Monday, February 8, 2010


(NB: I wrote this up a few years ago, before I set up my blogspot and before I had my own computer. Having retrieved it, I think it’s worth blogging. I hope you do.)

Having recently turned 65, I naively assumed that our gracious government would be contacting me along the lines of, "Congratulations, Hugh, old boy, you've reached retirement age at last. After a lifetime of dutiful payment of tax, you are now entitled to your reward." Well, that was silly of me, wasn't it? So I decided to take the matter into my own hands.
Despite rapidly approaching dinosaur status, I felt I am modern enough to apply online and duly found the appropriate site. I began filling in the required information until I found a question I couldn't answer (my superannuation commencement date) without further research. As I use the library's computer, this meant logging out and starting over.
On my second attempt I did a lot better and eventually was given a reference number and informed that I had successfully applied and would receive the relevant papers in the mail soon. So much for the paperless society.
To my surprise, the papers duly arrived. Now among other things, I had to prove I was born. So on to another website to apply for a birth certificate from the Victorian government. This meant more waiting, which is a concern, because the pension will be paid from the date of application (not one's actual birthday) BUT ONLY IF ALL THE PAPERWORK IS DONE AND PRESENTED WITHIN A FORTNIGHT. Fat chance.
Finally, I'd filled in everything, had all the relevant documents - passport, birth certificate, driver's licence, bank statement, etc - so now there was a phone number to ring for an appointment.
"Yes, Mr O'Keefe, your relevant Centrelink is at Darlinghurst, but there are no appointments available for three months - but that's not unusual." This last comment would surely not endear him to his employers? "However, you can have a walk-in appointment."
"Oh, what's that?"
"You just turn up and information will put you in the queue."
"That doesn't sound like an appointment to me." None the less, that's what I did, yesterday.
I got to Information after only ten minutes and explained I was applying for the Old Age Pension (oops, in these politically correct times, the Age Pension). He promptly gave me forms but I pointed out that I had already filled in the relevant form.
"Oh, where did you get that?" he asked with some surprise.
"In the mail," I said, which seemed to confuse him somewhat. However, he told me to take a seat and someone would be with me shortly.
Forty minutes later (I'd brought a good book) a voice said "Mr O'Keefe?" and Phil took me to his work station. He was charming, helpful and apologetic, but that wasn't much help. I informed him I'd applied online and here was my application and supporting documents. "But you haven't filled in an application," he said. I found this somewhat confusing, but now that I had access to a real person at a real computer, I wasn't of a mind to argue. So he got me an application form. In the course of filling it in, I realised that this was all the stuff I'd entered on the online application. He said, "Well, it's safer to have it in writing." Again, I wasn't arguing.
Meanwhile, as I reapplied, he looked at the first form I'd filled in and said, "They've sent you the wrong form." Well, it didn't say Dole, it didn't say Job Seeker, it said Age Pension Application, but there you go. So he went off again to get the RIGHT FORM.
Have you ever been to Centrelink? They do a great show. While all this was going on, a very short, very irate Aboriginal woman stormed into the interview area demanding money, using buckets of foul language, including frequent references to having conjugal relations with one's maternal parent. No one but me seemed to find this unusual, so I stayed Mum. Also, when one of the other interviewers left her station to ask some question of my Phil, the two rather grubby applicants at her station went into a deep and serious pash session which wasn't abandoned until their interviewer returned. I'd rate the whole place MA.
So now, after an hour with Phil, we had abandoned the online original application and done a written one. We had also torn up the original written application and filled in the right one. Now to enter it into the computer - hah!
Would Mister Computer accept this stuff? No way. So a phone call to the hot line, a ten minute wait, and eventually all was duly entered - I think.
But one last thing. I hadn't brought my employer's payslips (I work casually). Nowhere on any form, electronic or otherwise had these been asked for. So tomorrow I will have to turn up with these, and, as instructed, march straight through the office (much like my indigenous sister, but more discreetly) and slip these on to Phil's desk. And wait to see what happens next.

Well, dear readers, when I closed Part One of this odyssey/ordeal, I was in the last stages of applying for my Age Pension, very much a stop/start operation. I was asked by my now very close and personal friend Phil at Centrelink to provide recent payslips from my university employment to finalize operations. Now read on...

On the appointed Friday I again went to Centrelink and followed Phil's instructions. I waltzed straight up to his desk to present said papers. If he was with a client, he'd acknowledge me. I did so... NO PHIL! EMPTY DESK!... so I reported to enquiries and they assured me he was on the premises, probably "on a break". I took a seat and waited. Indeed he finally appeared, calling for another client, and I accosted him. "Oh, yes", he said, "have you registered?" But, I thought, you said just to come straight to you - so I went and registered.

I took another seat (I was beginning to amass quite a collection of them by now) and in due course Phil saw me, processed the final papers and that was that. Or was it?

On 31 October I received a letter from Centrelink – the first of many - rejecting my claim because my income was "above the allowable limit". They then listed two sets of figures:

Annual Income: $2,498.85
Regular Fortnightly Income: $3,090.93

Can even the most numerically-challenged among you spot the anomaly here? I should think so. It seems my fortnightly income was almost one and a half times my annual income - a somewhat TARDIS-like situation, devoutly to be wished. (Mind you, were I earning $3,000ish a fortnight, why would I want the pension?)

Back to the drawing board and back to Centrelink. I submitted a written statement explaining that the $3,090.93 payment was made in one fortnight pay period for work done over almost three months. I had submitted my previous payslip for $2,000.45, for work done three months earlier. I had even submitted my tax return, which showed annual earnings of $8,764.00. (Where they got the $2,498.85 figure from, I'll never know.)

Well, in due course (11 December, almost six weeks later) Mr Hugh Marsh from Centrelink wrote to inform me that my application had been approved (no apologies or explanations, of course) and that I qualified for the full $543.50 a fortnight, duly backdated. Hooray! End of story! Don't you kid yourself...

There's more.

I have a pension from "old" NSW State Superannuation of around $500 a fortnight. I had been informed that it would "never" affect my Age Pension. However, during my myriad enquiries I had learned that this might not be the case. So being the devout Marist Brothers boy that I am (?!) I wrote to Centrelink (3 January) and informed them of this pension. They wrote back lickety-split the next day requesting I supply a letter from State Super with the details. This I did, with a covering note.

Some days later I received an SMS asking me to access mail at their website. I tried, but found I had no password. I phoned Centrelink on 31 January and a very pleasant operator (they all are, God knows they’d have to be) provided me with a password (for computer) and PIN (for phone). Yippee! So back to the library and on to the website, but to no avail.

Yet another phone call, only to be informed that my pension had been SUSPENDED. That's why I couldn't access the website. No one had advised me of this action. Centrelink had requested I access my mail, but prevented me from doing so. The officer who supplied the password had not mentioned this, nor could anyone give me a reason.

I explained that I had provided the (original) letter from State Super, but the claimed not to have received it. The operator blithely explained that they might have lost it... or maybe the Post Office had!

(During this phone call I was also informed that Centrelink was investigating my British pension - this was a big surprise to me. I had informed them that I worked in England from 1969 to 1974. They said their records showed I was there from 1968 to 1979 - a period of over ten years, entitling me, if I had worked all this time, to a British pension. We sorted that one.)

So, I obtained another original from State Super and sent it Registered Mail in early February. Wait. No response. Ring again on 27 February to be informed they haven't received that letter either. Call Australia Post. "Yes, Mr O'Keefe, you posted it on 14 February, we delivered it on 15 February."

Telephone officer suggests I go to Centrelink, have the letter faxed and get confirmation of its being sent. I do so. Wait a few days and get an SMS. You have mail. Try to access, but am told "account suspended". Another phone call. "Oh, but Mr O'Keefe, your pension has been restored, retroactive to 25 December." (Hey, how about that, they had cut it off on Christmas Day - how touching.) "And I'll free up your password so you can access the site." (I still can't.)

At my request, the charming girl printed off the letter and posted it to me. It informed me that on the basis of new information I had provided they had restored my pension, readjusted to $423.09 a fortnight. No apology, no explanation. And that's where things stand.

POSTSCRIPT: During the following week I received two separate hand-addressed letters from Centrelink, containing the two original State Super letters, the ones they claimed never to have received. Two denials. One more and they'd be up there with St Peter.

So if you're planning to turn 65 and you're poor, keep this instructive missive in a safe place.

UPDATE – Feb 2010
In mid-January I received a letter from Centrelink informing me that my pension had been cut off on 8 December as I HAD NOT REPORTED! Reported what? I am now completely unemployed, have no income, therefore have nothing to report I phoned immediately, got the usual charming woman who got my details up on her screen and said, “But Mr O’Keefe, that’s silly – you don’t have to report and there’s a note on your file saying so.” Well, darling, could you tell someone?

There and then she restored my pension, retrospective to 8 December, and duly marked my file. A week later, I got a letter saying that as I had now supplied the information they had requested (?!), my pension had been restarted. No apology, of course.

I don’t think the war is over yet.

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