Did you know?

Our interactions with people who have lived through disasters such as Black Summer, floods and the pandemic have told us that these events can have multiple enduring impacts on people’s lives.

A person’s home may be damaged or destroyed; their job may be affected, or their business closed. They may be concerned about the effects on their loved ones; they may be travel-limited due to road closure or public transport failure; their children’s school may be closed; their neighbour’s house may have been damaged rather than their own. 

In other words, they may be experiencing constant stress, even trauma – and this can lead to a reduced capacity to address Centrelink requirements for a considerable period. 

Mutual obligations suspension

Although the government has the power to suspend mutual obligations unilaterally and temporarily for disaster affected regions, this approach is often limited to an initial exemption of four weeks and restricted to ‘major declared natural disasters’ on a postcode basis. This often excludes people living in adjacent areas, or areas significantly affected by disaster but not included in the declared postcodes, despite being impacted as individuals and as a community. 

If not within the declared zones, individuals must approach Centrelink or their employment service provider, explain the impact of the disaster upon their ability to seek work and seek an individual mutual obligation exemption. The Social Security Guide suggests that if an individual exemption is granted for a natural disaster, a period of two weeks is ‘generally appropriate’.

These short periods of exemptions are inadequate and can contribute to the retraumatising of disaster affected people. Often an entire community is faced with recovering housing, businesses, essential services and infrastructure. This approach of short exemptions requiring multiple extensions places the responsibility on people likely experiencing considerable pressure and exposes them to risk of traumatisation by repeatedly being required to re-tell their story. If they are unable to, they face their income support payments being suspended or cancelled.

Those experiencing vulnerability, trauma, job loss, restricted access to vital support services and a reduced ability to rely on their community, friends and family, shouldn’t have to continuously plead special circumstances and should be granted relief commensurate with the duration of hardship they and their community are facing as a result of disaster.

During 2023 we are working to keep this issue in front of law and policy makers.

Staff profile: Kristen Densley, Community Lawyer

I started with SSRV in February this year as a community lawyer with a focus on family violence. In my role, I assist people with social security issues who have been impacted by family violence. I also work to raise community awareness, and support organisations that work with people affected by family violence. 

Family violence encompasses the physical and the psychological, and is widespread in our community. Many of us have direct experience or know someone who is affected. Despite this, it’s only relatively recently that family violence has begun to receive the attention it deserves. My work is about improving outcomes at the intersection between family violence and social security law and policy. 

With a long history working as a community lawyer in Legal Centre Land, coming to SSRV has felt a bit like returning home. Prior to that I was a policy adviser with the Victorian government working on mental health policy.

After hours, I like to go walking in places with spectacular views (hello New Zealand!) and I am also learning how to sail a dinghy.

Did you know?

In any given year, around a quarter of SSRV’s clients are in dispute with Centrelink about social security overpayments. We now know that a disaster can exacerbate these kinds of disputes.

Max* was in the process of seeking review of an overpayment raised against her by Centrelink seven years ago when she lost her rural property and most of her personal belongings in a bushfire. She was then diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Max told us that her capacity to engage with Centrelink and challenge the debt raised against her had significantly declined since the bushfire and the COVID-19 pandemic. SSRV ultimately persuaded the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) that Max’s debt should be waived. 

According to the Services Australia Annual Report, in financial year 2021/2022 about one in four Centrelink decisions that were reviewed by the AAT were remitted. This means the AAT disagreed with Centrelink and changed the decision upon appeal.  

SSRV’s work in disaster preparedness and response has highlighted the need for Centrelink decision-making to be more considered and trauma informed, especially for people affected by disaster. Improved decision making at the outset will result in less Centrelink recipients having to pursue the process of appeal, to correct a Centrelink decision. SSRV is working to raise this need for change to the attention of legislation and policy makers.  

*Name has been changed

SSRV’s Worker Helpline 

Robert*, a social worker, was working with a client who had come to Australia from Italy eight years ago and who had recently had her Disability Support Pension (DSP) application rejected on the basis that she didn’t meet the residency criteria. 

While Robert had some understanding of the DSP application process, he knew that it was a complicated and nuanced process, and he and his client would benefit from advice from a social security law expert – so he contacted SSRV’s Worker Helpline. 

SSRV’s Worker Helpline operates Monday to Friday, and is staffed by an SSRV lawyer. When Robert rang, the SSRV lawyer explained the 10-year qualifying residency requirement for DSP, how it is calculated and exceptions to the requirement.  They also talked through the appeal process available to Robert’s client.  

Finally, the SSRV lawyer suggested that Robert’s client could contact Centrelink’s International Services line to look at their eligibility under Australia’s international agreement with Italy.  

Following the phone call, the SSRV lawyer emailed Robert information and sections of the Guide to Social Security Law, Centrelink’s policy, to assist him in supporting his client.  

SSRV’s Worker Help Line aims to provide reliable and relevant information and guidance for community workers assisting clients experiencing social security problems. Workers can include social workers, health care workers, community legal centres, and housing organisations, to name a few.

When you call our Worker Helpline, an SSRV lawyer will talk through your client’s Centrelink issue and provide you with information and guidance on possible next steps to take. In some circumstances, we will also talk to you about referring your client for individual legal advice and assistance from us. We can also offer resources or discuss training opportunities for you and your organisation. 

Our Worker Helpline is a valuable, well-utilised resource for workers. In the 2021-22 financial year, SSRV delivered 423 Worker Help Line services to workers from 212 different organisations. Almost a quarter of workers who contacted us were in regional/rural Victoria.  

Some workers have been contacting us for many years, while others are contacting us for the very first time. 

Cathy*, a housing worker, contacted SSRV’s Worker Helpline because her client, Craig*, had a Centrelink debt. Craig couldn’t understand why he had a Centrelink debt and Cathy had tried assisting him in obtaining information by contacting Centrelink with him, but this had been unsuccessful.  

With Craig’s consent, the SSRV lawyer invited a referral and booked a legal advice appointment for Craig. At Craig’s request, Cathy also attended the appointment to support him. After the appointment, the SSRV lawyer assisted Craig by drafting an Authorised Review Officer (ARO) review request (the first stage in the appeal process) for him to lodge with Centrelink.  

Once Craig receives the outcome of the ARO review request, he or Cathy can contact SSRV for further advice or secondary consultation. 

Our Worker Helpline is a Victorian state-wide, free service available Monday – Friday between 9am and 5pm. You can contact us by calling 03 9481 0655. 

*Names have been changed

Social security and gender inequality

At SSRV we see the many ways in which social security law in Australia disproportionately and unfairly affects women. We want to shine a light on this inequality and call on everyone to see the bias and embrace change. So, in what ways does social security law disadvantage women over men? Here’s just two examples. 

Systemic bias to traditional finances  

There is a systemic bias towards traditional family structures in the social security system. A common example SSRV sees is the member of a couple provisions, which result in one partner’s income affecting the other parent’s social security eligibility and payment rate.  

SSRV often sees this situation come up when women are taking on a primary parenting role and are unable to access parenting payment due to their partner’s income.

The partnered income test is based on the assumption that finances are fairly shared, which we know isn’t always the case and is out of step with how modern couples organise their finances.

SSRV is often contacted by women who are seeking access to social security for their financial autonomy, but are unable to due to an inability to avoid the member of a couple provisions.  

Limiting women’s access to social security due to an assumption of shared finances can disempower women and decrease their autonomy, and in many cases fails to recognise the important role of raising children and its impacts on income earning.

Systemic bias to families’ traditional model of care 

Another way the social security system exacerbates inequality is through a bias towards a traditional model of parenting with one parent being the primary carer.  

Take for example Parenting Payment, which can only be paid to one parent (either at a single or a coupled rate). The payment can only be paid to the primary carer of the child, and in cases where both parents are in need and have 50/50 care, Centrelink must make an assessment of the party in greater need. 

This means many women with genuine equal responsibility for a child miss out on receiving payments, and many have told us that, as a result, they have been unable to afford medicine or foods for their children.  

Embrace Equality 

It’s the insidious nature of gender inequality that its causes are not always clear or obvious to all, and SSRV believes that it is beholden on all of us to call out inequity when we see it. 

We will continue to raise awareness of the gender biases that exist within Australia’s social security system, and advocate for a more equal and fair future for all. 

SSRV legal advice 

SSRV can provide advice to people who have experienced social security issues as a result of economic or other violence. Clients can call our Legal Assistance Line on 03 9481 0355 and workers can call 9481 0655.

Staff profile: Veronica Williams, Community Lawyer

I’ve been part of the SSRV team for a while now, starting back in 2017. In that time, I’ve had many roles, and even more than one identity.

I began at SSRV as an intern through Deakin’s internship program while I was studying my law degree. I stayed on as a paralegal, primarily helping with SSRV’s phone advice service before also helping with our Worker Help Line project.

After being admitted to the legal profession in late 2019 I led our DSP Help Project, where we used human-centred design and technology to help people better understand, apply for, and appeal rejections for the Disability Support Pension. 

This project concluded in March 2022 and I’ve been working in our Integrated Services Project since. DSP Help was and is still my ‘baby’, so it’s incredibly exciting to note that we’re now kicking off a sequel. We’ll be taking a similar approach to create a new resource helping people address Centrelink Debts. Stay tuned for more information about this!

As for identities, at the start of 2022 I came out as a trans and have been on that journey since. So, if you were thinking, ‘Hang on, wasn’t someone else doing that DSP Help thing?’ well you may not actually be misremembering.

Social security is such an important right, and an important part of the society we live in. I feel privileged to help our most vulnerable to enforce their rights within that system, but also to be able to contribute my expertise to our systemic advocacy efforts. Hopefully we can continue to make positive changes, and make sure we’re there for the people that need it.

Outside of work I collect gins, love to bake, and am teaching myself how to crochet.

Pathway for refugees on temporary protection visas

In a much-publicised move, the Federal Government has announced refugees on temporary protection visas (TPV) and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEV) will now have a pathway to permanent residency.

Around 20,000 people on these temporary visas will now be able to apply for a Resolution of Status Visa. This is a permanent visa and comes with the right to access social security in Australia.

Holders of TPVs and SHEVs have had very little access to social security in Australia. Holders of these visas could only access Special Benefit and Family Tax Benefit, which come with strict eligibility criteria.

Permanent residents have access to all social security payments and concession cards. Holders of Resolution of Status Visas are considered refugees, and as such are subject to exemptions to waiting periods for social security. This means once receiving their Resolution of Status Visa, holders should immediately meet the residency requirements for social security payments through Centrelink.

This is a significant step forward for thousands of refugees who have lived for years without access to social security in Australia. We get many calls through our Worker Help Line from worried workers, who are supporting refugees without social security access.  We know that without access to basic social security, people struggle to meet their daily needs and enjoy a decent standard of living.

We recognise these changes do not apply to, nor address lack of access to, social security for all refugees subject to the temporary protection regime reintroduced in 2013.

Information about specific visas and social security eligibility can be found in the Social Security Guide here.

If you, or your client, is having trouble understanding their rights to access social security you can call us on our Legal Assistance Line at 03 9481 0355, Workers can call our Worker Help Line on 03 9481 0655.

SSRV and the Poverty Inquiry 

Poverty is a growing problem in Australia, with one in eight people, including one in six children, currently living in poverty – and the first step in dealing with poverty is to better understand it. 

At the end of last year, the Federal Government directed the Senate Community Affairs References Committee to undertake an Inquiry into poverty in Australia. 

The Inquiry is due to report by 31 October 2023. 

Poverty is an issue our clients know too well, and our staff see its impact daily. That’s why SSRV is making a submission to the Inquiry.

For people living in poverty an issue arising with social security payments or a debt raised by Centrelink can be a mental and emotional load simply too great to bear. 

Often by the time a person calls us, a Centrelink issue has been left unactioned for some time, not because the recipient has been remiss, but because when your mind is on how you are going to feed your children tomorrow, everything else tends to fall by the wayside.  

For people experiencing poverty, actually working to resolve a Centrelink issue can be particularly difficult. For example, while Centrelink may send some correspondence through the MyGov app, other correspondence is required to be sent by post. People experiencing homelessness or moving from one temporary accommodation to another are at risk of missing important information and essential time limits.   

What we also know is that the social security system itself can exacerbate poverty.  

Often debt repayments are automatically set to unreasonably high fortnightly amounts. There is often little consideration given to the fact that Centrelink income support payments are often received by people living below the poverty line, and fortnightly deductions in addition can cause severe financial distress.  

Some income support payments also carry mutual obligations that the recipient is required to shoulder the financial burden of meeting, such as travelling to appointments with service providers.  

Other payments, such as the Disability Support Pension, have stringent eligibility criteria which rely upon doctor appointments being attended and medical evidence being obtained by the applicant.  

The Poverty Inquiry has been charged with examining the extent and nature of poverty in Australia with particular reference to: 

  • The rates and drivers of poverty in Australia; 
  • The relationship between economic conditions (including fiscal policy, rising inflation and cost of living pressures) and poverty; 
  • The impact of poverty on individuals in relation to employment outcomes, housing security, health outcomes, and education outcomes; 
  • The impacts of poverty amongst different demographics and communities; 
  • The relationship between income support payments and poverty; 
  • Mechanisms to address and reduce poverty; and 
  • Any other related matters. 

SSRV is not able to share our submission to the Poverty Inquiry until it has been approved by the Inquiry, but when we can, we’ll let you know. 

Meanwhile, if you, or someone you are helping, have been issued with a Centrelink debt that you disagree with, if Centrelink has organised a payment plan causing you financial distress, or if you are having difficulty accessing a Centrelink payment, you can call us today. Most Centrelink decisions can be appealed and repayment plans can be negotiated to be more manageable. 

SSRV Legal Assistance Line 

In 2020, when Khodar*, an Iranian refugee living in Australia, lost his job as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, his friends told him that the Australia government was assisting people who had been affected by COVID-19 and advised him to apply for JobKeeper.  

When Khodar* was completing the JobKeeper application form, he noticed a question about his residency status. As his temporary visa allowed him to work lawfully in Australia, he believed that this meant he was an Australian resident and he incorrectly ticked that box.  

About a year later, Khodar received a letter advising that the ATO had raised a debt of $42,000 for overpayment of JobKeeper.  

When Maria*, a single mother supporting her family on Parenting Payment Single called the SSRV Legal Assistance Line, she had also been issued with a Centrelink debt. Centrelink had raised the debt following a decision that Maria was a member of a couple and not eligible for the payment. 

She wasn’t. Maria had temporarily moved into the house of her former partner and children’s father when she lost her rental. A tight housing market meant that it had been months before she was able to secure a new home. 

Khodar and Maria both called the SSRV Legal Assistance Line and received assistance to understand and resolve their social security legal issue.

Every person who calls SSRV’s Legal Assistance Line has a different reason for picking up the phone. They may have been turned down for a payment they believed they were entitled to; they may have been issued with a debt or had their payments reduced; they may be in a dispute with Centrelink and simply not know what their options are. 

What they all have in common is that when they call SSRV’s Legal Assistance Line, they connect with a supportive SSRV team member who can provide information and help the caller to determine what further assistance SSRV or other agencies can provide. Our services are provided without judgement and with the objective of providing support to plan a pathway forward. 

SSRV can provide callers with information, legal advice or legal assistance about: 

  • – Review rights and options if you have been refused a Centrelink payment or had your payments suspended or cancelled and you do not agree with the decision
  • – Centrelink debt waivers and debt recovery issues 
  • – Disability Support Pension eligibility and review pathways
  • – Seeking review of Centrelink decisions where you have been impacted by family violence
  • – Centrelink payments are review rights for people who have been affected by a disaster, such as bushfire or flood
  • – Compliance requirements, including income reporting, mutual obligation and program of support
  • – Centrelink decisions relating to membership of couple issues
  • – Centrelink decisions relating to income and assets issues
  • – Jobkeeper debts objections
  • – Status Resolution Support Payments debt waiver applications

Financial counselling 

SSRV regularly engages with clients who are experiencing a multiple, inter-connected and compounding financial difficulties. 

During legal advice appointments, SSRV lawyers will enquire whether the person may benefit from also meeting with our in-house financial counsellor.  

If so, and the person agrees, they may be offered an appointment with the in-house financial counsellor or referred to the National Debt Help Line. 

SSRV was able to work quickly to assist Khodar to seek the debt be reconsidered.  Ultimately, the entire amount of Khodar’s JobKeeper debt was waived.  

Need legal help? 

SSRV is a community legal centre that provides free legal services in relation to social security and Centrelink matters to people across Victoria. 

Legal Assistance Line 

Monday – Friday 
9am-1pm and 2pm-5pm 
Phone: 03 9481 0355 

*Clients have been de-identified for their privacy and safety. 

Miles Busfield, Operations and Intake Worker

I first started with SSRV as a student volunteer in mid-2021 as a part of the Monash Clinical Placement Program. Being a third-year law student at the time, this placement was an invaluable step in my professional development.

SSRV staff provided a constructive environment to learn the foundations of social security law and their kindness and patience gave me a great appreciation for those working within the community legal sector.

My placement at SSRV taught me a lot about how Centrelink works (or doesn’t), but this was not my first experience with Centrelink. In 2017, I moved to Melbourne from Perth to pursue my studies. Before my work here, I supported myself by receiving Youth Allowance along with a series of insecure casual jobs. During this time, I became familiar with the failures of Centrelink and the terror and confusion you can feel when interacting with them.

A regular thought running through my head was, “Will this simple call to update my address be a quick five-minute affair, or will I be waiting two hours on hold to be informed that I have a $5,000 debt and that my payments have been permanently cancelled?”

On completion of the placement in late-2021, I was offered a position within SSRV’s intake and administration team where I have worked since. I work alongside our Operations and Intake Co-ordinator, Peter Horbury, as the first point of contact for individuals seeking legal information and advice regarding Centrelink issues.

When answering the phone, I make it my goal to clearly understand the caller’s circumstances and provide them with support that prioritises their primary concerns. Individuals accessing our services are often dealing with a myriad of other issues such as homelessness or family violence. It is paramount that we make an informed decision about whether we are able to address their most immediate concerns or whether another service is more appropriate.

Outside of work, I live with my partner and two cats and aim to complete my studies and start practising as a lawyer in the community sector within the next two years.

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