What is Centrelink for?


Perhaps we’re afraid that we don’t know what Centrelink is for – that, as with a mirage, we’ll look too closely at Centrelink and the reasons for its existence will disappear. That would indeed be a scary outcome. It would require the most radical change in recent history to Australia’s system of social security. 

Fortunately, the reasons for Centrelink’s existence remain solid under scrutiny, although they may also require radical change.

Centrelink is Australia’s main provider of social security. Social security is a way of making sure that every person has a basic standard of living, regardless of their life circumstances. It recognises that people usually find themselves unemployed or not earning enough through no fault of their own – and that, in any event, it is often more effective to support people to live independently, rather than punishing people for not already doing so.  

Importantly, social security is not charity. Charity depends on the generosity of those who have money to spare. Social security does not depend on anyone’s generosity. It is a human right. This is reflected in the specific rights to social security in article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Social security is also essential to the realisation of other human rights, such as the right to an adequate standard of living.

When viewed through a human rights lens, the recent Centrelink debt scandal is not just a question of social policy or economic management. It is more importantly a question of the extent to which Australia is a rights-respecting, democratic society. The Australian Lawyers for Human Rights consider the conduct of Centrelink and of the Minister for Human Services to ‘involve numerous breaches of human rights’. Centrelink workers have condemned Centrelink’s automated debt notices as ‘unfair, unjust and callous’. They are launching six days of industrial action on 13 February in response to various issues, including the automated debt notices

If Australia’s system of social security is to respect human rights, three significant changes must take place.

First, the government and Centrelink must stop treating people who receive social security benefits like or even worse than criminals. They must not be harassed with debt notices or payment cancellations that are habitually wrong, and must not be presumed guilty until they can prove themselves innocent.

Second, the government must restore funding to Centrelink. Social security payments must be raised to a level that guarantees an adequate standard of living. Even the fiscally conservative Business Council of Australia recognises that the jobseeker allowance is too low. But it is not enough for the government to increase payments. Centrelink must also employ enough well-trained staff to ensure that the social security system is accessible to people in need.

Third, governments and the Australian public must face up to the fact that the nature of work is changing. Secure, full-time jobs are becoming less common. As this takes place, the number of people who are unemployed or not earning enough is going to dramatically increase. It is going to become more complex and more expensive just to administer Centrelink’s eligibility tests. It is also going to become increasingly difficult to expect that only a minority of the population should need to access the social security system.

The Australian government needs to not only restore funding to Centrelink, but also to significantly reform Centrelink, so as to guarantee all Australians an adequate standard of living in the decades to come. An attractive option is to replace the current convoluted system of different payment types with a universal basic income (UBI) – that is, ‘an unconditional cash payment to individuals sufficient to meet basic needs’. Trials of a UBI in other countries have generally had positive outcomes.

A UBI has the potential to guarantee all Australians an adequate standard of living, whilst eliminating the waste and unfairness involved in attempting to administer outmoded eligibility tests. It might be just the change that Centrelink needs.

If you have received an automated debt notice from Centrelink, check out this fact sheet for more information. You can seek further help from your local welfare rights centre.


The author, Sean Bowes, is the Human Rights Defender Student Editor for the summer semester 2016/17. He is in his final year of a combined Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws at the University of New South Wales. To read more articles from The Student Voice, click here.



Photo supplied by author.