Centrelink customers who appeal a debt letter have to learn a form of ‘Centrelink English’ that defies normal communication, a Senate inquiry in Launceston heard on Thursday.
Launceston Community Legal Centre welfare rights advocate Emma Smith told the inquiry to get a manual reassessment of a debt, Centrelink clients had to request “a subject matter expert to give a Multical assessment”.
Issues surrounding low literacy and numeracy skills were a strong focus of submissions from the CLC, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, and the Youth Network of Tasmania.
Youth Network of Tasmania’s Lisa Amerikanos said Centrelink’s focus on technology over face-to-face meetings “presumed a basic level of literacy and communication skills”, as well as a presumption that all young people have access to smartphones and mobile data.
Ms Amerikanos said that “fear plays a large role” in young people not seeking help or more information on a debt letters.
Assumptions over young people’s knowledge of payslips, net versus gross income, tax returns and other financial responsibilities also caused problems, she said.
The Senate heard that young Tasmanians in particular may struggle to gather all paperwork necessary to disprove a debt letter, as many of the state’s casual jobs are seasonal agricultural or hospitality work.
A detailed submission from speech pathologist Cathy Basterfield focused on the need to break down language and access barriers for people with an intellectual or other disability, removing the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.
Ms Basterfield said while most organisations such as Centrelink develop an “in-house shorthand”, negotiating that shorthand leaves many outsiders severely disadvantaged.
The Senate inquiry requested more information on one case reported by the Launceston CLC involving wages being garnished without apparent approval. Senator Murray Watt said the legality of the process was “dubious”.