Thursday, 8 October 2020
Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020; Second Reading
I'll take that interjection. Agencies have been forced to outsource and contract out time and time again, and we have heard firsthand of experiences, from talking to the Community and Public Sector Union, which does a fantastic job. I want to give a special shout-out to a local resident from my home state of Queensland, Bill Marklew OAM, who has been a great friend to many on this side of the chamber and I know the member for Griffith. Bill has had a long association with and was an advocate for the CPSU and was awarded an Order of Australia medal for his commitment and service, for advocacy for workers rights and also for the disadvantaged and marginalised in relation to forced adoptions. So, he's a wonderful advocate for many people, and he happens to live in the mighty suburb of Durack, just down the road from me.
In my office at Forest Lake we received numerous phone calls week in, week out from constituents—this was pre-COVID, pre the pandemic—from people who were unable to talk to someone, unable to get an answer back to them, unable to get the answers that they need to provide income support for their families. When we saw the long lines at Centrelink, wrapped around Wirraway Parade in Inala, I was not surprised because we saw that in the lead-up to the pandemic and we saw that long before this economic crisis unfolded.
The deputy national president of the CPSU has identified, since 2013, over 21,000 public service jobs that have been cut under successive Liberal governments, causing enormous damage to the capacity of the Commonwealth. The average staffing level cut has cut jobs and driven them to outsourcing labour hire companies and contractors. A Liberal government and job cuts—these same two terms have been in many sentences and it doesn't come as a surprise to many on this side of the chamber. Labor leader Anthony Albanese put it well when he said, 'At a time when we need muscle, the government has only left us a bone'. I thought that really summed up exactly the government's commitment to the Australian Public Service
For the last five minutes of my speech I want to turn to the impact that cuts to Human Services has had on the delivery of their services. I think it is important to raise in the parliament yet again the issue of the robodebt scandal. This is all linked into what this government's commitment to the Australian public sector, and particularly Services Australia, has meant. Robodebt is what happens when humans are taken out of Human Services. I can't say it any clearer than that. I was sitting in this place and heard the minister—from the Prime Minister down—simply dismissing it and saying, 'We have done nothing wrong. We have nothing to answer for.' They did have something to answer for. They were found to be acting illegally. I'm yet to hear a heartfelt apology from anyone inside the government, saying, 'We deeply regret what's happened. We apologise. We're upset about the 20,000 people a week we were trying to get money from.' I have one example of a retiree, a pensioner, living in Durack—it's all happening in Durack—at Aveo retirement village. I had spoken to her before. She rang me and I returned her call. She is a lovely retired schoolteacher who had a robodebt, because she had claimed too much when she was working. This woman was 92 and she had not worked for 23 years. She had a $1,680 debt and started paying off $60 a fortnight out of her pension, because she believed what the government said. She felt bad and she didn't want anyone knowing about it. She felt embarrassed talking to me about it. She said, 'I've never done anything wrong, Mr Dick. I just want to do the right thing. I wasn't sure and my daughter said I should check.' She didn't owe a cent—not one cent, nothing, zero. She had done nothing wrong. But she was doing the right thing. To my parents' generation, if the government says something you believe them. You have faith in the institutions. We obviously fixed that up—cleaned the government's mess up, if you will, in terms of this Services Australia bill today. I just thought to myself that this was just one tiny, microscopic example of what happened. Replicate that through every suburb, through every electorate right across the country and what do you get? You get tens of thousands of people who did nothing wrong. This government put in a scheme and, somehow, eight years ago it was Labor's fault that this woman got a debt under this government—insert 'ridiculous claims' by this government.
But that just demonstrates that when you take the humans out of Human Services and look at it through an ideological prism there is a human consequence. That was a really eye-opening matter for me, a real life experience, and I thought it was worthwhile putting it on the public record. I won't give the lady's name, because she would be mortified and embarrassed. But it goes to show the huge consequences for people when the government is so out of touch with what's happening in the community and doesn't look after those people.
A government member interjecting—
I'll take that interjection. They used robodebt, an unchecked, out of control algorithm, with all the safeguards and human oversights removed—once again, the humans removed from Human Services. As I said, under the Labor government around 20,000 debts were raised per year; under this government, it was 20,000 debts per week. Just let that sink in for a moment.
Robodebt was predicated on harassing, bullying and frightening Australians into paying back money that in many cases they did not even owe in the first place. As yet, there's been no apology. I'd take an apology from the minister. I probably wouldn't get it from the Prime Minister. I'll take it from anyone from the government side who wants to jump up now. I'll sit down and they can offer a heartfelt apology.
Mr Robert interjecting—
Well, if the minister is offering an apology to the people of Australia for robodebt, I will sit down. He's not taking me up on that offer, which is not surprising. It's time for the government to wake up and realise that Australians rely on Services Australia. It's time that they properly funded and staffed it and ensured that the services that Australians need and rely on are delivered to them.