Thursday, 8 October 2020
Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020; Second Reading
[by video link] I will be supporting this bill, the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020, and I will also be supporting the opposition's amendment. I want to make something perfectly clear before I speak on: what I have to say this afternoon has nothing to do with the Centrelink staff. I think officers in Centrelink and in the department more broadly do a good job. They do as good a job as they humanly can do in very difficult circumstances. In fact, during the robodebt fiasco, for example, it was often Centrelink officers who were the source of information to inform the community and to inform us members of parliament about the problems with the scheme. I approached the Commonwealth Ombudsman on a number of occasions, passing on a number of concerns, and many of those concerns were informed by Centrelink whistleblowers. So my comments this afternoon should not in any way be taken as a criticism of the staff. Rather they are in support of the staff. The staff in the department, in particular in Centrelink, are labouring through very difficult circumstances. They're understaffed, underresourced and underfunded. They are having to be party to what I think is reckless haste to go online. They have to implement policies and procedures and laws created by politicians, which often, in fact, demonise Centrelink recipients.
The opposition amendment, I think, is well founded, because so many of these problems go to outsourcing. No wonder the federal government wanted to change the name of the department from the Department of Human Services to Services Australia, because the government want to take 'human' out of the equation. Far too often it's about some poor Centrelink client having to deal with a computer or a telephone or an ad in the paper or a nasty letter co-branded with an AFP badge.
In the 10 years I've had this job, and in particular since the election of the Abbott government in 2013, I have dealt with countless—certainly hundreds; it might even be thousands now—members of the community, particularly from the Denison and now Clark electorates, but also from right around Australia, who have had terrible problems dealing with the government, government agencies and Centrelink in particular.
I'll recount some of the sorts of things that have been brought to my attention over the years. One of the big issues is a lack of communication. In fact, I would say that it's probably the biggest frustration experienced by Centrelink customers. Here are examples. People spend hours and hours waiting on the phone. Centrelink says there's only a 20-minute wait to get onto Centrelink, but that's if you can actually join the queue. Often the line is engaged or the line goes dead after you've waited a certain period of time. It may well be that the people who get through to Centrelink only wait 20 minutes in many cases, but a lot of people from time to time throughout the year—often the majority of people—can't get on the queue in the first place.
There's also the issue about Centrelink clients waiting months for the outcome of an application. For example, people call or go into Centrelink to follow up and are told there is a backlog and to keep waiting without being given any further information or time frame about their application. There's also the issue of the complicated and nonsensical forms and online applications that need to be filled in if you're going to attempt to deal with Centrelink. Indeed, I've had countless people approach me who thought they had submitted an application or uploaded the correct document when they had not. That often resulted in them not being back paid or no longer being able to appeal, because the time had expired in which they might have appealed some judgement.
What comes up quite a lot is losing documents. How on earth a federal government department or agency can so consistently lose client documents beggars belief. I'll make the point again: this isn't about incompetence by Centrelink staff; this is about Centrelink staff being under the pump and underresourced but doing the best they can with archaic systems that simply don't work. There's also the issue of random text messages or emails that are automatic and look like spam, which some receive from time to time. Just this week I had an email from someone who's niece had become so distressed by a text message from Centrelink, saying her payment was cut, that it put her in hospital due to a serious panic attack. That is a true story. When Centrelink was contacted, no-one could explain why the text was even sent in the first place. There is also the use of template letters that are automatically generated and don't make sense or provide any detail.
Then there is the appeals process. How can a person appeal a decision when they don't even know the reason for that decision? Having something complicated verbally explained on the phone is not good enough. How do you appeal? I've had countless people who thought they had appealed, because they had lodged a document outlining their appeal, but they subsequently found out that it was just sitting on their file.
There are so many problems with communications from Centrelink, which almost always go back to an underresourced agency with not enough people, archaic systems and too much haste to go online. Sometimes there is even a cultural problem where they don't want to help these people, but, fortunately, that's very, very rare. This doesn't affect just one particular payment among clients. I've had people come to me with problems with the age pension, with youth allowance, with the disability support pension and with JobSeeker, or the previous unemployment benefit. There is clearly a systemic problem. It isn't a problem with just one part of Centrelink or with the department. It's a systemic problem affecting all payments.
The age pension is a particular problem. It's one of the big issues. Frankly, for many age pensioners, dealing with Centrelink is simply too difficult, too hard to navigate. When they go into an office for assistance, these older Australians are just referred to online and phone services. Many people wait months for an outcome of their application and receive no communication at all from Centrelink during that time. Moreover, there are other problems with the system, with what goes on, not just customer service: the deeming rate's wrong; the assets tests and the assets assessments are poorly done.
With youth allowance, I've encountered a commonplace problem whereby the delays go for ridiculous lengths, so much so that I've had parents, schools and universities contact my office quite regularly—alarmingly regularly—because students haven't been paid their youth allowance. They're destitute, and the parents are unable to afford to pay their child's rent, food and other expenses. I've even heard of some students having to drop out of their learning because they had to work to earn money with which to eat or they had to return home, away from their learning institution.
On the disability support pension, I've had countless vulnerable people—terminally ill, permanently disabled and chronically ill people and people suffering from extreme mental health problems—contact my office because their application for the DSP has been rejected. And it's been rejected because the medical evidence was deemed insufficient, yet they are now on a two-year waitlist to see that specialist again. Or it's been rejected because an independent medical assessor, over the phone, disagreed with the information provided by their medical specialist. Or it's been rejected because the person's condition was getting worse and so could not be classified as stabilised. As a result, people are forced to drag themselves into Centrelink again and again—people with serious mental illness, people with serious physical disabilities—and drag themselves to see multiple specialists, when it is abundantly clear that this sort of treatment is unwarranted and they need the disability support pension and need it quickly.
And where do I begin with JobSeeker? One of the significant problems here, apart from the paltry amount that it used to be, at $40 a day—and let's hope it never goes back to $40 a day—is that too often there is an attitude from government that people who are on the dole are bludgers. The government then creates all these absurd hurdles for someone who is on unemployment benefits, and the agency will cut their payments in half if a compulsory meeting is missed because of sickness or other valid reasons. I talked in my opening remarks about demonising. And I'm not talking about Centrelink officers demonising Centrelink clients; I'm talking about the government demonising Centrelink clients. There is no better example of how that demonising manifests itself than the robodebt fiasco. Thank God the courts will hold the government to account for the robodebt fiasco. But please understand: it's not over.
In fact, just today I sent another letter to the Commonwealth Ombudsman bringing a number of issues to the attention of the Ombudsman, because the government's decision to only repay debts calculated wholly or partially on averaged ATO income data ignores the flawed and inconsistent internal processes that were applied to recalculate appealed robodebts. I've asked the Ombudsman to conduct another inquiry. I've lost count of the number of times I've approached the Ombudsman over robodebt, and I'm proud to say that it might help in some small way to encourage the Ombudsman to investigate these matters, to intervene and to be part of the process of holding the government to account.
Much has already been said about outsourcing. In fact, just yesterday I gave a 90-second statement about outsourcing. I'm pleased to see the opposition today picking up on the points that I raised yesterday and going into even more detail in the extra time that they've had. I'll mention again the figures that I mentioned yesterday. I'm talking about the Public Service broadly here, not just about any one department or agency.
I refer to the work done by Michael West and publicised on michaelwest.com.au. It shows that the number of outsourced staff in the Department of Defence is 1½ times the number of public servants in that department; the Attorney-General's Department spent $13.4 million on labour hire contractors last financial year; Home Affairs outsourced 1,082 positions, including intelligence analysts, legal practitioners and border enforcement officers; nearly 40 per cent of the department of infrastructure staff are outsourced, including 16 assistant directors—I will say that again: nearly 40 per cent of the department of infrastructure staff are outsourced, including 16 assistant directors—and 5,000 positions at the ATO call centres are outsourced. This is just madness.
No wonder the standard of service by the government to the people it's supposed to serve is so bad. No wonder members of parliament—and I'm sure government members of parliament as well—are approached by people every single day with legitimate concerns about the problems they're experiencing at the hands of government agencies. They're running into bottlenecks and roadblocks because there are not enough staff and there has been a hasty move to online processing of services. Basically, agencies are under-resourced and over-outsourced.
All of this is simply not good enough. It could be so easily turned around, but it will only turn around when the federal government acknowledges that there's a problem. When you have ministers dismissing issues and problems with, 'My bad,' and then just ticking the box to acknowledge the problem and moving on, it leaves the community with no confidence whatsoever—none at all—that the government really appreciates there's a problem and really understands that it's in the public interest to fix those things.
So, please, whether it be Centrelink or other government agencies, let's resource these public servants properly so that they can deliver a public service. Let's stop cutting the jobs. Let's stop outsourcing. Let's upgrade our systems. Let there be leadership from the very top of the government. The government should say: 'We are here to serve and we serve by having the very best agencies we can possibly have.' We can have the best agencies in the world, but we'll need to start with an acknowledgement of the problem and we need to follow up with serious funding of these agencies.
Let's stop demonising the people who rely on the government. Let's face it: the people who walk into Centrelink are some of the most disadvantaged people in the country. They should be the people we pull close and embrace and look after as well as we humanly can. That's our job. That's what the government has to start understanding. The government has to start doing its job. Let's resource these agencies. Let's stop the outsourcing.