/Centrelink – Know your rights!

Centrelink – Know your rights!

Cecilia DiStefano

Most people have a run-in with Australia’s favourite government institution from time to time; every recipient of a Centrelink payment has their own horror story to tell.

I’ve definitely got mine.

Centrelink is infamous for its extremely long queues, in person and over the phone, their constant nagging to know everything about your circumstances whether you’re moving, travelling, from every cent you earn to how much you save and even the value of your assets and everything you own. Anything that is your business is theirs, but if you want your benefits, you’ll have to comply.

So, what should you do when Centrelink completely fucks you over?

If you’ve done nothing wrong and committed no fraud or anything illegal, you fight it.

There are a number of ways you’re able to get support when appealing a decision made by Centrelink. Remember, they’re working for you and without recipients of the dole; they wouldn’t have a job, either.

In my case, it took a countless number of calls to Centrelink, hours waiting on the phone, consecutive days of back and forth trips to uni (during the Winter break) and a great deal of time panicking about this ridiculous fuck up that never should have happened.

Centrelink decided that my circumstances had changed and that I was no longer a full-time student and of course, my payments were cut. When I first received the letter I thought nothing of it, knowing that I am a full time student it would all be corrected when I uploaded my statement of account to the Centrelink website.

If only I had known the stress and anxiety this whole ordeal would cause due to the incompetence of the Centrelink officers who were unable to understand the “complication” of my enrolment.

I am enrolled in a Bachelor of Journalism and a Diploma of Languages, which, surely, isn’t too uncommon. Apparently attributing two subjects towards journalism and two subjects towards my diploma (despite equating an EFTSL of 0.5) is not a full time load by Centrelink’s standards.

I received yet another letter with the subject line “overpayment.”    My stomach was in my throat as the letter demanded that I pay back the entire sum of my Youth Allowance payments from the last semester. The total debt incurred was about $2,500. WHAT?

I remained optimistic, though. After a 2.5 hour wait at the Centrelink branch I presented the proof to the officer that I was in fact enrolled full time and that my credit points are equal to a full time study. The response was that my statement of account was not good enough and that I needed a letter from La Trobe’s admin.

Feeling a little flustered from such a wasted day, I was still in good spirits, knowing that the letter would surely waive the debt.

I was wrong about that, too. I was instructed to upload the letter and call Centrelink to confirm my full-time enrolment. In doing so, I spoke to the most inept officer I ever had the misfortune of dealing with. This staff member seemed to have a script in front of her, she did not listen to me when I tried to explain that a Diploma of Languages isn’t a separate degree, she flatly said “No journalism and Italian are entirely different, honey. Call the debt hotline and sort out a payment plan. I’m also going to cancel your payments and make you re-apply for Youth Allowance.” Needless to say I grit my teeth throughout the duration of the phone call.

I was infuriated, livid. I did not want my long awaited Winter break to begin this way nor did I have the patience to deal with such obnoxious Centrelink employees. At this point, I felt as though I had wasted so much time and energy in trying to get out of the debt I was wrongfully burdened with that I thought to myself, maybe I should just pay it.

I looked at my savings account and cringed at the mighty chunk the $2,500 repayment would take out of my wallet. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that what Centrelink was doing to me simply wasn’t right.

After a few Google searches, I quickly discovered that our La Trobe Student Union could help me. I consulted with the on-campus lawyer, Chelsea, who was more than happy to give some fantastic advice.

Firstly, if you know you’re not in the wrong; don’t pay them a single cent. It’s a waste of time chatting on the phone to clerks from the debt hotline and creates further hassle, should you win the appeal and need to organise to have the repayments credited back to you.

Now, I was very lucky to have Chelsea know exactly which direction to point me in. She showed me how to lodge an appeal to an Authorised Review Officer (ARO), using a factsheet you can easily download from the National Welfare Rights Network.

The guide is extremely helpful and very reassuring and I highly recommend reading it if you’re looking for a step-by-step guide in appealing.

You may appeal over the phone or in person, but the guide suggests appealing in writing. It lists everything that you need to include in your letter and what to expect during the review process.

In my case, a senior ARO called me the next day to sort out what was going on. The phone call was very short, it went something like this:

“So what’s your study load like again?”

“I am studying two subjects towards my Bachelor of Journalism and two subjects towards my Diploma of Languages,” to which he replied:

“That’s definitely a full time study load; I don’t know why they made such a mistake. I’ll fix it up for you right away.”

And just like that, my last two fortnights of missed payments were credited back to me, my Youth Allowance was restored and the debt wiped.

If you’re not happy with the ARO’s decision, you may take it further by appealing to institutions independent of Centrelink, but most of the time, the ARO will comply with your request.

Centrelink always seems to be “out to get you,” forever finding any (usually false) means to cutting off payments or perhaps they like to make our lives difficult just for the hell of it.

Despite doing everything by the book such as studying a full time load, getting great grades, balancing a casual job and other extra-curricular activities, Centrelink reception still deems it acceptable to wield this unfair, sub-human treatment upon us.

Do remember that there is always help available.

Make use of your union and don’t be afraid to exercise your right to appeal; it is illegal for Centrelink to discriminate against those who do choose to appeal a decision and it is completely free.

Do not let the system take advantage of you; instead, make use of the power of appealing any decision that is incorrect or unfair. Explore every avenue to fight the oppression of this government and most importantly: know your rights.

 

Cecilia DiStefano is a third year journalism and Italian student of La Trobe University. Find her on twitter @cecilc0re.