During a Sydney press conference, Mr Robert did not elaborate on how many people were in the “small cohort” or the potential budget impact.
But a Services Australia (which includes Centrelink) submission to a recent Senate inquiry suggests it could conservatively involve more than 220,000 cases.
According to the government, it has identified 734,000 cases of overpayment since July 2015. The submission notes that during income-compliance decisions, about 30 per cent of people do not engage with Centrelink’s requests for further information and another 30 per cent start the process but do not finish it. Services Australia said in the absence of any further information provided by a customer, “we have used income averaging to determine the overpayment”.
A departmental statement on Tuesday said income averaging “only applies to a very limited proportion of debts”.
Labor’s spokesman for government services Bill Shorten described Tuesday’s announcement as a “complete backflip” and an “admission of chaos”.
The Australian Council of Social Service, which has been calling for the scheme to be abolished, said “the devil will be in the detail”.
Judith Ireland is a political reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House
Sally Whyte is a reporter for The Canberra Times covering the public service.