Thursday, 8 October 2020
Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020; Second Reading
Yes. Thank you, Deputy Speaker. I addressed, in the first few minutes of my speech, before question time, the substantive bill. I'll turn my remarks now to the second reading amendment.
This bill on Services Australia fails to address the core issue, and the core issue is the lack of staff to do the work at Centrelink for the Australian people. This government is addicted to cutting and privatising public services. The little-known ASL cap, which was introduced by this government, by Prime Minister Abbott, is effectively a staffing cap that forces departments to privatise their operations. It's privatisation by stealth.
What it means is that, over the last seven long years of this government, as the Australian population has grown and aged and as the demand for quality public services naturally has continued to increase, government departments and agencies have not been allowed to employ any more staff. The practical effect of this is: either service quality goes down and people can't get through on the phone to Centrelink, or government agencies are forced to privatise and to use temporary, casual, labour-hire workers throughout their operations. We see this through Centrelink. When people try to call them, they can't get through—46 million unanswered phone calls; that's two for every Australian. We see it right through the National Disability Insurance Agency. They have about 3,000 staff and thousands more casual labour-hire workers.
Astoundingly, we even see it in the aged-care quality regulator. The government's failings in aged care are manifest, but the quality regulator, the federal government body that's supposed to oversee quality in the aged-care sector, also has numerous casual workers staffing it. Ironically, many of these casual workers are supplied by the same company that supplies casual staff to nursing homes. Talk about a conflict of interest!
Thousands of call centre jobs in Services Australia have been outsourced. Indeed, the former DHS secretary stated, at Senate estimates: 'We don't want to let our service levels drop. If we were just to allow our staffing levels to drop to the ASL cap then there would be an impact on service. We are engaging staff by other means so that we can continue to provide the service that customers want.' In plain English, it means that Services Australia needs more staff to do their work but they are not allowed to employ them. So, the response is to hire more-expensive casual labour workers to do the job. It is a false economy. It actually makes no sense. These workers often are sitting alongside public servants, and they are actually paid less to do the same job, but the private firm that supplies them takes a clip on the ticket and makes a profit from them. The taxpayer doesn't save money. This is not even what some might argue is a proper use of labour hire workers to fill a temporary need or a surge in demand—seasonal work. Perhaps the tax office explains to us that they have seasonal work—that's their response. These are basically permanent labour hire workers—permanent casuals. In 2018 there were more than 2,000 of them in DHS, because the ASL cap, the staffing cap, has not been raised.
The government, of course, loves their labour hire mates. We saw this with their failed visa privatisation. Unbelievably, they are so addicted to privatising public services that they waisted $92 million of taxpayer funds trying to outsource the visa and citizenship processing system—$92 million! About half of that went to Boston Consulting. Goodness only knows what you get 40-something million dollars for to design a failed privatisation.
One of the key proponents of this, the key bidders, was one of the Prime Minister's close mates, Scott Briggs. His firm donated $133,000 to the Liberal Party. They didn't get a great return, because they had to abandon the failed tender after blowing $92 million. But imagine what could have been done if they put that money into actually employing some public servants to do the job and had stopped this nonsense of casual labour hire workers staffing government departments.
Labor and the members on this side of the chamber at first welcomed the government's announcement in March that they recognised the urgency of restaffing Centrelink and were going to employ 5,000 new workers to help with the increased demand with the Morrison recession, as it started off. But now we've learnt that they brought on 14,800 new staff and 6,500 of these were through service delivery partners and labour hire agencies. Another 7,000 were from across the APS and a few others were from within Services Australia. So, even in times of crisis, after cutting thousands of staff since they were elected, they still can't bring themselves to just employ more public servants.
Their ideological obsession shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who actually follows them in this area. The Treasurer said before the budget that he was inspired by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and that these people were figures of hate for the Left because they were so successful. I think they're figures of hate for ordinary people because they are leaders who cut and privatised state owned enterprises and public services. Over the last 40 years their policies have directly led to massively increased inequality in Western countries, including Australia, and the degradation of public services. In the middle of a national or global crisis where unity was needed, our Treasurer was off seeking inspiration from a person who said she didn't even believe in society—there was no such thing.
Forty years on from the failed policies of privatisation and so-called small government, it is time that the government actually admitted that their slogan of small government has failed. It is actually meaningless. It is a marketing slogan. If you have a look across the budget papers over the past 10 or 20 years there is very little material difference in the size of government between either party. There is a whole lot of rhetoric about small government over there but, if you have a look at spending as a percentage of GDP, it peaked under Malcolm Turnbull. It was high under John Howard and had a little bump with Kevin Rudd for a couple of years with the GFC. It bounces around between about 24 per cent and 26 per cent of GDP. The myth of small government over there, that somehow they will spend less just because they are Liberals, is not borne out by the facts. What Liberals really mean when they say small government—and through policies like the ASL cap, it is destroying public services, including Services Australia—is privatising public services, sacking public servants, employing labour hire workers, getting expensive consulting mates to do the work, and attacking the most vulnerable people in society.
Unashamedly, I don't support this privatisation approach. I challenge the government that I don't believe most Australians do either. This small government thing sounds okay. It sounds like we might save a bit of money or get a bit of better value, but it doesn't stack up. Ask ordinary people if they would rather the government spent the taxes employing proper skilled public servants who have permanent jobs and are not treated as permanent casuals, like the hidden underclass staffing government departments now, never able to get a home loan, never knowing from week to week whether they will be sacked and given the flick, without any rights. As we saw with COVID-19, the casualisation of the Australian workforce has been a terrible thing for this country. Who knew sick leave has a purpose? There's a point to sick leave. There's a point to having a permanent job. Surely, when somebody turns up to work year after year for four or five years in a row, they should have a right to actually be an employee of the Australian government, and not be an employee week to week living hand to mouth as a labour hire worker, which tens of thousands of people across the Public Service in Australia are now doing because of this government's policies.
These policies of privatisation are not without consequence. We've seen, as I mentioned, far too many casual labour hire workers staffing the NDIA, the National Disability Insurance Agency, doing assessments on vulnerable people and their disabilities: 'Do they get a plan? Don't they get a plan?' We've seen the aged-care quality regulator staffed by casuals—unbelievably. We've seen the impact at Services Australia of literally thousands of, effectively, permanent temporary labour hire workers because there's this mad, blind ideology of privatisation. It doesn't save money. It doesn't deliver better service. It really makes no sense. We've also seen it, to be fair, in Victoria with the hotel quarantine disaster. The use of private security guards there led to a public policy failure. This is something that all sides of politics should reflect on. There are many cases where it is simply not appropriate. Continuing this idiotic approach of privatisation doesn't deliver good quality outcomes and doesn't deliver value for money for the taxpayer.
We should not be proud of the fact that the Australian Public Service has fewer workers now than it had in 1992. That should not be a source of pride. We shouldn't be proud of the fact that we still have 15,000 fewer workers in the Australian Public Service than seven years ago when this government came to office given that the population has grown by 20 or 30 per cent and is ageing. This is not a source of pride. Any government, whatever their political colours, should see themselves as stewards of the Public Service. This is capability which has been built up by the taxpayer over decades. It should be preserved and nurtured. We should treat it as a stewardship responsibility, not as some sort of business management restructure opportunity where you just cut the numbers and think you've achieved something. It really makes no sense.
We 've proven this through the Public Accounts and Audit Committee. We looked at the figures last term. We had government departments come to us. The Australian Bureau of Statistics said: 'We could save literally millions of dollars if the government would stop the ideology and let us employ some staff. We have to employ these IT contractors. They're permanent. We pay a 40 per cent premium to employ them through labour hire firms instead of just employing them as public servants.' But logic doesn't sway the government. They're not actually interested in saving taxpayers' money. They're not interested in better service. The numbers don't persuade them. They're interested in this mad ideology of privatisation. For every Australian who calls Centrelink trying to get through on the phone, that really is what it boils down to. This bill is not going to help. It's not going to make your experience better to change the name—'Scotty from marketing' rebranding DHS as Services Australia. It's not going to help. You actually need to employ more public servants who know their job and turn up to work year after year and develop the skills to provide services.