The Australian government has threatened to jail Centrelink recipients who haven’t reported excessive welfare payments in a move that some commentators have described as ‘appalling’.
“We’ll find you, we’ll track you down and you will have to repay those debts and you may end up in prison.” Human services minister Alan Tudge said in an appearance on A Current Affair.
The statement comes after a mass mail & audit campaign by the Australian police and Centrelink that targeted ‘high-risk’ areas where recipients frequently gave false or misleading information, including southern Queensland and the Werribee area of Victoria. Nearly $9 million in over-payments have already been identified in those areas.
These actions have drawn criticism from a number of bodies, including the Australian Council of Social Service.
“It is appalling that the minister for human services is telling people on the lowest incomes three weeks before Christmas that if they have a debt with Centrelink they may go to prison…this is false, highly irresponsible and risks causing a huge amount of unnecessary stress and anxiety amongst people who are already doing it tough.” ACOSS chief executive Cassandra Goldie told the Guardian.
While welfare dependency is frequently used as a punching bag by several different government bodies, a report by the Productivity Commission found that our welfare system is successfully targeting the poorest and that the largest drain on the budget is the aged care pension. Welfare dependency has also fallen substantially since 2001.
In 2015, only a fraction of a percentage of those receiving welfare payments were investigated for fraud, with 29 of 996 cases resulting in charges.