Cancer survivor Tony Barber got a Christmas present from the government he could never have imagined - a debt-recovery notice for $4500 dating back to his recovery after chemotherapy.
The welfare agency's letter plunged the 29-year-old Sydney man into stress as it told him it was his responsibility to provide evidence of work and welfare payments from six years ago while he was fighting for his life.
Mr Barber is among many welfare recipients who have received erroneous debt recovery notices from Centrelink over the Christmas and New Year period.
He stood beside his local member, Anthony Albanese, on Friday as the Labor MP for the inner-western seat of Grayndler told his story as an example of the government's "callous" attitude to those wrongly targeted by the welfare agency's data matching system.
"The only time that Mr Barber has ever received Centrelink payments in his life is during that period when he was recovering from chemotherapy and he deserves better from our national government than to be treated with such disrespect," Mr Albanese said.
Mr Barber fought off cancer in 2010 and returned to work in January 2011.
"During that time, he has been an honest man; someone who's paid his taxes, someone who's worked hard in spite of going through that difficult period," Mr Albanese said.
"When I saw Mr Porter (the social services minister) being dismissive of these circumstances of individual vulnerable Australians, it made me sick to the stomach."
Mr Albanese's electorate office has received more than 20 complaints from constituents who are horrified by the payments being demanded of them, a pattern reflected across the country, the MP said.
Leichhardt resident Curtis Dickson, 31, received a debt recovery notice demanding he pay $750 in a couple of weeks.
As a student, Mr Dickson said that was more than he could afford at short notice.
Adding to his stress was the "accusatory" tone of the Centrelink employee over the phone who made it clear the onus of proof was on him to show he did not owe the money, he told reporters.
Mr Dickson is now on a debt-repayment plan for the $750 though he says he does not owe it.
The information watchdog is set to investigate complaints welfare recipients have been wrongly hounded over debts because of faults with Centrelink's data matching system.
Centrelink is using information from the tax office to detect income discrepancies and determine whether people have received overpayments.