Tuesday, 18 October 2016
Matters of Public Importance
I have received a letter from the honourable member for Barton proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The Government's mismanagement of Centrelink hurting Australians.
I call upon those members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
I rise today on a matter of public importance which affects thousands of Australians—people in every one of our electorates. The government's mismanagement of Centrelink is hurting many of our fellow citizens. Despite the way those opposite talk about it, Centrelink is not just the agency that deals with cheaters, bludgers and leaners. It is an agency responsible for looking after our welfare safety net. It serves some of the most disadvantaged, vulnerable and marginalised in our community—people who desperately want to find work, who live with long-term disabilities or who care for sick family members, often with enormous stress and sacrifice. Our community will be judged on how it treats those most voiceless and least enfranchised—precisely those people who rely on our social safety net. Imagine if you were in those shoes. Those opposite see this safety net only in terms of the budget bottom line. On this side of the House, we see it in terms of people.
The government's mismanagement of Centrelink and its deliberate punishment of those who are doing nothing wrong is unconscionable. The Minister for Human Services has enacted policies which do not just seek to make the system harder to exploit—and of course we condemn those who try to exploit the system—but the minister seeks to make the lives of those who rely on Centrelink far more difficult. Yesterday the Prime Minister was questioned by the member for Bruce, who is in the House, about one constituent receiving the disability support pension who was asked to go through an onerous and expensive review process. That constituent's disability was so self-evidently debilitating that his specialist wrote to Centrelink managers noting that the review was a total waste of time, and the minister knows this because the minister intervened. It was traumatic for the constituent and for his family and, as the minister knows, it was totally unnecessary. This is not just a one-off story; it is the story of thousands. Do not look at the floor, those on the opposite side. You know these stories in each of your electorates. If you had any gumption and if you had any honesty, you would tell those stories today.
I wish I could say this was an isolated case, but, as I say, every member here knows these stories. Indeed, according to figures released late last year, of the 5,000 people taken off the disability support pension only 70 were subsequently able to go back into the workforce. Are we to believe that the other 6,300 individuals were just lazy? We do not believe that. One man who has approached my office was forced to wait months—after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and being made redundant—to receive the disability support pension. When he asked whether he could claim Newstart allowance in the interim he was told he would have to wait months for that too!
It is not just people with a disability who are suffering as the result of the Minister for Human Services' failure. People have been left in limbo while being assessed for the disability support pension, with no idea of what their future contains. I have seen age pensioners who have been forced to wait months—not just one or two months, but many, many months—for their applications to be assessed. They have had to rely on emergency assistance. These are people who have contributed for 65 years of their life to the Australian economy, and they are told they have to wait. There are thousands of these people. What about students? We know about students who have applied for the student payment and have been left to wait for up to six months. I know of one case here in Canberra where a student had to wait so long he was forced to sleep in a tent because his family did not have the means to help support him. Let us talk about farmers who have applied for emergency assistance. Those of you in the National Party know these people. They have been waiting months and months for any support, and they are the farmers of this country.
Centrelink cannot continue to stumble from disaster to disaster. It is too important for too many people. People do not choose to have a disability; people do not choose to have to care for relatives who have become sick; and, for the most part, people do not choose to be unemployed. If the government are not deliberately punishing Centrelink customers then they are doing a shocking job of managing the department. Thirty per cent of customers who call Centrelink wait so long on hold that they have to hang up. Then there is the fabrication of wait times. Wait times are the biggest furphy. The triage might be 10 to 12 minutes but the waiting time for some decent, proper advice from someone who understands the issue is over one hour in most cases. For some people this is not just about patience. If you are unemployed, the cost of a phone call, in particular one taking that long, can be prohibitive. Even if you manage to get through and talk to someone at Centrelink, you still face months of waiting for your application to be assessed. That could mean months without any income. I say to the Minister for Human Services, who is in the chamber: put yourself in those shoes.
The services provided at shopfronts are no better. According to the department's last annual report, complaints are up almost 20 per cent and customer satisfaction is continuing to fall. In fact, customers who visit Centrelink service centres are now being told at many centres that they cannot lodge Medicare claims, and they are also waiting weeks and weeks for those claims to be assessed. The claims are being sent off into the never-never and we really do not know what is going on there. I suspect the minister does not either. If he does, we would like to hear him explain why it takes three or four weeks for a Medicare form to be processed.
As the shadow minister says, what is he going to do about it? When it comes to other payments, the government will not tell us how big the backlog is, but we know that the processing time is increasing.
The problems at Centrelink are no secret to the staff who work there. I want to talk about the staff, because you, Minister, are doing those staff a great disservice. How can they be expected to assist people in the community when they have waited over 28 months for the government to come to the table with a decent workplace agreement—one that includes domestic violence leave if they need it? Even though customer service standards are falling and people are increasingly unable to gain access to the system, we also know that the government is cutting another 1,000 jobs—
Opposition members: What!
They are cutting another thousand jobs from Centrelink. This minister is cutting 1,000 jobs! That is 1,000 fewer people to help process claims, answer phones or help submit applications. The staff are totally distressed. These are not the actions of a government that wants to fix the problem; they are the actions of a government working hard to undermine our welfare system. When I talk to Centrelink staff—as we all do—they are increasingly concerned. On all fronts the government is failing. Centrelink staff want to do their jobs, and they are doing their best, but they are under enormous pressure. Morale is low.
I also have to say that it is time we changed the language that we use to talk about our social safety net. We should be proud that we have a welfare system that means, for the most part, that being diagnosed with a serious disability, losing your job or just getting old will not force you over the edge. People who cheat the welfare system should be caught and they should be punished, but the majority of people—as you know, Minister—are being punished because they are in these positions. They are being punished because you are cutting jobs. They are being punished because the system is so hard to negotiate. Making life difficult for people with long-term disabilities will not make them more able to work. Making it more difficult for the unemployed to access support will not help people find a job. Making people wait months to receive their aged pension will not improve their standard of living. So why does the government keep doing it? The truth is that this government, even though we have a new Prime Minister and a new Treasurer, is still operating with a Joe Hockey mindset. We all remember the cigars back in 2014!
In this government's view, people who visit Centrelink are not valued members of our community. They are not voters or constituents. This government and this minister say they are just 'leaners'. They are not leaners; they are people who rely on people like us to give them a hand up. Minister, the hand up is not there. The hand is there taking things away, making it more difficult, pushing people to the edge where they become desperate. Minister, you cannot cut another thousand jobs. You cannot make people wait for 1½ hours to get some sort of assistance. People do not choose to have a disability. People do not choose to have ill parents so that they have to be carers. You, Minister, are responsible.
May I start by agreeing with the shadow minister for human services on at least one thing, which is that we should be thankful we have such a strong social security safety net in this country. I think it is a mark of a modern, prosperous, generous society that we have such a system in place. Indeed, this system has saved thousands of people over the decades from going hungry, from going without shelter and from going without clothing. I think we should always reflect upon that and be very proud of the social security system that we have. That is probably where my agreement with the shadow minister ends—other than also agreeing with her that people with disabilities do not choose their disability. Of course they do not, and I think it is quite offensive that she would suggest we think otherwise.
I would like to start my substantive remarks on this MPI by thanking the 35,000 DHS staff who work tirelessly in support of many of the people the shadow minister referred to. Whenever I am out visiting electorates or doing other community visits I try to make an effort to drop in to the local Centrelink centre, and typically I find very dedicated staff who are working in those organisations because they want to make a difference to people's lives. Often they are under stress, sometimes they are dealing with angry people and sometimes they are dealing with aggressive people. I think they do it incredibly professionally and I hope that they do not take the shadow minister's comments from today's MPI as a reflection upon their professionalism. It should not be a reflection on their professionalism. I think the Centrelink staff actually are a very professional group of people who are doing their best.
Centrelink itself is in some respects the main government interface for millions of Australians. Our service centres and our call centres deal with thousands upon thousands of people every single day. About 600,000 interactions each day are done by Centrelink staff; 80,000 face-to-face contacts and almost 140,000 online transactions are conducted each day. In the process, they administer payments of about $150 billion. By and large, I think that the Centrelink operations overall do quite well. I am not suggesting that they are perfect—because they are not—but, overall, given the size of the Department of Human Services, it will never be perfect and will always be seeking to improve.
The biggest change, which is occurring over the next few years and which has already started, is the digital transformation which is happening right now. This will mean that people will be able to interact with Centrelink much more seamlessly in the future. I will go into that a little bit more in just a minute. But I would point out that these are digital transformations that the Labor Party, in their six long years of government, never undertook. They had the opportunity to do so but never invested in those systems which would indeed make it much easier for many Australians to be able to interact with Centrelink.
Ms Husar interjecting—
Ms Burney interjecting—
Ms Keay interjecting—
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Let's have a look at the service standards from Centrelink today. That was indeed what the shadow minister was largely referring to in terms of how people are dealt with when they are applying for a Centrelink benefit, when they are having their process claimed and they are on the call centres and the like.
I point out to begin with that the Department of Human Services met over 86 per cent of its KPIs last year. These KPIs are generally-agreed community standards. Many of them were actually set underneath the Labor governments, and we are delivering upon those, by and large. The average wait time when you go to a Centrelink office around the country is about 10 minutes. That is the average wait time when you go to a service centre office. Typically, if you go to a GP clinic or another type of service, that is not an unreasonable time to wait. The average call wait time at the moment is 11 minutes, when the KPI is 16 minutes.
I admit that that figure is an average so of course you have a curve. Some people are waiting a shorter amount of time; other people are waiting a longer amount of time, but the average is 11 minutes. We are always looking to bring that figure down, and obviously that comes at a considerable cost.
Do you know when the call wait times did actually blow out? They actually used to be—and the shadow minister is, I know, a relatively new member to this parliament—but the call wait times actually ballooned out in the Labor years. And the Australian National Audit Office found that between 2010-11 and 2011-12 the call wait times went from three minutes and five seconds out to 11 minutes and 45 seconds. That occurred under the Labor government, and that is the Australian National Audit Office who found this.
Do you know why this occurred, why those wait times ballooned out? Because the Labor Party ripped out at that time 1,100 staff in order to do that, and that is when those call wait times ballooned out.
Ms Burney interjecting—
I appreciate that the member for Barton is a very new member to this parliament but I think it is probably incumbent on her to know a little bit of the history in relation to that as well.
Let me go to what we are doing overall, and this is the big system transformation that we are now referring to. Unlike the Labor Party when they were in government for six long years, we are investing a billion dollars to upgrade the welfare payment system. When this system is upgraded, it will make it so much easier for individual citizens to be able to interact with the Centrelink office. In many cases—and indeed we hope in most cases—they will never have to go to a Centrelink office, they will not have to call a call centre and they will not be waiting for their claims to be processed because they will be seamlessly done.
Let me give you an example of how this might occur in the not too distant future. I will give the example of student processing. The member opposite mentioned the student claims—if you are putting in a claim for youth allowance or for Austudy and the like. At the moment, and certainly this was the case under the Labor Party when they were in government, they would put in a claim
Ms Husar interjecting—
They would put in a claim, and they might even put that claim in online. Then that claim would be printed out at the other end, then manually entered into somewhere else. A person would have to pick up that claim. They would have to interrogate the ATO database to ensure that that person's parents' income did not go above a certain threshold. They might have to interrogate a university system to ensure their course load was equally truthful according to what was being said.
That might take several weeks to do. In the meantime, of course, the student is ringing up and trying to find out where their claim is at. That is understandable. That creates a lot of time and a lot of effort. In the process, 40 per cent of those claims get rejected, in large part because the student does not understand their parental income. So a large part of those are automatically rejected once that is understood. But of course we have gone through that whole process to get that.
In the near future, because of the investment which this government is making—which the Labor Party refused to make, despite knowing about these issues which were going on—a student will be able to put in a claim online. That claim will automatically interrogate the ATO database to find out what their income is and what their parents' income might be. It will also interrogate the university's course system so that the system itself understands what the course load is of that student. Then—literally, for many people—you will get an automatic response in terms of whether that claim is successful or otherwise.
That is the picture of the future. And that is in the not too distant future, and that will occur because this government had the decency, the courage and the foresight to be investing in upgrading these Medicare payment systems.
Of course, this builds upon the work which we have done in the myGov space. We now have 10 million people who are registered on myGov and who can now tell our system once and have those details updated not only for their Centrelink records but potentially for their Medicare records, their Child Support Agency records and elsewhere. It builds on the work we have done in the Medicare space, where 96 per cent of all claims are now done digitally. Swipe your card—that is all you have to do in order for your rebate to occur.
We take these service standards very seriously. We are constantly trying to improve them and, in the future, there are going to be great steps forward in this. (Time expired)
I rise to speak to this motion, and, listening to the minister, it is like an episode of Fantasy Island. The government's mismanagement of Centrelink is hurting millions of Australians. And it is important at the outset to state, Minister, that it is about the government. I will have no part, and we will have no part, in bashing public servants. Collectively, they do important work, and, in a civilised society, a decent society, we need great public services and great public servants. And citizens have a right to expect efficient, effective service.
The Centrelink workforce, as we have heard and as we know, is under terrible stress. Under this government, it is 1,000 days, Minister, and counting, since you have had the decency to have an EBA for your staff. And you can tell a lot about a government—and a minister who turns his back on the debate—by the way they treat their staff. I have spoken to people in my electorate about the threats to pay and conditions. That is a two-year wage freeze, Minister, largely falling on women—people with caring responsibilities, in this carers' week. But the most disgraceful part of your EBA policy is to remove the rights to wages and conditions and job flexibility for your own workforce—that is right: to remove the right to flexible working conditions for people with caring responsibilities. And I know; I have been there. I have lived, at times, as a single parent. I know the importance of being able to leave at 3 pm as an industrial right, not at the whim of a management that is able to direct you to work on the other side of town, Minister. This is serious stuff for people in your agency, and this is your government's policy. You really can tell a lot about their response.
So we see the cuts. We see the empty desks. We know the impossible workloads.
For the community, we know what this means. It does mean extra waiting time. It does mean claims being lost. And you know who bears the burden when claims are lost; it is the recipient, going to the back of the queue.
I was speaking to the member for Longman earlier. She recounted the story of a constituent in her electorate with terminal brain cancer. He was diagnosed as having four to six months to live, or perhaps a little longer. His wife quit work to care for him. Four months in—no carer's pension. No carer's pension, Minister. In two months, the prognosis is, that man will be dead, still waiting for his wife to receive a carer's pension.
But it is not just bad administration and cuts and mismanagement. There is a deliberate government policy, a cruel policy, of picking on the vulnerable. I refer to the debate which has emerged—and it has certainly hit a raw nerve across Australia—in relation to your government's policies around the Disability Support Pension reviews. I fear it is the tip of the iceberg.
You are aware—because I know you spoke to the media—about this case that I have raised. I wrote to you. We tried with Centrelink. Nothing happened. But then, when The Age journalist got onto you, all of a sudden it was, 'Nothing to see here; no, no; we'll sort it out.' Well, your welfare crackdown on fraud is a fraud.
I would like to mention just some of the responses we have had in relation to this case. Margo said: 'My brother, a thalidomide victim, had to provide medical evidence that his arms had not magically grown back'! James said: 'I had a friend who had his leg amputated and suffered some other serious health problems after an accident and was refused a DSP as Centrelink told him his legs will grow back.' Of course, you may think these folk stories. But then I received a message from another constituent who recounted a tale to me of one of your colleagues, the member for Deakin, publicly denying, at a public meeting, that these amputee cases are even happening. That is right—at a public meeting on housing and homelessness, one of your government's members denied that these cases are even happening.
Minister, I have been overwhelmed—and I have had no response like it before—by the response from the public in the last few days to these cases. And I agree with you, having been a public servant: not everything is perfect, and sometimes mistakes are made. They can be honest mistakes, and they can be rectified. And some of the complaints, which we all get, as to Centrelink, need to be fixed. They are not fair. You cannot pick on the staff; they are working in impossible conditions.
But the government's policy in directing these reviews to the most vulnerable in the community—and causing hurt and fear to the families across Australia who are sitting there waiting for their turn to come to have to try and get to the doctor, and to find the out-of-pocket fees to see a specialist, to prove the bleeding obvious—has to stop. I draw the attention of the members of the House to an inquiry. In my capacity as the deputy chair of the parliament's Public Accounts and Audit Committee, we ticked off last week and it was announced yesterday that in November there will be a public hearing into the Auditor-General's report that you referred to—a public hearing into the Disability Support Pension and your department's administration of it. And I look forward to submissions from everyone across Australia, from every disability and advocacy group, so we can get to the bottom of this.
This government is not mismanaging Centrelink. In fact, we are forging ahead with new ideas and new technology. The very idea that Centrelink is going backwards is absolute bunkum. We will become more accountable and more efficient to those vulnerable people who need our services, while the rorting and the waste so often attributed to those on the other side will be reined in. We cannot do this overnight, but we are making great headway on doing that.
Centrelink has a very, very important job, and the Centrelink staff are very important to the whole operation. They do a great job. They must deal with all sorts, from all walks of life, as we all know. I am sure we have all been to Centrelink offices and know that the variety of people coming and looking for assistance is humungous, and the way the staff generally handle these situations is very admirable indeed.
However, we are trying to make their lives better with better working conditions, and we are moving into the technology age, of digital recording and digital processing of claims. This, we hope, will bring the waiting time down from 11 days to virtually instant. This will take a little while to achieve, but that is our aim and our goal, and we will achieve it.
It will not be like the Queensland government when they changed the computer system for the payroll system; it was a mess for many, many years. I think they are still trying to claim back the money that was overpaid et cetera.
Mr Perrett interjecting—
Anna Bligh was the Premier who oversaw that changing of the computer system for the payroll system. We are moving from an old world to a new world. The new world will take individuals on a case-by-case basis and give them the control they need to go directly to where and when—they want a device that will look after their needs. They do not want to do what they do now: go to a place where they are told to sit on a chair and wait and wait. So that is where we are going and that should be good. They handle a lot of people. There are 56 million phone calls a year and 21 million face-to-face visits to Centrelink offices. That is how big the problem is and we are addressing those issues.
Labor did absolutely nothing for six years; the system never changed.
Dr Leigh interjecting—
When you are finished I will continue. For too long, government services have not kept pace. There is $1.9 billion in fraud and overpayments. That is $1.9 billion that we will never receive back. Under Labor, waiting times went from three minutes out to 11 minutes; they ballooned out under your control. It takes time to fix these things. Labor also ripped out 1,100 telephone staff—and therein lies another problem.
Opposition members interjecting—
Well, you put them off. You cannot lecture us on putting staff; you put off 1,100. I recall how efficient you were in the 2011 floods! There was a major flood in my area, especially the Burnett River. Bundaberg went under and I was further upstream at Mundubbera. Nicola Roxon was the Attorney-General. We were trying to work out at the time whether we had a category A, B, C or D—
The state needs to recommend it to the Attorney-General and the Attorney-General must sign off. I think it got too hard for Nicola because she resigned smack bang in the middle of the floods. So that is what they thought— (Time expired)
As hard as it is to follow the big guns opposite, I will give it my best. Listening to those opposite defend Medicare and Centrelink delays is like thinking the Attorney-General gets on with the Solicitor-General or that the Prime Minister looks forward to tweets from the member for Warringah! Nonetheless, let's put some facts on the table. The minister gave us a great history lesson bit did not actually deal with the issue: under this government 5,000 people have been sacked from Centrelink; on your watch 5,000 people have been sacked. We have heard attempted lectures from the member for Flynn about waiting times. The minister was happy to talk about the report from the Australian National Audit Office. He was proud to say waiting times had gone to—was it 11 minutes? Well, what has happened under your government? Waiting times have gone to 16 minutes! With 13.7 million calls unable to be answered in the last 12 months, Centrelink managed a miserable waiting time of 16 minutes and 53 seconds. How about you look at your own record before you start lecturing anyone else! And, worse still, the ANAO estimated that around 30 per cent of the 43 million calls that did not get the busy signal were abandoned—that is, the customer hung up without resolving the reason for the call.
The member for Flynn says this is as good as it gets. Well, it is a shambles. It is about time this government had a lecture about what they are doing to the human face of their decisions. Today, I stand very proudly to support the Centrelink workers—brave men and women who have had to put up with the cuts from those opposite and sit by for three years because this government will not sit down and negotiate in good faith. They have had to sit by for three years while an arrogant government has refused to honour its commitment to equal pay and decent conditions. This government expects more and more while they cut more and more. Those on this side of the House stand proudly alongside those men and women who provide outstanding service but are not given the tools or resources by those opposite to help millions of Australians.
We also know that, under the 2016 Turnbull budget, we have seen cuts of around $80 million in funding to Centrelink. We have seen the casualisation of the workforce, which means staff have no career development prospects. The way these hardworking officers are treated by this government is shameful. And we have seen under-investment in IT resources. Centrelink has a 40-year-old IT system. The Turnbull government abandoned the long overdue replacement of this system despite admitting Centrelink cannot serve customers properly. Only a matter of weeks ago we heard whistleblowers within Medicare who have now belled the cat for those opposite. They have now shown that the interface between customer service officers and payment recipients is now gone. The government is dismantling Medicare one step at a time.
We know this because we listen to the customers who are feeling the brunt of the so-called reforms by those opposite. We are seeing chronic service delivery problems—22 million calls went unanswered in 2015 and clients spent lengthy periods of time on hold. You need only look at some of the coverage around this issue: '33 hours on hold: Centrelink clients vent their rage over customer service performance'; ' Centrelink blocks 60,000 calls a day'. We see this time and time again. The whistleblowers are apparently saying we will not even have a Medicare drop box. The little old ladies will have to fill in a form and post it—and we already know how much mail goes missing.
This government is incapable of providing basic services to those who need them. It is all very well for the minister to give us a history lesson today. It is all very well for the minister to want a pat on the back. But the consequences of the decisions that you are making are having a real impact on some of the most marginal and frail in our community.
We on this side of the House will always make sure that we do what we can to support those in need. We know the secret plan of those opposite is to hollow out Centrelink, hollow out Medicare and hollow out education services so that they can provide big tax cuts to those who need them the least. We on this side will always stand shoulder to shoulder with those in need—and the people of Australia are seeing those opposite for what they are.
I rise to speak on this matter of public importance. I would firstly like to agree with part of the speech that the member for Barton gave, where she said that it is the most vulnerable and the most marginalised in our society that rely on Centrelink. It is for that very reason—for those people in our society who need support—that we need to make these reforms to Centrelink.
Let's look at what the coalition inherited. We know that over Labor's last three years of government there was an estimated $1.9 billion in fraud and overpayments. It is the mismanagement that we saw during the Labor years that allowed that fraud and those overpayments that puts more pressure on the very people in the system that we are trying to help.
We also saw, as the member for Oxley mentioned, that the payment system is 40 years old. Why then, when Labor were running the show for six years and that system was 40 years passed its use-by date, didn't the Labor government invest any money in sorting it out? We know why—because they were wasting money lock, stock and barrel on everything that they could think of, flushing billions and billions of dollars down the toilet rather than investing for the future.
Also, Centrelink hand out an astonishing sum of money every year. Currently this year Centrelink will hand out $154 billion. They will hand out $154 billion. What we should remember in this place is that every single cent of that money has to be earned by someone else.
Yes; the member for Boothby is correct. The equivalent of 80 per cent of personal income tax paid by Australians goes to pay for Centrelink payments in this nation. That is growing at six per cent every year. There are more and more demands on Centrelink—six per cent every year. This is why we have had to do a review of those on the disability pension. I am sure that some people have found that quite distressing. But the reason that is being done is to make sure that in the future going forward we can ensure that we can give those who really need that disability payment every resource that we can.
The other mess that we inherited from the Labor government that we are trying to clean up is the interest payments that we must face. This government needs to find $1 billion every single month in interest payments. That is the equivalent of $35 million every single day. If it had not been for the wasteful mismanagement of the six years of Labor government, a lot of that money could have been put back in to helping those most vulnerable people in our society.
We have also heard the very sad comment about how those on the other side simply misunderstand this economy. They claim that $150 billion worth of payments we make through Centrelink is all thanks to Labor. It has nothing to do with that. It has everything to do with those hardworking men and women in our society—in our cities, suburbs and regional and rural areas—that go out every single day and earn wealth for this country. Unless we first create the wealth, we do not have anything to distribute. So when members on the other side stand up and argue about policies, when they try and tie our businesses up with red and green tape, the real people they are harming are the most vulnerable in our society.
We need to encourage people to take entrepreneurial risk, try new business ideas, try new methods of production to create the wealth that enables us to support the most vulnerable. I am proud of what this government is doing. (Time expired)
I am glad to speak on this matter of public importance, because Centrelink is a critical guarantor of social justice and social inclusion in our country—or, at least, it should be. What we have heard today are members on the other side not really taking issue with the mismanagement of Centrelink on their watch but providing excuses for why that has occurred. Yet under this government, from the time of its first budget, there has been a recklessness, verging on neglect, when it comes to those facing disadvantage in many areas, and Centrelink is probably chief among them.
Every part of the social safety net and every part of the social contract has been squeezed and put under pressure, and that means people who desperately need it are getting less care and less assistance. They are being made to wait; they are being treated with disrespect—and, worst of all, they are often being made to feel as if it is their own fault.
In our society Centrelink should be the bedrock of care and support for Australians who need help, whether it is in a time of crisis or whether, in the case of age and disability pensioners, it is the foundation of their economic wellbeing. But Centrelink is not being enabled by this government to fulfil that role. In fact it has been hampered across the board, and there is evidence of that at every level. You can look at the top line statistics where complaints to Centrelink are up nearly 20 per cent and client satisfaction is down by nearly 10 per cent. The recent Ombudsman's report shows that in the most recent period complaints to the Ombudsman are up by 24 per cent. You can look at the performance measures in the audit last year: a full third of all calls go unanswered. That is something like 22 million calls from people reaching out for assistance that they are not getting in a timely way. A third of calls require the person seeking assistance to wait more than half an hour.
There have been reports that age pensioners are waiting four months in some cases for their pension application to be processed. I am seeing that in my electorate. I have been a member of parliament for not much more than 100 days. I have people calling up my electorate staff, asking them to ring through to Centrelink for them, because they simply cannot get through. Mistakes are being made. I had a constituent come to my office recently who had been assigned a debt of some $25,000 based on assets of $180,000 that they just simply did not have. It is hard to understand how these kinds of errors occur.
Unfortunately, the policies of this government are compounding the difficulties that people face. It starts with cuts to community legal centres, which means that people who need financial assistance do not get it, and so they get pushed onto the social safety net. It is lack of access to or service at Centrelink itself, whether that is in person or on the telephone. In the case of trying to get access through the internet, which is how many people are being pushed to gain access, irrespective of the difficulties that they might have with language or age, there are numerous broadband black spots in my area that make that virtually impossible.
Any agency is only as good its staff, and that is the case with Centrelink. Over the years that agency, the bedrock of social justice and the social welfare net in Australia, has been well served by tens of thousands of Centrelink employees, who have a commitment to helping people. Staff take pride in their contribution to Australia's social safety net because they know it is the foundation of our social democracy. But, as the member for Oxley pointed out, Centrelink staff have been undermined by this government at every turn. Centrelink staff and their union, the valiant Community and Public Sector Union, have been bargaining for nearly 2½ years just to tread water, just to hold on to the conditions that they already have.
The mismanagement of Centrelink is harmful. It is costly in money terms, which those opposite might understand, but it is more costly when it comes to families and individuals in desperate need, who cannot get the assistance and support that they deserve. It is costly in terms of the impact on people's lives, on their prospects and on their futures. Saying 'jobs and growth' 7,000 times a day simply does not make it so. The reality in my state is that we are facing recession conditions with rising unemployment. People are under pressure. It is putting families into difficulty and distress. People in those circumstances need help. Pensioners need and deserve support. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and given timely assistance when they need assistance. That will not happen if Centrelink continues to be mismanaged. It cannot happen unless Centrelink staff are enabled and supported in their essential work.
I would like to begin by congratulating the Minister for Social Services and the Minister for Human Services for the outstanding job they are doing in handling complex and difficult portfolio areas. Both ministers are thoughtful and considered people and policy makers. This could not be more important, given that the Department of Human Services administers payments in the order of $154 billion a year, which represents one-third of our overall federal budget. The department touches the lives of 99 per cent of Australians through the delivery of health and welfare payments and services. Each year the department handles around 56 million phone calls and around 21 million face-to-face visits. It has processed 3.8 million social security and welfare claims in the past year and supported around 1.2 million children by working with separated parents to transfer child support moneys. It also looks after Australians during times of crisis, such as residents in my home state of South Australia during the Pinery bushfires.
When Robert Menzies founded the modern Liberal Party of Australia he was clear that helping those in need was one of the key responsibilities of government. Menzies said the supreme business of politics is:
The protection of the poor and the weak, and the elimination of the causes of poverty and weakness …
However, he was also clear that this should be achieved:
… without in any way ceasing to insist that the first duty of every man—
is to do his utmost to stand on his own feet, to form his own judgments, and to accept his own responsibilities.
I am particularly heartened that both ministers are doing everything they can to help people stand on their own two feet. Indeed, this is the key focus of the Turnbull-Liberal government through the Australian Priority Investment Approach to Welfare. The information gathered will assist the government to identify and target groups most at risk of long-term welfare dependency. I understand the Australian Priority Investment Approach to Welfare has been modelled on a similar approach adopted in New Zealand, which has been very successful. I first heard of the excellent work in New Zealand through the Menzies Research Centre's Menzies monograph Quiet Achievers: the New Zealand Path to reform.I commend the centre's Executive Director, Nick Cater, for commissioning such an important piece of work. The New Zealand government determined that by breaking the welfare cycle for young people and single mothers they could not only save their nation billions of dollars but give these people pride in themselves and hope for their future and those of their families. Why did they do this? It was not just to save taxpayers billions of dollars but to save lives by giving people pride in themselves and the self-confidence that comes with having a job.
I do believe that the best form of welfare is a job. We, on this side of the House, have quite a job to do. We have to continue to fix the mess of the failed Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor governments that left us with a huge amount of debt.
We have got one just here—the member for Lilley. When those opposite came to government we had $50 billion in the bank. What happened when they left government? We were $277 billion in debt.
Opposition members interjecting—
In terms of the Department of Human Services, Labor left an enormous mess as well. Labor failed to invest in the Centrelink payment system. Labor failed to implement and maintain a strong antifraud and compliance system. Labor failed to keep call waiting times under control. Why did this occur? It was because Labor did things like see call waiting times throughout Centrelink increase from three minutes and five seconds to 11 minutes and 45 seconds. They ripped 1,100 telephone staff out of Centrelink.
Honourable members interjecting—
We are doing a lot to fix Labor's mess. We are embarking on a range of reforms. Unlike those opposite, we are taking a mature and considered approach to supporting Australians on welfare, and we are committed to ensuring that the system achieves what it sets out to do. I wish that those opposite would do the same and cooperate with us more on this very important issue of welfare reform so that all Australians can have the pride in themselves that comes from having a job.
I am pleased to speak on this matter of public importance. Centrelink is beset by falling service standards. These are the direct result of measures that have been undertaken by this government in the name of reform but that have actually made the situation much worse not only for the clients of Centrelink but also for the staff charged with administration at the front line. My office is constantly dealing with issues relating to Centrelink. This is unsurprising given that complaints are up by over 18 per cent according to the most recent Department of Human Services report. It is lucky that, when people ring out of desperation, my office is able to answer the calls.
Centrelink clients are some of the most disadvantaged in my electorate. They are seeking support only to live, not to rort the system. Most of them just want to be able to survive until they find a job, or they want to be supported in managing a disability of their own or within their family, or they just want to live quietly in retirement. Often my office is contacted not because the situation is complicated but because people looking to access support do not know where they stand or are trying to do the right thing but the system is so broken that it is difficult for them to do it.
Many of my constituents lack internet access. Whether as a result of the continuing poor internet coverage in many areas across south-west Sydney or of their age, infirmity or financial situation, using technology to access online services is difficult for these people. Consequently, the support phone line and local Centrelink office remain key points of contact. Accessing the phone service becomes difficult when the credit available on your prepaid mobile will scarcely cover the cost of waiting to reach a staff member. The waiting time is benchmarked at 16 minutes. However, we know that according to the 2015 audit 30 per cent of callers wait on hold for half an hour or more, and my constituents have described waiting times of more than an hour. So, if my constituents cannot wait on a phone line, that leaves the local Centrelink office.
What does it say about us when our most vulnerable are forced to wait upwards of 45 minutes to make an appointment only to find they are expected to return the following day? Often these people have serious limitations on their movement through infirmity or because they struggle with the cost of transport. In most cases they are simply trying to ascertain the status of their claim or update their information. A Centrelink office near me consistently has lines out the door. I know that the staff at Centrelink are happy to do their job and have a sincere desire to help their community. They must be under continual stress, with long phone queues and watching customers wait for long periods of time in the office. However, instead of employing more staff to help out, there will be even more cuts to Centrelink staff.
Even constituents using the 'fast and simple' MyGov app face issues. The issue of being unable to update income has been raised multiple times with me. In one case I have been made aware of, the app failed to record the data. However, the constituent received no indication of this error and only later found out that they had accrued a significant tax debt at the end of the financial year. Another has been told that there is a technical issue with the app. That means she would need to ring fortnightly to report her husband's earnings. She has small children. Waiting for an hour on the phone is not only inconvenient but costly to her family, who can least afford it.
We are an affluent society. We should support our most vulnerable and not consistently make them feel like criminals. Most people want to work if they can, and when they retire they just want to be able to enjoy a decent quality of life. The government should ensure that Centrelink supports, rather than further hurts, the people who need it most.
I want to say at the outset that I have got a lot of respect for the member for Barton, a colleague from the bearpit in New South Wales. But I have to say that I am very disappointed that she has brought such a specious and spurious MPI to this House today—especially today, of all days, when we saw that appalling video of union thuggery and the standover tactics on the Commonwealth Games village site up in Queensland. What we really wanted to hear from the other side today is what they are going to do about it. After all, they are the political arm of the union movement. What we want to know is what they are going to do to help clean it up. But we have heard nothing from them, and that made today—
Yes, the sound of silence. That is because most of them on that side of the House are wholly owned subsidiaries of the union movement. Most of them have come up through the union movement. The member for Paterson did not. She was a radio star, I think—one of the few stars on that side of the universe. What are they going to do about the thuggery and the standover tactics? 'I've got your number. I know where you live.' It is absolutely appalling, and that is really what we wanted to hear about today. Obviously, they have got some very strong feelings now. Was the man in the video a preselector? I do not know. Is that why you are upset? I think it is. He is on your preselection panel.
I think that is right, and I think Dyson Heydon got it right when he referred to a rogues gallery of sorts—of 'louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers, those who threaten violence, errant fiduciaries and organisers of boycotts'. It is just appalling, and that is what we wanted to hear about today.
To listen to some of those members on the other side, they want to go back to the past—to the glory days, the salad days, of Centrelink under Labor. I am not sure that we should go there. If are going to go there, first we would want to know what happened to the $1.9 billion that went missing in fraud and overpayments in the last three years of the Labor government. We are trying to get that money back. We are trying to clean up the mess that they made. A good start would be for them to tell us where that $1.9 billion is. What happened to it? Why didn't those opposite come to the House today and fess up about the $1.9 billion? It is absolutely extraordinary. Then of course there are the 1,100 staff—
Ms Butler interjecting—
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. They are worried about their preselections, on that side of the House. There were 1,100 staff cut under Labor. They were all telephony staff, yet Labor complain here about telephone waiting times. They are the ones who cut 1,100 staff from Centrelink. It is absolutely extraordinary.
If you go through the performance of Centrelink, you will see there is a great story to tell. Every year, the Department of Human Services handles 56 million phone calls and 21 million face-to-face visits. It met over 86 per cent of its performance measures to the community in 2015-16. It is not perfect, granted. It still has a little bit of work to do, but 86 per cent is pretty good, in my book. As at 2 October this year, the average time taken to answer Centrelink phone lines was 11.4 minutes. That is well below the department's key performance indicator of 16 minutes, despite the 1,100 staff cuts that were imposed by Labor—appalling.
Despite the mess that those on the other side of the House made, great strides are being made in service delivery. You just have to look at the myGov initiative to see that. You can log in to the departmental website using a PIN. It is all there for you. Dealing with the Department of Human Services is being revolutionised under the hardworking Minister for Human Services. I acknowledge the great work he has done. He is moving the department into the modern age. The myGov initiative allows everyone to access the site 24 hours a day. Millions are starting to use it. There are 10 million Australian now with a myGov account, which is a fantastic achievement. I salute the government for its work in this field.