Thursday, February 16, 2017
Centrelink no longer requires immediate payment from those sent robo-debt letters
Centrelink’s debt recovery system will no longer demand immediate payment from individuals who believe they have wrongly billed, the government has announced.
The change is one of a number of amendments designed to improve the fairness of the controversial system, which were announced by human services minister, Alan Tudge, on Tuesday night.
The system is facing inquiries by both the commonwealth ombudsman and a Senate committee, prompted by repeated complaints that the system is wrongly issuing debts before putting the onus on the recipient to prove their innocence through a complicated, unfair and at times broken system.
A key criticism is that the system forces individuals, often vulnerable and on low incomes, to begin paying the money back even if they are disputing the debt. That would now change, Tudge said.
“This has been a longstanding practice for successive governments, whereby – and not just for this online compliance system, but for all debt which is owed to the government – that as soon as a debt notice is issued you have to enter into a repayment schedule,” Tudge told the ABC.
“I’ve recently made the decision to say that, well, if you ask for a review then you don’t have to enter into a repayment schedule. It’s only after the review is completed and you still owe the debt that you’ll have to enter into that repayment schedule.”
Tudge has previously defended the system as fair and working as intended. He said the government would also attempt to make it easier for individuals to get in contact with Centrelink once they received the initial letter generated by the automated debt recovery system, which notifies them that a discrepancy has been detected between income reported to Centrelink and income reported to the tax office.
People targeted by the debt recovery system have complained of being unable to reach Centrelink through its overloaded phone system to dispute discrepancies within the required 21-day window. That has led to many being landed with inaccurate debts.
Users would reportedly no longer need to use the troubled MyGov portal to confirm their income details with Centrelink, but instead would be able to log on directly to the online service that allows them to check and confirm their income details. Bank statements can also now be used to prove income, reducing the onerous requirement on welfare recipients to retrieve years-old payslips from past employers.
The government estimates 75% of welfare recipients would be able to access bank statements online. A new website upgrade also included “simpler language and better screen flow”, the government said.
It’s the second round of changes the government has announced to the system since problems began to emerge in early December. Last month, Tudge announced the system would take further steps to ensure that initial letters generated by the debt recovery system were being received. He said registered post would be used, as would more current addresses from the electoral roll. That sought to prevent debts being raised automatically against people who had not received Centrelink’s initial letter.
Tudge said he had always said the system would be constantly refined.
“I’ve always said all along that we’ll constantly make refinements to the system so that we can be reasonable to the Centrelink recipients, but also fair and reasonable for the taxpayer who’s paying for it,” he said on Tuesday.
Tudge defended Centrelink’s phone system, which has previously been found to have let a quarter of all calls go unanswered. The minister said he had been calling Centrelink’s phone line personally to check wait times. He said he had never had to wait to get through.
“I have been calling it almost every day myself to check on this, and I have never, ever had to wait,” he said. “Now, I’m not saying that that will be the case for evermore, but it is a very short wait time to be able to get through to somebody for them to give you a bit of reassurance as to what the process is.”
Asylum seekers can come home, Sri Lankan PM says
MALCOLM Turnbull and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have reiterated their joint commitment to combating people smugglers in the Asia-Pacific.
But the Sri Lankan Prime Minister has some frank advice for his citizens in Australia’s offshore detention centres: come home.
Mr Wickremesinghe issued the message while speaking at a joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Canberra this morning.
Brushing off concerns about alleged human rights abuses his citizens may have faced in detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, Mr Wickremesinghe said Sri Lanka was “quite safe” now and they could simply come back.
“They left Sri Lanka illegally, they are welcome to return to Sri Lanka and we won’t prosecute them,” he said.
Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe says asylum seekers will not be prosecuted if they come home. Picture: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas
“They can come back to Sri Lanka and we will have them but remember they broke the law attempting to come to Australia.”
Mr Wickremesinghe said some of the asylum seekers had left Sri Lanka from areas that had never even seen conflict and that many were not Tamils.
He also made it clear the Asia Pacific region should be strongly opposed to illegal immigration.
“We should not make a mess of ourselves like they’ve gone and done in Europe and the Middle East,” Mr Wickremesinghe told reporters.
Today’s meeting at Parliament House celebrated 70 years of diplomatic relations between Australia and Sri Lanka.
Australia and Sri Lanka have celebrated 70 years of diplomatic relations. Picture Gary Ramage
The two leaders signed a memorandum of understanding to continue Australia’s assistance in supporting Sri Lanka with its development goals and another to deepen co-operation between the two countries in sport, including sharing anti-doping technologies.
“We are looking at investments to further develop Sri Lanka, there is no need for people to be coming here,” Mr Wickremesinghe said.
The Sri Lankan Prime Minister also reiterated his criticisms of the former Abbott Government for not being tough enough on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka under his predecessors when asked.
He said there was no long-term damage to the two countries diplomatic relations but Australia should have put more emphasis on the human rights abuses.
High company tax rate holding Australia back
Australia faces a potential investment crunch with Treasury analysis revealing that foreign direct investment has already crashed almost 50 per cent on 2015 levels.
The downward trend is more concerning because it runs against growing global flows; Australia’s share of the $US1.8 trillion ($2.36 trillion) global foreign direct investment pool tumbled from 3.2 per cent in 2011 to 1.3 per cent last year as other countries became relatively more attractive.
Seeking to intensify the urgency of the debate over the government’s corporate tax plan to cut rates to 25 per cent, Scott Morrison told The Weekend Australian the analysis showed that Australia was already on a worrying slide down the world investment rankings, partly because of its high company tax.
A senior government source said that while Australia had weathered the worst of the fall since the end of the mining investment boom, the concern was that it was failing to pick up its share of the investment recovery since the end of the global financial crisis. Of equal concern was that conditions could further deteriorate, with the US, our largest source of investment, headed for a company tax rate of 15 per cent — half Australia’s — which could cause a flight of capital back to the US.
According to the Treasury analysis, foreign direct investment had begun falling even during the mining construction boom — by an estimated 15 per cent from 2006 to 2015 — but the downward trajectory had since steepened despite global direct investment flows increasing 25 per cent since the end of the GFC and 38 per cent year-on-year in 2015.
“Between 2011 and 2015 Australia was the 10th largest destination for investment, but has fallen to 18th in 2015,” the Treasurer said.
Mr Morrison made a direct link between the falling level of foreign direct investment and Australia’s company tax rate, which had failed to keep pace with the lower tax environments being pursued by other OECD countries.
He seized on a speech by Reserve Bank governor Phillip Lowe on Thursday in which he implicitly rejected Labor’s claim that the budget could not afford corporate tax cuts. Mr Lowe argued Australia needed to respond to lowering tax rates among competitor nations.
“The independent RBA has made it clear that Australia must have a competitive business tax rate,” Mr Morrison said.
“We need to be internationally competitive to attract investment, to encourage business to set up or expand their operations in Australia, to hire more and to buy more machines and equipment that boost our economy.
“Fifteen years ago we had the ninth lowest business tax rate among advanced economies. Today just five of the 35 OECD nations have a business tax rate higher than Australia’s.
“With the largest source of investment coming from the US, our tax rates must remain competitive because our attractiveness as a place to invest may be impacted by a reduction in the US corporate tax rate that might reduce outward investment from the US and divert investment away from Australia to the US.”
Mr Morrison said that while indirect foreign investment remained healthy, direct investment, such as foreign companies setting up Australian operations or expanding existing ones, was in a worryingly decline.
“The RBA governor makes it clear that our tax system is becoming uncompetitive and that we risk becoming stranded internationally and constrained in our efforts to increase investment in jobs and wages.
“Governor Lowe has sounded an independent warning that Australia is falling further behind our international competitors in being able to attract the critical investment we need to grow Australian jobs and lift wages.”
In 2015, global foreign direct investment flows jumped 38 per cent to an estimated US$1.8 trillion, their highest level since the GFC, but in Australia the same year the flow fell 44 per cent.
Even during Australia’s mining construction boom the flow of foreign direct investment fell 15.4 per cent from $US26.3 billion in 2006 to $US22.3bn in 2015. Mr Morrison cited the International Monetary Fund’s recent claim that foreign investment increased 4.4 per cent for every percentage point cut in the business tax rate.
It suggested a 10 per cent increase in foreign direct investment over the period 2010 to 2020 would increase real GDP by 1.2 per cent.
In his speech to the A50 Australian Economic Forum, his first for the year, Mr Lowe said Australia was built on the free flow of capital. “For more than two centuries now, capital from the rest of the world has helped build our country,’’ he said. “If we had had to rely on just our own resources, we would not be enjoying the prosperity that we do today.”
Labor infrastructure spokesman Anthony Albanese yesterday dismissed Mr Lowe’s assessment that company tax cuts were needed, instead citing the Reserve Bank chief’s calls for more infrastructure investment.
“Given the need to fund education and healthcare, given the need to provide support for the economy, what the government shouldn’t be doing is pursuing the $50bn of cuts, most of which, as a result of the structure of their proposal, will go to the very large corporations,” Mr Albanese said.
“Philip Lowe has repeated the comments that he has made, and that were made by his predecessor Glenn Stevens, that what Australia needs is a significant increase in infrastructure investment. He correctly has identified the fact that borrowing can be made and funds made available at a very cheap rate at the moment because of the record low interest rate environment.”
Scared Melbourne residents want new ‘vigilante’ group
Cops are useless
A MELBOURNE man is starting a vigilante group to “take back our streets” from ethnic street gangs that are terrorising locals.
Hayden Bradford believes police and the justice system are not to doing enough to protect Victorians and has started recruiting potential members for the group.
Some of the recruits are so desperate for action they have already pledged thousands of dollars to finance the group, which Mr Bradford hopes will be patrolling streets soon.
He told news.com.au the first meeting could take place within days. “I think it’s getting to that stage people are just sort of saying ‘if we have to take back our streets then fine — we’ll do it our way’.”
Mr Bradford said there was “no doubt” there was some strong right-wing views in the community, but what he was proposing didn’t involve any law-breaking or taking the law into their own hands. “That’s not what we’re about. What we’re saying is put a presence there because the gutless bastards won’t do anything if there’s a presence.”
The ‘people power’ illustrates the dramatic escalation in the tension and fear that exists in some sections of the community in the Victorian capital. Youth gangs, including notorious Apex, have been unleashing mayhem on city streets for months including bashings, home invasions and carjackings.
Anxiety over the rising crime rate — and perceived disconnect between authorities and citizens — was most evident after six people were killed when a man on bail allegedly mowed them down in Bourke St Mall.
At the weekend dozens of Sudanese youths rampaged through a family festival, punching and kicking people and stealing their belongings.
One mum told The Herald Sun the gang was intimidating. “They have no fear. There’s a police station right next door, but it doesn’t seem to deter them,” she said. “Once the fireworks started it was like the Running of the Bulls.”
Mr Bradford, whose occupation is investing and writing, said: “It started as the odd home invasion, or carjacking ... But what we are seeing now has gone past that. We have gangs of these people [taking part in] planned attacks. They deliberately target people and want to cause mayhem and hurt people.”
Since he put the call out through social media for a “vigilante group” he had been contacted by dozens of people who either want to take part or finance it. Mr Bradford said about $10,000 had been promised so far. The money raised would help expenses like petrol volunteers would use.
“A number of people have actually said to me there were already vigilante groups operating in their suburbs. So they are there, despite what the Andrews Government might say.”
Recent promises of boosting the number of police were a long-term fix — but locals were desperate for action now. “This is why people have these vigilante groups patrolling their areas because there isn’t enough police.” It was something he never thought could happen in Melbourne. “People are fed up, they realise something has to be done.”
The people who wanted to join his group were a cross-section of society. “They’re from all walks of life and various backgrounds. The thing you have in Melbourne [now] is people are scared and frightened for their security.’
Asked about the nature of what he was proposing, Mr Bradford said they were not encouraging illegal activity.
“Vigilante is an American term where you think of people walking around with shotguns shooting people. Nothing I fund would do anything illegal. Someone suggested there was a peace through presence, just being there could hopefully mean these gutless little sh*ts wouldn’t do anything if they see a couple of blokes sitting in a car. They won't go anywhere near homes because they are gutless.”
He said his group would be “more like Neighbourhood Watch where people go to designated areas”.
It isn’t the first time vigilante-style groups have been suggested in Melbourne. In July last year the Police Association secretary Ron Iddles told The Herald Sun he feared frustrated residents could take “matters into their own hands” after a resident patrol group began.
“I don’t call them vigilantes, but concerned residents who patrol and report to the police,” he said. “Police stations are operating at a reduced capacity and they can’t respond, it’s putting members under stress,” Mr Iddles said.
Also last year, the Soldiers of Odin — an offshoot of a far-right Finnish group — confirmed they hold nightly patrols in the CBD and outer suburbs. They wear black jackets emblazoned with a Norse war helmet and an Australian flag and appear to operate similarly to the Guardian Angels network, founded in New York City in the late 1970s, to patrol the subway system.
“Today our citizens are at fear when they leave there (sic) home, some don’t even feel safe there,” the group says on its Facebook page. “We will not look away, we will not turn a blind eye.”
They say they are against racism and Nazism, and don’t support anti-semitism.
But they also say they’re against Islam. Their Facebook page says they are against “the fact it is okay to be” proud to be black, Asian, homosexual or transgender.
Mr Bradford said he’d been told the Melbourne division wanted to meet him, which he was happy to do. “I’m open to meet with anyone and will be ... The point is we have got to do something.”
His feedback from people was a growing frustration about the “way the law works in Melbourne.
“ ... The police can arrest a gang member for a crime, but the court system releases the punk on bail to reoffend. The state Government of Victoria does nothing except to ask for a report. We’re sick of reports, we want action now.”
He said he had written to the Victorian Police Minister Lisa Neville and Premier Daniel Andrews, but no one was prepared to meet with him to discuss his concerns.
A Victoria Police spokeswoman told news.com.au said private ‘vigilante’ groups were not encouraged. “We do not recommend people confront offenders as this places you at risk of harm. Police have extensive training which equips them with the skills and resources needed to respond to safety issues.”
The spokeswoman said people should ring triple-0 if they were in danger or witnessed a crime. [And be ignored]
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