Centrelink tells receptionist she owes them $65,000

An elderly pensioner has revealed how her life was turned ‘upside down’ after being told she had to pay back Centrelink $65,000 as part of its bungled robodebt scheme.

Rosemary Gay, from Ballarat in Victoria, told the robodebt royal commission in Brisbane on Monday she experienced ‘sheer terror’ after a letter warned she had just two weeks to pay up.

The 76-year-old said the message came on September 29, 2016 and had stated that Centrelink had received information from the ATO about her employment income.

The income referred to in the letter was $17,436 Ms Gay said she made as a part-time receptionist between 1 July 2010 and 30 June 2011, while working at a transport company in Ballarat.

However, Centrelink said the amounts she declared were different from what was actually earned, something Ms Gay said left her in ‘shock’ and ‘surprised’.

‘The data that I provided to them of my earnings would be exactly the same as what would be contained in my group certificate in my tax return at the end of that financial year,’ she said.

Pensioner Rosemary Gay told the robodebt royal commission on Monday that she received a bill from Centrelink demanding she pay back $65,000

After checking the paperwork was the same as what she had reported, Ms Gay thought the matter would be sorted.

‘I presumed that once I’d confirmed that (amount) was in my group certificate, that would be the end,’ she said.

‘That they would correlate that to be the same as what I had reported to them, and expected that would be the end of it.’

Ms Gay had been employed on a permanent, part-time basis at the time and was paid around $22 an hour for 14 hours’ work a week, she said.

However, on October 12, 2016 Ms Gay received a debt notice for $64,998.17, something she said left her in despair.

The mammoth payment, more than three times her annual salary, was due in less than a month, she said.

‘It turned my life upside down. It was just sheer terror that I owed a figure which was just such a huge amount, that I had never earned that much money. How could I owe that much money and I had to come up with it in three or four weeks. It was just sheer terror,’ she said.

‘I just wasn’t able to see the forest for the trees. I wasn’t able to see what I had to do. 

‘All I could see was that I may be faced with selling my home and losing everything that I had worked for in my 70 years and I just saw it all going away instantly.’

'My mental health and physical health, at that stage, were at a very low ebb,' Ms Gay said. Above, queues at Centrelink

 ‘My mental health and physical health, at that stage, were at a very low ebb,’ Ms Gay said. Above, queues at Centrelink

When Ms Gay lodged a dispute with Centrelink, $133 a week began being taken from her pension as a repayment before being lowered to $60 a fortnight.

‘It was a very dark period of time for me and one that is very difficult to re-live. My mental health and physical health, at that stage, were at a very low ebb,’ she said.

However, on December 7 of the same year, Ms Gay said she was sent a letter from Centrelink saying her debt was an error and the correct amount was $120.33.

‘I was shocked and angry to think that they could initially cause such a traumatic experience to everybody accessing support from a pension,’ she said.

‘That they could turn someone’s life upside down and still get it so wrong over and over again.’

The royal commission is aiming to investigate how Australians’ annual tax information was used to determine average fortnightly earnings and automatically establish welfare debts.

The practice was ruled unlawful by the Federal Court in 2019 and is believed to have wrongfully recovered more than $750 million from 381,000 people.

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