Thursday, 8 October 2020
Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020; Second Reading
I am very pleased to contribute to the debate on the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020. The bill lays out the proposed framework and structure for the Department of Human Services replacement agency, Services Australia. As my Labor colleagues have mentioned, it puts forward a number of changes, really to modernise the terminology and streamline reporting in the transition to the new agency. Labor will support the government in these aims. What we are not willing to do, however, is to sit mutely while those opposite privatise the public sector by stealth. It is that point that the member for Dobell's amendment goes to. It calls on the government to do some very important things, including abolishing the ASL offset rule, which has the effect of capping average staffing levels within Services Australia. It calls on the government to stop the excessive use of consultancy firms and contractors to outsource important government services, including Centrelink. It calls on the government to recognise that the staffing cap is a false economy that undermines the quality of government services, especially those delivered by Services Australia. I am very pleased to put on the record today my strong support for these calls and that amendment. I do note that the budget flagged an increase of 3.5 per cent, but it was significantly below the staff cap and it only represents an increase of 325 people above the previous staffing cap.
It's important that we have these sorts of discussions in the Australian parliament about what we want from public agencies like Centrelink, especially as we start to make the big decisions about what sort of country we want to build in the future. COVID-19 has demonstrated that, when the will is there, big changes can be made and that this can happen very quickly. It has also demonstrated the importance of a strong, responsive Public Service. Contrary to the constant attacks and undermining of Liberal governments, who have long insisted on the virtues of small government, it turns out that the Public Service had a major role to play in the fight against coronavirus. Yet it's a role that could have been more effective had the Public Service not been subject to years of savage cuts and an unrelenting push to privatise essential services.
Centrelink has always been there for Australians when they have been at their lowest ebb. When people face bereavement or disability, they look to Centrelink for support. When they take on caring duties or get sick, they rely on Centrelink to get them through. Indeed, it's Centrelink that millions of Australians have turned to in recent months as COVID-19 restrictions threatened or destroyed an unthinkable number of jobs and businesses. Sadly, this profoundly important agency was found wanting because of the way it has been neglected by this government. As the queues grew, so did the frustrations with Centrelink's failure to keep up. Despite the hard work of committed staff, people queued for hours but weren't served. Calls to the hotline were unmet, with engaged signals or never-ending on hold messages. Online visitors reached a dead end when the myGov website crashed.
But these weren't problems born just of the pandemic. Under the Liberals, staff have been cut, queues have grown and phone wait times have ballooned. Additionally, an arbitrary staffing cap, installed by this government, has forced management to farm out some of its most sensitive and fundamental functions to casuals and contractors. The government pretends that this is about saving money, but everybody knows that's a nonsense, because contract workers cost the taxpayer even more than salaried public servant, even though they personally get paid less. The difference, of course, goes to the bottom line of private labour hire companies, who are making an absolute motza out of this mess. Too often we have seen staff start work in frontline roles without adequate skills or training, so that, when people do get to speak to a person, they often find they don't have adequate knowledge to answer their questions. I want to be clear: this is not the fault of any of these workers. They are just doing the best they can in the face of concerted government attacks.
The sad truth is that Centrelink has been so diminished by this government that it now struggles to fulfil some of its core responsibilities. Year on year this Liberal government has set out to starve Centrelink of resources and cruel its ability to deliver for Australians. But it gets worse. Not content with capping staff and slashing resources, the Morrison government recently turned its attention to shutting down Centrelink's physical presence in communities—the very offices that people go to when they need help. Indeed, this year, community after community has learnt that their frontline Centrelink offices are slated for closure. Initially, we thought it was just the one office. Then we learned of another and another and another. It quickly became clear that they weren't isolated decisions. No, they were part of a devious, coordinated plan to shrink Centrelink's frontline footprint by stealth. From Mornington and Newport in Victoria, to Tweed Heads, to my home city of Newcastle in New South Wales, local communities woke up in shock to find their Centrelink offices shuttered, merging or under threat.
Of course, the Morrison government wasn't honest with the public about these plans, which will leave jobseekers—needy and vulnerable Australians—out in the cold. Newcastle was one of the first to be targeted. The first I heard was when the minister wrote to me to tell me that the government will be closing the Mayfield and King Street Centrelink offices to replace them with a single office in a yet to be determined location. He talked coldly of consolidation, which of course we all know is Liberal code for cuts, cuts and more cuts. I can't begin to tell you how furious I was when I got this letter. How dare this government set about axing my critical local frontline services with so little regard for the consequences, how dare they treat Novocastrians with such contempt and how dare they think they can get away with this appalling plan.
When I found out what the government had cooked up and spoke to my community about the implications of these plans for them, I launched a community campaign. I called on Novocastrians to join with me in the fight to save our Centrelink offices at King Street and Mayfield. I asked them to denounce the government's nefarious plot. I requested their personal stories which showed what these local offices mean to them, and, boy, did they step up. It has been quite incredible, actually. I have received dozens and dozens of calls, letters and emails of solidarity. People wrote to me about how much they relied on Centrelink's frontline services. They shared their personal stories about what those offices meant to them and their families, and they sent me copies of the letters that they had sent to the minister urging him to axe this stupid plan.
If I was heartened by the letters of support, I was completely overwhelmed by the support for my community petition. Today, I'd like to formally record in the Australian parliament that 3,458 Novocastrians signed this petition which called on the government to axe this terrible plan and leave Newcastle's Centrelink offices alone. And I'd like to sincerely thank each and every person who took the time to write, to call, to email or to drop in to my office to register their dissent. On this matter, there can be no doubt: Newcastle loudly, proudly and unequivocally said no to these closures. I stand here now on behalf of my community to deliver this message. I say no to this shameful plan. Mr Morrison, Newcastle says no to this shameful plan—no to starving Centrelink of the resources it needs to properly support Novocastrians in times of need.