Media Release by Senator the Hon Amanda Vanstone

Tomato pickers’ $200,000 welfare scam turns rotten

Centrelink has cancelled, suspended or reduced the payments of 33 people for failing to declare earnings stemming from a cash economy field investigation near Bowen, Queensland, over the last two days.

A number of other Centrelink customers are being probed for possible prosecution activity after raids on farm labour plants in the far North Queensland region.

The joint operation, including the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, the Queensland Police Service, the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Taxation Office and Centrelink, uncovered the scam involving tomato and capsicum pickers and packers.

Australian taxpayers will realise a minimum of $200,000 in savings per year as a result of the successful inter-agency operation with subsequent scrutiny expected to generate further debt recovery and prosecution action.

The deployment of stationary interception sites played a crucial role in pinpointing the welfare cheats and confirming suspicions that Centrelink customers were employed under false names or deliberately not declaring their income while being paid cash for their services.

This joint-agency operation is another example of the increasing focus on stamping out welfare fraud activity in all parts of Australia. The cooperation of Government departments has clearly enhanced Centrelink’s detection and deterrence strategies.

The welfare system plays a vital role in helping people who are genuinely vulnerable in our community. Welfare cheats are taking from the needy and this is an unacceptable situation for most Australians.

Most of Centrelink’s customers are honest and treat the system with integrity. But the Bowen operation sends a clear message that Government agencies will leave no stone unturned in catching people who deliberately rip off the system.