Thursday, 8 October 2020
Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020; Second Reading
I'm speaking in support of the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020, and before I get to the crux, to the details of the bill, I also wish to add my praise and thanks to all the wonderful staff of Services Australia, who over recent months have been doing a sterling job in providing support to Australians in their time of need. I represent an electorate that has as part of it Sydney's economic powerhouse: Sydney airport. Anyone who goes to Sydney airport at the moment knows that it's on its knees—it's a ghost town. And many people who work around the airport or are associated with the airport have lost their jobs or been stood down. They've been calling on and have been provided with services and support by the wonderful staff of Services Australia.
I also have in my electorate the University of New South Wales, one of Australia's largest universities. And of course many have been affected by COVID there, who have either been stood down or have lost their jobs. Unfortunately the government chose not to support the higher education sector, one of the most vitally important employers not only in my community but in many communities throughout the country, particularly rural and regional areas. Many people who work in the university sector have suffered and have had to call on the staff of Services Australia.
I also want to recognise the emotional element of this sort of work. Often when people are under stress and pressure, having lost their job or been stood down—losing income, with their family budget under pressure and having bills and a mortgage to pay—they can get anxious and they can get quite testy, particularly over the telephone or if they're experiencing frustration in dealing with the internet. Quite often it is the staff of Services Australia and the former department of human services who bear the brunt of that frustration, and they do a great job in dealing with that and ensuring that people still get the service they deserve in these trying times. I think it is important that we also recognise that there is an emotional element in the work that these people do in providing support for Australians, in their time of need.
The bill sets out a structure for a newly established executive agency, Services Australia, to replace the now abolished Department of Human Services. Labor supports modifications to public sector governance structures that lead to good outcomes for not only the Australian people but also the employees of the government who work in these departments. Staff at Services Australia have managed a remarkable workload in recent times, from dealing with the bushfire and the response in January to the surge of new applications associated with that. Then, of course, they have been dealing with drought—not only over the course of the last 12 months but basically for the last four or five years—and the new challenges that that has brought with the new programs that the government has been providing to assist those affected by drought. Then we were hit with COVID, and the wave of people who lost their jobs and were accessing government payments for the first time were having difficulty navigating that system. We all remember the queues of people lining up for unemployment benefits, for JobKeeper payments, for the first time in their lives. The skill, experience and dedication that Services Australia staff showed to the Australian public during that time was quite remarkable. These undoubtedly are tough but rewarding frontline services jobs and they deserve our greatest thanks and efforts, always, but in particular over the past few months.
Approximately 800,000 new claims have been processed for JobSeeker, the same number of applications that would generally be processed by the agency across a two-year period. I think that perfectly highlights just how hard people in this agency have worked over the course of the last few months. Many of those new applicants have never accessed Centrelink before and one-in-eight new applicants need to apply for a CRN—a registration number—for the first time. Labor therefore welcomed the government's 22 March announcement on engaging 5,000 additional workers to help move through the new demand at Services Australia—poignantly, almost exactly the number they have cut from the front line over the past six years. I think that says everything about this government's approach to the Public Service—the cuts that are routinely undertaken by this coalition government, the contracting out of waves of jobs that are highly important to the proper delivery of services. And let's face it: that's the reason Australians pay taxes. We pay taxes so that we get access to decent services, be that through Medicare, through education or through Services Australia and other frontline jobs. We pay taxes to ensure that we get access to good services. The notion of good services, and paying taxes for them, has been broken down by this government successively over the last seven years. It's not just across Services Australia; it's across basically every single government agency in the Public Service. There have been job losses, staff caps and contracting out, and quite often it costs the government and the budget a lot more money than it ordinarily would to have those employees directly employed by the government and doing work directly for the government. There have been a number of cases where the Auditor-General has exposed waste and mismanagement, particularly in relation to work that is contracted out to private organisations. There seems to be a posse of them, if you like, that seem to get all of this work that is contracted out by the government. There have been instances where there has been abuse of public funds and it hasn't been in the interests of the Australian taxpayer and the Australian people.
Services Australia initially 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 across the Australian Public Service. Unfortunately, the demand for Services Australia's services is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. Despite the Morrison government's illusion that somehow the economy is going to snap back in March, many Australians are still going to experience being stood down or unemployed at the time that some of these government payments are proposed to run out. That's going to put enormous pressure on the staff of Services Australia, particularly when a lot of these people learn that they are no longer receiving support but don't have a job to go back to. That is going to be a big challenge for Services Australia management and staff, and it's something that this government should be aware of in the lead-up to that March deadline.
This bill fails to address some of the core issues that exist at Services Australia. I mentioned some of those earlier, such as contracting out and the diminution of expertise in the area. A classic example in the Public Service is when this government got rid of a number of employees of ASIC, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. They did that in the lead-up to the banking royal commission. When the banking royal commission hit, it found that the regulator wasn't sufficiently resourced to deal with the litany of complaints about financial services coming from across Australia. When the government actually woke up to it and decided that ASIC needed additional personnel, it was too late. A lot of the expertise, particularly around investigations and prosecutions, had been lost, because the Abbott government had got rid of it in the 2014 budget. The government then, arguably at an additional cost to the Australian taxpayer, had to go searching for people to fill these positions in the lead-up to the banking royal commission. The royal commission was critical of the fact that a lot of the expertise of the regulators had been lost in the lead-up to these scandals occurring, which affected literally hundreds of thousands of Australians and their welfare. That is a classic example of this government's short-sightedness when it comes to the Public Service.
This arbitrary staffing cap that the government applied across the Public Service has led to an overreliance on labour hire, as well as exorbitant overspends and outsourcing to consultants, to keep up with demand. I note that in the budget released a couple of days ago the government saw fit to lift the cap by 3½ thousand across the Public Service. But, again, in the ultimate act of short-sightedness, that lifting of the cap only lasts 12 months. They're going to revert back to the original cap in 2022. The 3½ thousand that they're going to bring in to deal with the extra demand associated with COVID, which is going to last well and truly beyond the next 12 months, are going to be removed in 12 months time under this government's plan. If that's not short-sighted and working against the interests of the average Australian, I don't know what is. That is once again going to see enormous pressure placed on those that are doing the work and are the public face of providing support for Australians during this difficult period.
The reality is that the staffing cap is a cut in real staffing numbers and also, in many respects, a privatisation by stealth, because a lot of that work then ends up in the hands of the private sector. It ends up being profit for private organisations, when it could be revenue that comes back into the government coffers to ensure that we build the Public Service and build better services for all Australians. Agencies are forced to outsource, to contract out, to spend exorbitant amounts on consultants or to engage labour hire contractors to staff departments to make up for the lack of in-house staff that we've seen across a number of government departments.
The shadow minister for the environment spoke before me in this debate and mentioned the fact that a lot of private organisations in Australia are saying that government approvals for environmental projects are taking too long. There's a reason why those approvals are taking too long. It's because this government has cut the resources and staff that are there to assess those approvals. The government has been claiming that there's something wrong with the EPBC Act and its operation, that there's too much green tape, when in reality those opposite are themselves the problem because they got rid of department staff that were specifically tasked with assessing projects and their suitability for environmental approval, and with providing timely decisions so that, where projects do meet the tests in the EPBC Act, they could be up and running as quickly as possible and provide jobs for Australians. So there's a bit of hypocrisy in this government's argument that there's too much green tape, because actually they're the problem—they cut staff and services in our public sector.
This bill is a positive development. It does reorganise a very important department, but the government really does need to wake up to itself and realise that if you're going to deliver decent services—services that Australians pay taxes for—then Services Australia and other government departments need to be properly resourced, and that means ending some of the contracting out, the outsourcing, and removing some of these arbitrary staffing caps that have held back Australians and meant they haven't got the services that they deserve.