Fighting for fairness: Welfare Rights Centre celebrates 40 years

ABC presenter Craig Reucassel, left, joins the Welfare Rights Centre team, including CEO Katherine Boyle, 4th from right, for the centre’s 40th anniversary.

CEO Katherine Boyle and Chair Simon Rice

The Welfare Rights Centre helps people should they need to navigate Australia’s often formidable social security system.

The Welfare Rights Centre evolved from Redfern Legal Centre, the first community legal centre in Australia, which was set up in the 1970s. It provided an evening service for people who needed help with their social security payments, but it soon became clear demand was outstripping supply.

Despite underfunding, the centre expanded in the 1990s and 2000s. The Welfare Rights Centre is the one free place people can turn to for help with social security issues and family assistance, and for people who are having problems with Centrelink.

Union support

In the 90s, the centre formed a bond with the trade union movement. Unions provide some funding in return for priority service for their members.

Even so, demand can sometimes be too huge for the centre’s few staff to cope with. But members of the IEU, NSW Teachers Federation, NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, and the Police Association (all unions that support the centre financially), are fast tracked when they contact the centre. This applies to family members of union members as well.

Welfare Rights Centre CEO Katherine Boyle said unions fund the centre for the benefit of their members, but also on principle, as the centre has advocated for a fairer welfare system for 40 years.

“The union movement’s always had a strong interest in social justice and what happens to vulnerable people, and that the social security system is there, under resourced, inadequate, but nonetheless an important safety net for workers or would-be workers,” Boyle said.

Defeating Robodebt

The centre advocates for procedural fairness in the system and played a strong part in fighting against the former federal Coalition Government’s Robodebt Scheme, an unlawful method of automated debt assessment and recovery.

“The Welfare Rights Centre firmly supports the recommendations of the Royal Commission,” Boyle said. The Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme released a damning report in July 2023 that included some 57 recommendations.

“If fully implemented, these recommendations can lead to substantial systemic improvements in Social Services policy development and Centrelink service delivery,”
Boyle said.

“We achieved great ourcomes for our clients, shedding light on inequities within the social security system and a lack of procedural fairness in the external appeals process.”

Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten recognised Boyle’s public advocacy, describing her as one of the heroes of Robodebt.

State funding shortfall

In 2013, the NSW Liberal Government withdrew 40 per cent of its funding to the centre, a move Boyle describes as “catastrophic”. She is hoping the new NSW Labor Government will at least reinstate that funding.

“It was an attack on the centre because we were being too strident in our views on social security and the then liberal government didn’t like it, basically,” Boyle said.

“There’s a very strong argument for why the state government should have a strong and robust welfare rights centre. Part of it is obviously just moral. We help vulnerable NSW residents, but there’s also a strong economic argument for it.

“When a person is cut off from their Centrelink payment, the consequences of that is a cost to the NSW government. They can’t pay their rent on their social housing. Child protection needs to get involved. They might end up in hospital or jail, the charities which the state government usually contributes to need to support those families.”

What the centre can help with

Unemployment: meeting the ‘activity test’, waiting periods, income and assets tests, and employment service providers can be challenging.

Reporting income and avoiding debt: correctly reporting income, especially from casual and shift work may pose many problems for workers. Incorrect reporting of income can lead to a debt and cause financial hardship.

Disability support: workers who are sick or have had an accident and cannot work may be eligible for JobSeeker, but a complex assessment of leave entitlements is involved. Accessing payments can be difficult if the employer does not provide proof that all paid leave entitlements have been exhausted. The eligibility criteria for the Disability Support Pension are complex and people often need legal assistance to obtain this payment.

Families: many workers with dependent children may be entitled to a wide array of income support, such as Family Tax Benefit, Childcare Subsidy, Parenting Payment, Paid Parental Leave, and Youth Allowance for dependent students. Problems can arise when claiming these payments, such as late claims, problems with estimating annual family income and debts.

Retirement and pre-retirement planning: workers often need advice about their entitlement to and the rate of Age Pension (especially in relation to other income from work or savings, or assets), and about access to fringe benefits and concession cards.

Access for IEU members

When contacting the centre, tell them you are a member of the IEU.

Call: 1800 226 028



Urgent matters: 9211 5389