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“Shocked, bullied and panicked” … that’s how Hobart octogenarian Jan* felt upon opening a letter from Centrelink demanding she supply financial records dating back an eye-popping 17 years.

“I’m just so stressed, I don’t understand why they’re doing this. The pension is the only income we have,” another 83-year-old woman told my office just last week after also receiving an automated missive from the same agency. Both she and her husband suffer serious health conditions, her husband needing assistance to even breathe.

Then there’s the case of an 80-year-old man with advanced dementia living in a nursing home whose pension was cancelled because he didn’t provide requested documentation. A recent Administrative Appeals Tribunal ruling slammed Centrelink’s actions as “absurd and wrong”.

Confirming the Federal Government has learned nothing from the Robodebt debacle, Centrelink’s computer system has again gone rogue. But rather than generating bogus debts for hundreds of thousands of Australians, this time it’s terrorising Age Pensioners.

When it should be focusing on recouping billions of dollars in JobKeeper payments pocketed by profitable businesses during the pandemic, the Government instead has older Australians in its sights in a cruel and mindless attempt to claw back money. It’s doing this by firing off automated income reviews in a barely comprehensible form, urging swift action to ensure Age Pension payments are not cut off.

Retired teacher Jan, 82, contacted my office after receiving such a letter. Under the relatively innocuous heading of “request for information”, it called for evidence of income from 2003 through to 2021. Although my electorate office attracts a steady stream of complaints about communicating with Centrelink, Jan’s case was among the worst examples I’ve seen.

Justifiably outraged, she decided to speak out. “I was pretty taken aback,” Jan said of her experience. “It was a three-page letter demanding 17 years of records for one type of annuity payment I receive. I guess there was panic … 17 years, cripes, how could I do that? And then there was worry, with Robodebt in mind, did they think I’d defrauded them somehow?”

Fortunately, Jan had the wherewithal to get the onerous task done – but not without recruiting the help of a financial planner. Her reply spanned 51 pages, which she dutifully delivered by hand to her local Centrelink office. Many others, I fear, may not be so lucky. The result? Jan had been overpaid $122, a debt she swiftly cleared. It’s hard to argue a trifling sum warranted such a disproportionately heavy-handed approach.

I first raised my concerns on this issue with the Government more than a year ago and again this week (December 1) in Federal Parliament. The explanation given by the Department and Minister is that these reviews protect Age Pensioners from debt. What utter nonsense! What they really do is create more work for already over-burdened and under-resourced Centrelink staff, and force older and vulnerable Australians to jump through unnecessary hoops.

Why is Centrelink continuing to rely on an automated data-matching system that’s so clearly flawed? I believe the solution is to better resource the agency, which must surely be labouring under a mountain of work created in large part by the pandemic.

Yes, that would require more staff and better training. Yes, that would require more face-to-face services and better ways of communicating with people. But that’s exactly what’s required to ensure older Australians are treated fairly. These are good people who have always paid their bills on time, paid their taxes and done what they can to be good citizens, so receiving a letter from a Federal Government agency suggesting otherwise is obviously deeply distressing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for making sure people are being paid the right amount. But surely there should at least be some human oversight before computers fire off page after page of perplexing paperwork. The system is currently designed on the basis that everyone who accesses a pension is trying to cheat the system, but in my experience it’s quite the opposite. It’s about time we showed our elders a little more respect.

*In the interests of privacy, Jan asked to be identified by her first name only.

This opinion piece was published in the Mercury newspaper on 6 December 2021