities. It’s true that Menzies spoke of his party as being Liberal in the sense that it believed “in the individual, his rights and his enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea”.

But he also insisted that “the purpose of all measures of social security is not only to provide citizens with some reasonable protection against misfortune but also to reconcile that provision with their proud independence and dignity as democratic citizens. The time has gone when social justice should even appear to take the form of social charity”.

The early days of the pandemic saw hundreds of thousands of Australians suddenly become “dole bludgers”. Long queues outside Centrelink offices were filled with people who’d never claimed a cent off the government.

Menzies recognised that vulnerable individuals deserve dignity. What true Liberal wouldn’t? Perhaps one hoping to join a special Centrelink queue for ex-MPs? If you support the vision of Menzies for a small government that generously supports the vulnerable, you will kick the current lot of pseudo-conservatives out of office at the next election. Isn’t that an awesome new year’s resolution?

About Irfan Yusuf 12 Articles
Irfan Yusuf grew up in Sydney and has worked as a lawyer in NSW, QLD, Victoria, Tasmania and WA. He is an award-winning author and has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Canberra Times, NZ Herald, Crikey and ABC The Drum.

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