Thursday, 8 October 2020
Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020; Second Reading
I'm really pleased to stand here and speak on the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020. I've been waiting quite a while and it seems that every time it's time to speak about the bill something else happens, so I'm finally here. At one level this seems to be a fairly benign bill, with just some changes in terminology. References to 'Department of Human Services', DHS, are to be replaced with 'Services Australia' or 'the agency', and references to 'secretary' are to be changed to 'chief executive officer'. It ensures that information that was held by DHS before it became an executive agency continues to be protected. It protects the name 'Services Australia' from misuse and makes some consequential amendments, removing redundant definitions in line with those points. But there are some significant changes to the machinery of government.
Labor, of course, support this bill. But, at the same time, we're calling on the government to lift the APS staffing cap for Services Australia because of the consequences that that has had. I'm sure that all of us have stories to relate about the difficulties that our constituents have had in accessing Centrelink payments, particularly in recent times. I'll get to that in a minute.
I do want to acknowledge the contribution by the member for Herbert, because I think it's very fitting that he started by acknowledging Services Australia staff and the enormity of the challenges they have had, particularly with record unemployment in this very, very unusual year—I'm tempted to use the word 'unprecedented', but I think that word has been slightly overused. He is absolutely right to acknowledge the people who work at Services Australia and the very, very important work that they do.
While this bill does offer some really significant changes around governance and, as I mentioned earlier, some rather benign changes around terminology, it fails to address some of the core issues around Services Australia. I know that my Labor colleagues who spoke before I did have raised these issues, and those who speak after me will also do so. At the very centre of those issues is the arbitrary staffing cap which has been imposed across the public sector and which has led to an overreliance on labour hire to keep up with demand, as well as an exorbitant overspend on outsourcing and on consultants.
I think we're all rather haunted by those images of the lines at Centrelink that were splashed across our TV screens in March this year. And we're not just haunted by it. I think it really deeply affected every single Australian to see our nation and our country in such a situation. It brought back memories of wartime, the Depression and some of the darkest days in our history as a nation. And right there at the front line were the Services Australia staff. Like many of my colleagues on both sides of the House, we were inundated in my office with queries from people who were so desperate and so emotional. It was really hard not to get emotional when you spoke to people who, for the first time in their lives, had to go and stand in those lines and rely on social welfare, people who had to go onto a JobKeeper or a JobSeeker allowance and deal with a government agency or a social welfare agency for the first time in their lives.
Many of us, though, were very grateful that we live in Australia, where we do have such a social safety net, and we should absolutely be very proud of that in Australia. But if we're going to have a safety net, as we do, as the member has just said, we need it to be properly staffed. Over that initial period of the pandemic, when people were desperate and exasperated and were standing in queues or waiting on the telephone for hours on end, many people spoke to me about their experiences of the inadequate level of staffing at Services Australia. Of course, that's not anything new. Anybody who has had to deal with Services Australia or Centrelink before the COVID crisis hit knows that they could spend half their day on the phone being put on hold and—let's be honest—having to listen to some pretty horrible music, most of the time. But that's not the worst part of it.
The worst part of it is that, when people have to walk through those doors or get on that phone, they are at one of the lowest moments in their lives. I speak to this from the personal experience of having been one of those people. I remember the point in my life when I had to walk through those doors. At the very least, we should allow people to do that with dignity and grace. Keeping people on hold for hours at a time and keeping them waiting in lines for hours at a time does nothing to alleviate the stress, the pain and the mental health issues that are associated with people having to go on welfare. But, as the member for Herbert acknowledged, we are very, very fortunate in this country that we have frontline staff at Services Australia who do their best and who did their utmost during the crisis to provide a level of service to people that made them feel as well as they could in their times of crisis.
The staff at Services Australia managed a remarkable workload during that time—not only during COVID but even before that, dealing with the bushfire response in January and of course the surge of new applicants. These jobs are undoubtedly tough but rewarding for the people who take them on. They are what we might call the frontline jobs during the pandemic, and the pandemic has shown us that those people are our front line of defence against these security challenges that aren't your conventional types of challenges.
Labor welcomed the government's announcement on 22 March about engaging 5,000 additional new workers for Services Australia, to help with demand. But we do note that that number, 5,000, is exactly the number of workers the government have cut from the front line over the past six years. Imagine if they hadn't cut those 5,000 workers. Imagine the different experience that people who had to present at Services Australia and at Centrelink would have had, had this government not cut 5,000 workers from Services Australia over the past six years. I think it would be a very different image and a very different experience for those people.
Initially, Services Australia brought in an additional 5,000 staff through the agreements with their service delivery partners and other labour hire agencies, as well as 7,000 others redeployed from across the Australian Public Service. The fact is that there have been approximately 800,000 to a million new claims processed for JobSeeker, the same number of applications that would generally be processed by the agency across two years. So you've got two years of claims being condensed into a number of months, with many people claiming for the very first time—one in eight applicants needing to apply for a CRN for the very first time. I remember being on the phone at midnight to people who were struggling to find out how they could apply for a CRN, who had never had to apply for one before and who were totally lost. So there were 10,000 new jobs to deal with almost a million new claims. It hardly seems workable, does it? It hardly seems at all workable. So I think it is right that we acknowledge the incredible workload that the staff at Services Australia had to undertake.
We would like to see a lifting or a complete removal of the arbitrary staffing cap placed on Services Australia, as well as on the rest of the Public Service. We have a very good public service in Australia, and I speak as someone who was once, albeit many years ago, a public servant. Lifting that cap would allow the newly established agency to recruit an appropriate number of staff, determined by demand, and enable them to deliver the services that are required and to meet the increased demand brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
If workers are directly employed by Services Australia, it will allow for an engaged, a stable and an experienced workforce with less turnover. I've heard from people who have been employed by Services Australia through labour hire agencies, as well as from staff who have been employed directly by Services Australia, and their experiences speak very strongly to the benefits where staff are employed directly by Services Australia, and the productivity benefits that that brings to the Public Service. Those who are employed directly by the APS speak to me of their wealth of experience, but they also talk about the time and effort that's put into training people who come in through labour hire agencies and who are only there for a short term, and the wastage that happens in that situation.
In the time I have left I think it needs to be said, while I have the attention of the House or whoever is in the House, that the withdrawal of JobKeeper and JobSeeker, and the failure of this government to spend any of the money in the budget to plug the gaps in JobSeeker and JobKeeper, has seen people slip through the net. Every single member of the House here knows that there are people in their electorate who have slipped through the net—who are ineligible for JobSeeker or JobKeeper because of the status of the work they had or because of other conditions.
In this situation, there will continue to be added demand and added need for services and added pressure on Services Australia staff. So, while we support this bill—as I mentioned earlier, it is a rather benign bill—the real issue here is that we have and continue to have an Australian Public Service that meets the demands and needs of our population. We should be proud of our Public Service, and we want to be able to continue to be proud of our Public Service. But we cannot continue to rely on a Public Service model that veers towards privatisation, that outsources much of the work and that has lower productivity and lower efficiency because of that.