House debates

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Grievance Debate

Pensions and Benefits

6:30 pm

Photo of Cathy McGowanCathy McGowan (Indi, Independent) Share this | Hansard source

Colleagues, tonight I rise in this grievance debate to highlight the failing of our social services agencies in meeting their explicit intent to deliver social security payments and services to Australians. While the intent may be there, the system's rigidity, a push for automation and, ultimately, a lack of resources has meant that the Department of Human Services and, in particular, Centrelink are failing many Australians.

This is an issue of great importance to my electorate, it's of great importance to me and it should be of great importance to the government. In my speech tonight, I'm going to address three points: the strong view of my electorate that we have a moral obligation to ensure that we assist those who suffer disadvantage; secondly, the stories of constituents who, in frustration, have come to my office, seeking help to negotiate the bureaucracy of the Centrelink system; and, finally, to note my intent to table legislation to establish a social service commission to provide independent advice to this parliament.

Each year, I undertake a budget impact statement in my electorate to seek feedback and advice and to ask for solutions from my community. In this year's budget survey, social security was identified in the top five of Indi's concerns. Twenty-four per cent of respondents rated social services as one of their top three issues, and 80 per cent of respondents ranked social services as either very important or fairly important. This report is the lived experience of the staff in my offices. On an almost daily basis, my staff, as I'm sure staff of other members' offices across the country do, help constituents struggling to negotiate Centrelink. And I need to point out here that my particular office and my staff—and I'm sure others—have a very good relationship with Centrelink and its staff. I applaud them and I'm very grateful for the help they provide me and my staff on many of the issues that are raised time and time again. However, I'm told about lost paperwork, inconsistent advice, long waiting times on the phone and in centres and delays in processing payments. And the most concerning part is that these issues are often contained within a single case.

I will just give a case study from one of my constituents. They wrote:

Cathy, I turned 65 in May 2017. As I was on Newstart, Centrelink staff encouraged me to put in my claim for the aged pension 3 months prior to me turning 65.    In February 2017 (knowing I wold not receive a payment until after 65th birthday) I lodged my claim for aged pension.

On Friday 28th April I report my final Newstart — I had to ring as was unable to report on line. At the same time I asked about my claim for aged pension, I was reassured that there was no outstanding documentation.

On 28th June I called Centrelink and was advised the claim was not processed but was down for urgent action & advised to call again the following week if I had not heard anything. On 7 July after hearing nothing I called again and was told there was a backlog & my claim was noted as urgent & to be actioned within 48 hours. On 12 July, called again & was advised my application was still in the queue to be processed urgently.

It's shameful!

This is from another constituent:

I am writing to you to seek your support as an advocate and as my representative in the Federal Parliament, in an intolerable situation in which I find myself concerning the open ended delay in the approval process of granting me an aged pension.

Here is just a little of the story:

In late 2017 I went to the Centrelink offices to prepare for transition to aged pension. I was advised to also apply for the disability program pension. I was advised by Centrelink that the retirement age considered to eligible for aged pension was 65 years and 6 months - this date would not be till July 21 2018. While my disability pension was being assessed I was to go on Newstart benefit. This benefit was delayed because my partner earned too much income.

Trying to contact Centrelink is a most frustrating process taking many disconnected phone calls many hours on call waiting for a phone call connection to speak to a customer service officer. I finally convinced Centrelink that I had no partner. This process took from the January 21 to February 20 2018.

I was notified in May 2018 to fill out forms for aged pension. I further checked by phone and by visiting the Centrelink office to see if any further documentation was required to enable a smooth transition from Newstart to the aged pension. I was assured all was in order.

I attended the office of Centrelink on 4th of July 2018 to again check if all was in order for the transition from Newstart to aged pension as I have had many frustrations concerning contrary information from many Centrelink customer service officers. I again was assured that all was in process and in order.

The story goes on and on. It is one of frustration, lost papers and things just not working out.

I have more stories that I could share with the House tonight, but what I really want to come to is that this is so important because social security and welfare is the largest component of government spending. In the 2018-19 budget, it is estimated that $176 billion will be spent on social security. That is so much money. And not only is it so much money, but it impacts on almost every single one of us. Centrelink is the public face of the government, and most of us will have some relationship with Centrelink.

Let me give you some feeling from my electorate. Anyone needing assistance with accommodation, renting, at risk or homelessness needs to go to Centrelink—and there are 7,840 payments in my electorate. If you are planning your retirement and the age pension, you have to go to Centrelink—nearly 20,000 people in my electorate. If you are caring for someone with an illness or disability, you have to go to Centrelink—1,848 payments. If you need to access concession and healthcare cards, you've got to go to Centrelink—11,000 payments. If you are adopting a child, if you need assistance with child care, if you are caring for an older Australian, if you are disabled, ill, injured, looking for work, seeking employment income confirmation, a victim of family and domestic violence, trying to find the right family day care operator, a young person looking for financial and health support, a refugee or humanitarian entrant and seeking help, an Indigenous Australian looking for work, study or training, leaving school, looking for work or starting an apprenticeship, wanting to access the national redress scheme, retrenched or made redundant you have to go to Centrelink. That is a lot of people. Without doubt, it is a really important part of what the government does.

But, sadly, it is not working. It is not working well in my electorate, and there are many other electorates where it is not working. It is not the lack of good, talented people within Centrelink; it is a lack of resources and a lack of actual management so that we make sure we get the customer service that we really need. What I am saying tonight is that this issue is not about intent or availability; it is much more practical than that. It is an issue of managing workflow and it is an issue of resource management. The issue is that the whole agency is not able to do what it was set up to do.

So what do we do? It is fine to come to this parliament and grizzle and complain and say that things don't work. So, on behalf of my community, next Monday I am going to introduce a private member's bill. I have advice from many of the welfare agencies, and I have read the McClure report and many others. I'm going to introduce the Social Security Commission Bill 2018. The objective of this bill is to establish a social security commission to provide the parliament with independent and considered advice on a fair and reasonable social safety net for those who are dependent, in whole or in part, on social security payments. The commission will ensure an acceptable standard of living for recipients of social security payments and whether the current level of payment provides adequate support to meet that standard.

I have no belief at all that the government will support this but, in introducing this private member's bill, I am putting on notice that things aren't working well, that there is enormous dissatisfaction in the community and that these are real people, with real lives and real concerns that need to be taken seriously. I thank the people of Indi for getting in touch with my office. Continue to do so. We will continue to be your advocate. We will continue to bring your issues to the Department of Social Security and to this parliament and try to get the action we need.

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