Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services

Transcript: Doorstop, Thursday, 31 December 2020

31 December 2020

The Hon Stuart Robert MP

Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services
E&OE

Topics: welfare system abuse, support available through Australia’s welfare system.

MINISTER ROBERT:

As the Federal Government has delivered unprecedented levels of economic support during some very, very difficult times this year, we've also delivered an unprecedented level of compliance and anti-fraud activity. This has lead, in the last 18 months, to over almost 650 matters being referred to the Commonwealth prosecutor. And in the last few months almost 200 matters alone have been referred. The simple message to Australians, is if you seek to defraud on welfare, you'll be caught. We want to ensure the right amount of money is getting to the right people in the right way. We want to take care of vulnerable Australians. And to do that, we cannot allow criminal syndicates, gangs and others to seek to take away money from those who need it. If you're to defraud the Commonwealth, we'll catch you, and we will prosecute you

QUESTION: [Inaudible]

MINISTER ROBERT:

As we come to the end of the financial year, the government will continue to balance livelihoods and lives as we've been doing all year. A number of economic payments will continue to be in place in terms of JobKeeper and JobSeeker we intend to balance, not just provision of welfare support, but also get the balance right between encouraging people into jobs. And that's why JobSeeker and JobKeeper continue, all be it at a tapered level through to the 31st of March, 2021, to ensure we can get that balance right between encouraging people back into work and providing the necessary welfare supports and the government will have more to add to that, in the new year. As we come into the new year, there's a lot of things we need to balance. But primary of those is getting Australians into jobs. It is fundamental through our JobTrainer programme, our JobMaker program, in terms of our building program to increase construction, but jobs becomes a key focus for the government. We’ll continue to manage livelihoods, we'll continue to manage lives, but creating jobs will be a core focus area for the government.

QUESTION:

Yeah, thanks Minister for your time. On these welfare fraudsters, you’ve managed to catch them out after the fact, are there holes in our system that allows them to embark on this kind of crime in the first place? That is my first question.

MINISTER ROBERT:

In terms of our welfare system we're paying almost $210 billion, not just in welfare but of course across Medicare payments, pharmaceutical benefits and other areas and there are enormous checks and balances in place, but criminal syndicates are sophisticated and individual criminals are sophisticated and unfortunately a few always get through, in terms of initially seeking to defraud and that's where operation integrity plays a key role in terms of following up in terms of compliance and ensuring those that perpetrate crimes are caught.

QUESTION:

So you’ve caught these after the fact, have you been able to stop a number of others from actually getting those payments into their accounts before the fact?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Oh there's an enormous amount of checks and balances are going to place in terms of payments being suspended, if we believe that people aren't seeking to claim in the right way. And then we do further checks to ensure the right people are checking or are getting the payments that they need to get. So an enormous amount is done prior to people getting the right payment to ensure they are who they are. It's one of the reasons why we released digital identity into myGov a number of weeks ago.

QUESTION:

A second question, can you just detail one of the worst cases of that have been uncovered?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, we've recovered $13 million in the last 18 months. An example would be $18,000 from an individual who was using multiple myGov accounts, over 30, to seek to defraud, and people using multiple identities. That's probably one of the more nasty ones. We're also starting to see criminal syndicates and criminal gangs, seeking to defraud the Commonwealth using fairly sophisticated techniques. It's why Operation Integrity within Services Australia is now partnering with state and federal law enforcement agencies, with the serious crime areas within the Australian Taxation Office and embedding AFP officers within Operation Integrity, so we can clamp down on all areas not just individuals doing the wrong thing, but serious criminal organisations who are seeking to defraud the Commonwealth.

QUESTION:

What sort of jail time are these people facing?

MINISTER ROBERT:

We'll leave that to police and courts, but it can be substantial.

QUESTION:

One last question, the Government is under pressure to review JobSeeker and the early access to superannuation, do you believe the base rate of JobSeeker should be increased, what is your personal opinion on that?

MINISTER ROBERT:

We will make further announcements in the new year as to where any and all of those payments are heading.

QUESTION:

Thank you Minister, can you tell us a little bit about the victims in these welfare fraud, how vulnerable are they? Are they the elderly or with a disability? Can you just tell me about how vulnerable they are?

MINISTER ROBERT:

In the last 18 months, there has been about 350 victims. And when it comes to welfare fraud, victims for the most part are vulnerable that's why they're on payments in the first place and it varies right across the spectrum. We encourage anyone who believes they've been a victim of a fraud, just Google the Centrelink fraud line and get in contact with the department. We'll connect you through to IDCare, and we'll work with you to seek to re-establish your identity, if needed. It's also one of the reasons we have established the Digital Identity programme, which is now in place in myGov for Australians to get the most secure form of identity possible to connect on online channels and I’d encourage all Australians to create their myGovID, their digital identity, to help secure their identity on online, and when receiving online payments.

QUESTION:

My second questions [Inaudible]… compared to the $1.2 billion the government had to pay out in the Robodebt debacle, what do you have to say to that?

MINISTER ROBERT

The government has made it very clear that for almost three decades, successive governments going back right back to the 90s, have used average income data from the ATO to assess whether someone had eligibility for a payment. It's this government that has determined that that is no longer sufficient, that's been stopped. Those people since 2015 who have been impacted who've been repaid. And the government is now ensuring that any debt raised is done so sufficiently. At the same, time we're now using single touch payroll data to ensure that people don't get debt in the first time. If you go to your myGov account, you'll see that any debt you may have is been very transparently provided to you so you can see the quantum of the debt and how it was raised, and we want to continue that transparency of raising debt so all Australians know how it's occurred. But importantly, we want to use single touch payroll data more effectively, so Australians don't get a debt in the first place.

QUESTION:

Do you refer to the Robodebt debacle as welfare fraud?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The issue of Robodebt is an issue of the use of ATO average income data. It's a programme and a process that have been going for 30 years, an established part of how government raised debts. It's this government that has determined that it's no longer sufficient, so that, that process that had been used for three decades is now being stopped.

QUESTION:

Just further on that topic, do you concede that, as previous question asked, $13 million recovered and you had the $1.2 billion settlement, do you concede that welfare fraud isn’t a widespread issue and majority of people who are receiving welfare payments are doing the right thing and secondly, is the announcement of these recoveries of fraud, is announcement intended to distract from the $100 a week cut from JobSeeker or other payments?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I think it is important we understand that the vast majority of Australians do the right thing and I mean the vast majority. The vast majority of Australians are decent, hardworking, love their families and do the right thing. The vast majority of Australians understand that that money is paid to them in terms of welfare support come from their neighbors, they come from the lady across the street. They come from the taxes paid by hardworking Australians. When it comes to fraud we're only talking about a very small percentage of Australians who do the wrong thing. And I'll say to that very tiny percentage of Australians, if you do the wrong thing you'll be caught. It's not worth it. I say to the criminal syndicates who think that defrauding in the Commonwealth is an easy way to raise money, you will be caught. The vast majority of Australians are doing a cracker of a job, and I really want to thank them for what they've done it's been a difficult year, but we'll continue to crack down on that small amount of fraud to preserve the integrity of our welfare system.

QUESTION:

Given the unemployment rate is expected to peak in March, obviously [inaudible]… trying their absolute hardest to get a job and won’t be able to, given that modelling the ANU indicates the coronavirus supplement reduction is going push 330,000 people into poverty, how comfortable are you with those… [inaudible]?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, the government has continued to make decisions about all supplements, as we've gone and as needed. And the government will continue to make those decisions. The current supplements continue to taper down through the 31st of March and government make further decisions and announcements in the new year, as required.

QUESTION:

Sorry, can I just go back to the question, how comfortable are you with those [inaudible]…  may have to choose between putting food on the table or their healthcare?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well the government has continued to make decisions all this year as a situation has evolved and it has been evolving very, very quickly. And we've continued to make the right decisions at the right time. And 2021 will be no different. We'll make the right decisions at the right time, as needed, in a situation that is evolving and changing quite quickly.

QUESTION:

And just quickly, do you have figures for how widespread welfare abuse is and are you going to release that data at some point?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, to give you an idea of well over 1.4 million Australians are on some sort of, of welfare just in JobSeeker alone, let alone in other payments across disability support, carers and pensions, we're only talking the last 18 months about 650 matters that have been referred to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. So that gives you an idea of the, the narrow number of Australians that are involved in fraud, but again why it's important to preserve the integrity of the entire welfare system.

[ENDS]

Page last updated: 31 December 2020