Thursday, 8 October 2020
Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020; Second Reading
[by video link] There are no hairdressers open in Victoria at the moment. As soon as there are, I will be visiting my local one. But that's not why I rise today. I rise to speak on the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020. I start by echoing the comments of previous speakers from the opposition and say that of course we support this bill—and it's a bill that has some small machinery changes—but, like many pieces of legislation from this government, it really misses the core problems and issues. Instead of actually tackling the issues that our nation faces, this government fiddles around the edges and just tinkers with the small things. This bill does not go to some of the core issues in Services Australia that I will be speaking about today.
One of the most vivid weeks of my time as a member of parliament was at the start of the pandemic. I remember the member for Canberra, who has recently had a beautiful baby, saying that if this pandemic teaches us anything it is that people, through no fault their own, can find themselves out of work. If this pandemic can teach us anything, it is that anyone at any time, despite absolutely no wrongdoing on their own behalf, can find themselves out of work, and that's exactly what's happened.
We saw a million Australians join the unemployment queue. It was devastating to watch, and I'm sure that every member of the House of Representatives can think of examples of devastation when speaking to people, to businesses who have been operating for 20 to 30 years and to people who are close to them—people who are friends and who are family members. It really touched every corner of our society. A million Australians who have never had any engagement with unemployment benefits all of a sudden found themselves needing to access services and needing to access Services Australia or Centrelink.
I remember that throughout this really difficult period Australians were forced almost overnight to access the services. We all remember the queues around the corners and around blocks where Australians were forced to line up during a pandemic, one by one, standing next to each other in groups in their hundreds and in their thousands, waiting to access Centrelink services and Centrelink offices. Instead of planning, instead of accepting responsibility and instead of acknowledging the difficulty that literally a million Australians were going through, the hapless minister—to be frank, it is absolutely astonishing this guy is still a minister, but I'll come back to that—who oversees this program said that a bunch of hackers had slowed down the myGov website. He said that a bunch of hackers had made it crash.
Before that, there was also mass confusion around people having to line up in order to get a CRN. In the end, it wasn't true. They just didn't have the planning and the ability to do it through the myGov website in the first place, and then they had to revisit their processes and do it on the fly. We were told it couldn't be done; it was a mess. We had thousands of people standing next to each other on the streets, and the best that Minister Robert could muster was, 'My bad,' and that there were hackers who were trying to slow down the government processes. That is the minister responsible for the social safety net of Australians during a pandemic, so it is hardly surprising that he is overseeing scandal after scandal after scandal in this policy area.
I want to say something really clearly. I have only sincere thanks to give—and I'm sure that all members of the House of Representatives would agree with me—to the staff of our Centrelink offices, certainly the local ones. Locally, in South Melbourne and in Prahran—which just borders on my electorate—the staff do a herculean job. Throughout this pandemic, they have really risen to the challenge. We speak to them on almost a daily basis, going through specific cases and trying to help people access the services. I know my office is deeply committed to it and does a fantastic job.
I also want to extend a thankyou to the staff of Centrelink. But, of course, the staff at Centrelink are not treated with the thanks that they deserve from the government and from this minister. If you want to have a look at why, during the pandemic, during some of the most difficult days to work in our Centrelink offices, this government was looking at shutting down Centrelink offices. They had already been planning to shut down the Mornington and Newport offices, and then I remember that the minister decided that he was going to shut down the Abbotsford office and tell people: 'Just go down to South Melbourne. Just head on down to South Melbourne and that'll be fine.' People who are accessing these services are facing so much difficulty. For the minister to flippantly say, 'You can just go to South Melbourne,' when they were already under the pump, when they were at peak servicing and already doing their bit, shows exactly how the government sees their Centrelink staff. They do not value their work, they do not respect them and they do not give them the adequate resources that they desperately need in order to fulfil the crucial job of staffing Services Australia and specifically the Centrelink services. So, while we say thank you, this minister says 'my bad'. While we appreciate the work of Centrelink and Services Australia, the best that the minister can offer is, 'My bad—we didn't quite get it right.' He is the minister for 'my bad'—not myGov, 'my bad'.
One of the big issues in Services Australia is obviously the rate at which people are accessing the JobSeeker payment and the coronavirus supplement. One of the things that I find absolutely extraordinary is that the minister overseeing this program was once caught spending over $2,000 a month on home internet bills, which he later had to pay back. We can spend an afternoon having a laugh, thinking about how on earth you can rack up $2,000 of home internet bills, but let's put that aside for a second and actually look at something serious here. The rate of Newstart in this country, before the coronavirus supplement, was $40 a day or about $1,130 a month. At the moment there is an extra supplement of $250 a fortnight, which takes the payment up to about $1,630 every four weeks or a month—a little bit more depending on how long the month is. But let's be generous. Let's say, on the very worst-case scenario, it was just under $1,200 and, with the supplement at the moment, it's just under $1,700. This minister spent more on home internet, on downloads, than people receive in unemployment benefits in this country. This minister charged taxpayers more money—which he later had to pay back—than people receive, even with the coronavirus supplement, and almost double what they received under the previous rate of Newstart. This guy is spending more on internet than people in this country are getting as a social safety net, and it tells you everything you need to know about his priorities and what he thinks is fair.
I know that the government is absolutely desperate to bring the JobSeeker rate back down to the previous levels. I am dialling in from the greatest electorate in the country, the electorate of Macnamara in St Kilda—I can see lots of nodding going on in the chamber—