Thursday, 8 October 2020
Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020; Second Reading
Today, I want to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the people who are Services Australia. Services Australia incorporates Medicare, child support and, of course, Centrelink. Where was it that people flocked the day after the Prime Minister announced the necessary shutdown and the restrictions that we've never seen before? It was their local Centrelink office. The queues were like nothing we have ever seen before. In Townsville we have three Services Australia centres, and you could see the line-up from about a kilometre away. When people had lost their jobs, their income and their livelihoods, when they had nowhere else to turn, it was their local Centrelink office which became their lifeline. No-one wants to be standing in that line. No-one in this place wants to see the people of Australia lining up for hours in the Centrelink queue. But the global COVID-19 pandemic left them, understandably, with no choice in those early days.
Who was it that was on the other side of the service desks in those centres or on the other end of the telephone? Who were on the end of those lines? It was the people in Services Australia at Centrelink. The people of Services Australia were the ones doing their absolute best to meet the needs of our communities in distress as best they could. Were those community members friendly and polite? Hopefully, most of the time. But, of course, in these times tensions were high and wait times were long, so sometimes people lost their patience and things boiled over. Our people at Services Australia were the ones who had no choice but to cop it on the chin, resolve the situation calmly and move on as best they could. None of us endorse this kind of behaviour. There is no excuse for abuse, but, in the reality of the challenges of this year, and particularly the months of March and April, the risk was there.
I want to take a moment to thank each and every one of the people of Services Australia who worked, and continue to work, on the front lines in our Centrelink service centres during this incredibly difficult time. Thank you for your dedication. Thank you for continuing to come into work, despite the potential of health risks. Thank you for putting up with the abuse. Thank you for your incredible hard work in a very difficult time, which, hopefully, won't be repeated during the course of your careers.
During the first few weeks of the shutdowns I went to visit the Aitkenvale service centre to meet with the manager. I was keen to check in, make sure everything was going as well as it could and find out whether there was anything that they needed or that I could help with. I was very impressed with the way everyone was dealing with the situation they found themselves in. Everyone was acting incredibly professionally and making sure they were helping those who turned up asking for help. I want to give a shout-out to the staff at service centres in my electorate of Herbert—that is, Aitkenvale, Willows and Palm Island. Thank you for the amazing job you've done for our community of Townsville. You have stood with your fellow community and you have been the helping hand they so desperately needed. I encourage you to stick with it and continue to do our city proud.
What does this have to do with the legislation before us today? Behind the people who are on the front line of service delivery are many others behind the scenes—those who make up the agency we know as Services Australia. It was the systems that Services Australia already had in place before the pandemic that allowed us to get literally billions of dollars out of the door within weeks. We're talking about the investments we've made over the years in myGov, in the electronic payment systems, in the backend computer and in the phone networks. They all came into their own. Yes, we know there were some issues and delays due to the global pandemic, the likes of which we've never seen before, but, if a lot of that work hadn't already been done with the consolidations that have been made with Centrelink and Medicare over the years, we would have been in an incredibly different and much more difficult situation. We may have been forced to do things the old-fashioned way, which would have added even more unacceptable delays to payments and left people out on the streets and left families without food on the table.
The bill before us has come about as a result of the work that's been done to create Services Australia as an executive agency, removing some of the disused names from the former legislation and making some governance changes. This move has been important to make some of those changes that I have been speaking about to ensure effective and efficient service delivery to the Australian people. Firstly, I turn to the schedule 1 changes. These are very simple administrative changes and will enable the legislation to reflect the new set-up. Importantly, it won't affect delivery of services or be otherwise noticeable to the community. Also, it's important that we protect the name 'Services Australia', as we are doing by amending the Human Services (Centrelink) Act 1997. The last thing we want, for example, is for businesses to imply, by using the name inappropriately, that they have a connection with the Australian government.
Secondly, I refer to the schedule 2 changes. Currently, the Chief Executive of Centrelink, the Chief Executive of Medicare and the Child Support Registrar are required to be different employees in Services Australia. We are changing that so that the responsibilities of those three positions can be exercised by the CEO of Services Australia. Rolling these three positions into the one makes sense, as the CEO already has responsibility for the operations of the executive agency. This is simply a result of the hard work that has been going into consolidating everything and increasing the efficiency of the agency so that people in the community can get the help they need in the least amount of time possible.
As I've said, these are largely administrative changes. They need to occur as we improve government services for the communities that we all serve. And that's what we need to remember. This shouldn't be about government, this shouldn't be about agencies, this shouldn't be about red tape making life more difficult; this should be about the people of Australia, the people each of us represent in this House, and ensuring that they have the support they need through Centrelink, through Medicare and through child support. I commend this bill to the House.