Thursday, 29 November 2018
Matters of Public Importance
Pensions and Benefits
I have received a letter from the honourable member for Chifley proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The Government's failure to promptly process pension applications.
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—
In 10 minutes time the minister at the table, the Minister for Human Services and Digital Transformation, should open his remarks with just one thing and one thing only, and that is: 'I'm sorry.' He should be apologising on a number of different fronts for the failure, under his watch, to look after people who, at a point in time—after they've worked hard, they've paid their bills, they've raised their families—expect that they will be able to get their age pension. They've been denied that for a host of reasons that go to the way in which this government, under this minister, has mismanaged the whole process of age pensions.
It's not enough that we've seen under this government the changes to the age pension, for example, and the way in which older Australians were hit with changes to the asset test. Labor had to block the Abbott-Turnbull government cuts to pension indexation in the 2014 budget. Mind you, after they went to an election saying there'd be no changes to pensions, they then tried to bring those in, breaking a promise they had made to older Australians in the lead-up to the 2013 election. They did that and we blocked the Abbott-Turnbull government's attempts to reset the deeming rate thresholds, changes that would have seen half a million part-pensioners made worse off. It wasn't enough.
Ms Burney interjecting—
The government would not know what it means, Member for Barton. It was not bad enough. On top of that, for ages they refused to relent on a plan to axe the energy supplement, a payment designed to help vulnerable Australians with the cost of energy. It wasn't enough that they did that. They tried to abolish it three times. Labor opposed the abolition of that supplement, stood up for pensioners and vulnerable Australians. And it was only at the last minute, in a desperate attempt not to save older Australians but to save themselves that they decided they would change their minds. It was not because it was the right thing to do for older Australians but because it was the only thing they could do to try and save themselves.
On top of that, the government then had the plan to have the oldest pension age in the advanced world, making people retire at the age of 70. Time and again, we on this side said we would oppose this. Time and again, those opposite said they would not budge. And what happened? In the aftermath of trying to save themselves after that chaotic week in August when they repeatedly tried to knock off the former Prime Minister—and in the end they got there—they decided they would drop that plan. Again, it was not because it was the right thing to do by older Australians but because it was the only thing they could do to save themselves in the process.
Now what are we seeing? After all that, now what we're seeing is people applying for the age pension and not being able to get it. As some age pensioner applicants have said, this paperwork should only take a matter of weeks. See the length of time people are being forced to wait to get their age pension. A lot of my colleagues repeatedly tell me what they're experiencing. The minister has received feedback in this House on those delays. We are getting it all over the place, even on platforms like Facebook, where people have reached out to me and said, 'This is what I'm experiencing,' or, 'It took 12 months to get paid.' Some examples I was given include: 'I'm eligible for the pension and was told to apply at least 13 weeks before my date of eligibility because of the waiting times people are experiencing to get their pension,' and 'I've been waiting since June for a response on my healthcare card application; it's pathetic,' and, 'I've waited months and months and on the phone for hours at a time,' and, 'It's a shame that us baby boomers are ageing and causing financial difficulties for the government.' This is how they feel. Others say: 'They should have been more prepared'—how true; the government should have been more prepared—and, 'They assessed my mum incorrectly for aged care placements nine months ago and we're still waiting for the refund.' These are the types of systems that have been put in place by this government, and people are being held up as a result.
I've mentioned the experience where people have been told to wait and have been waiting for months to get the pension. I'm going to get to the stat that the government lives by, that it says it will assess these pensions by. Before I get to that stat, you might have noticed this week, in a desperate attempt to save itself, the government's been coming up with all these good news items. The one stat I just want you to bear in mind is the one that the member for Kooyong, the Treasurer, has been going on about. He's been talking it up quite a bit. I'm going a long way on this but bear in mind this stat is what the government have been talking themselves up on. The Treasurer said:
The Coalition Government recognises the importance of cash flow for small businesses. That’s why the Government is setting an example by paying our bills on time. … now the Government will be required to pay invoices … within 20 days
That is a good figure, and it's the right thing to do. That's good.
Let's go to pensioners. Do you know what amount of time the government set themselves to pay a person who applies for the age pension, who is on a low income and who is waiting for access to the pension to be able to pay their bills and meet their needs? They're told by this government—not 20 days, no—49 days. They tell people to wait 49 days, but the reality is people wait for six months to a year—18 months on some occasions—because this minister can't get his act together. Mind you, that KPI of 49 days was increased from 36 days to 49. They even had to go longer, because they couldn't pay people on time, which is an absolute disgrace.
When we put that to the government in estimates their own departmental secretary said: 'We're clearing through this. Thousands per week, we're clearing. We'll get through this in no time.' Wrong! People are still being forced to wait, and they're being forced to wait right now, before Christmas. Minister, what are you going to say to those age pension applicants who want to have the certainty of their pension and have their bills paid before Christmas but are still waiting? Maybe they have the temerity, the outrageous ambition, to want to buy a Christmas present for their grandkids with some of the money they get but are forced to wait and dig into their savings because of what you're doing. The answer from those opposite is: we're putting more jobs on. Wrong! They've cut jobs. On top of that, a media release the minister put out the other week said, 'We've put on 2,750 jobs.' What he didn't tell you is they're all contractors being brought on. Instead of putting on their own people, they've been cutting jobs and putting on people who are working for less than the public servants and who are costing the Commonwealth more. That is what's happening. Do you know what the most disgraceful thing is? In defending that decision, the minister said of the public servants that he oversees: 'The contractors are more efficient than the public sector.' You owe an apology not only to age pensioners who've been held up but to your public servants. How disgraceful it is that you say to your own public servants that they aren't as efficient as the contractors! Those public servants are then getting calls from the public, who say, 'We don't want to talk to you; we want to talk to the contractors.' You owe them an apology for what you have said to them. And then, tough guy that he is, he says he's got a report to back him up. Why won't he release the report? What does he do? He says, 'I've got a report that says they're more efficient,' but he won't release the report. It's disgraceful that you would hold vulnerable—
Mr Keenan interjecting—
Then don't quote them, Minister. Don't quote the report. If you don't have the guts to release it, don't quote it. You owe age pensioners an apology. You owe your own public servants an apology. If you knew the decent thing to do, you'd give up your job because you've failed those pensioners. (Time expired)
I'm not going to take lectures from the Labor Party, whose policy approach is to pick the pockets of older Australians who've been out there working hard to save for their own retirement. That's the Labor Party's approach to older Australians, and I personally think it's disgraceful.
I quite like the shadow minister, I hate to say—I'm happy to make that confession to the House—but he is woefully uninformed about this portfolio. He has absolutely no idea what is going on within the Department of Human Services. People who apply for the age pension are people who deserve our support. They are people who have built this country, who have worked hard, and when they come to retirement age they are entitled to get the best possible service from their government. We are working to ensure that that is the case.
When we came to office, we inherited a department that had had 20 per cent of the frontline workforce cut out of it by the Labor Party between 2007 and 2013. There had been 4,800 people cut out of the Department of Human Services between 2007 and 2013. What happened to call waiting times when the Howard government left office? Call waiting times in 2007 were 90 seconds—a minute and a half. When the Labor Party left office in 2013, their waiting was, what, 12½ minutes? It had blown out to 12½ minutes because of their savage cuts to the front line of the Department of Human Services. They're happy to talk the talk, but, when they have the opportunity, of course, they never walk the walk.
I am very proud of the work my department does. It's a very large department and it provides an extensive range of services to the Australian people. We pay five million Australians' payments every single year, and the total we expend is $174 billion, which is roughly 40 per cent of the government's total expenditure. In the 2017-18 year my department took 48 million phone calls. We dealt with Australians face to face 18 million times, and Australians transacted 900 million times on our digital platforms. We run the largest call centre in the Southern Hemisphere, and last year there were nearly 3½ million claims of income support, payments and concessions. The vast majority of this 3½ million were processed within four weeks.
Already this financial year my department has supported many Australians in need. We've taken 17.3 million phone calls, we've had 5.7 million face-to-face transactions and Australians have transacted on our digital platforms 164 million times. So far this year my department has processed more than 1.2 million social security and welfare claims, and we remain committed to making sure that Australians can get services as quickly as possible. As I said, the vast majority of claims are processed within four weeks. We are focused relentlessly on the customer experience when people come to us for assistance. We're spending $1.2 billion to upgrade the ICT platforms, which improve staff productivity, and develop new and innovative ways that people can claim welfare online. We're also using data analytics in a much more effective way to manage our core volume.
Most importantly, we're putting on an additional 2,750 people. These additional operators are going to improve my department's ability to answer calls, they're going to allow us to process more applications and they're going to make sure that we can continue to deliver a service in line with our customers' expectations. As a result of this very significant investment—and not all of these new contractors are on yet; we're putting on an extra couple hundred a month, and the full total will be on by April next year—busy signals are now down by 40 per cent, call waiting times are significantly down, processing times are significantly down and we will continue every single month to put on more people and to make sure our service offering continues to improve.
The shadow minister has an affliction against employing people in the private sector. He thinks it's terrible that people in the private sector would get work, but what I would say to him—and I offer him this invitation—is that we have call centres now operational in Brisbane, in Melbourne, in Adelaide and in Perth. He wants to sack these people for the crime of working in the private sector. I've gone and seen all of our new call centres with the exception of the one in Adelaide, which I'll be visiting next week, and this contractor workforce is a very good workforce. They specialise in taking people who are long-term unemployed. They have special programs for people who find it hard to get into employment such as Indigenous Australians and Australians with a disability. I would like the shadow minister to go down, look those people in the eye and say, 'If we win the election in May, we're going to throw you all on the scrap heap because we don't like people working in the private sector.' That's Labor's policy: throw people on the scrap heap because they work in the private sector. If Labor get into office, they plan to get rid of these 2,750 people—
The shadow minister is interjecting at the table and saying, 'That's rubbish.' There are three more Labor speakers in this MPI debate, so let's give them a chance to put on the record that they won't be sacking these 2,750 people—put it on the record when you get the opportunity, because that's your stated policy. They don't believe in employing contractors. Labor's plan instead is to hire an extra 1,200 permanent public servants. That means there'll be a deficit in the workforce of 1,550 people. That's their plan to improve service: to throw 2,750 Australians out of work, for the crime of working in the private sector, and then employ 1,200 permanent public servants. That is a deficit of 1,550 workers.
I work very hard to make sure that the service experience, when Australians contact DHS, is as good as it can be. Customers claiming the age pension often have complex tests that they need to satisfy—income tests and assets tests—and they require supporting documentation and, sometimes, specialised assessments. A range of factors can cause delay but, normally, about 50 per cent of the delays that occur are because people haven't submitted all the required documentation with their initial application. This occurs in about half of the cases. It requires my department to go back to the person and seek further information so that their claim can be processed.
Notwithstanding the complexity of age pension claims and the fact that we do require that information, according to our legislative requirements, it did become apparent to me through anecdotal evidence and the metrics that the department has kept that, at about the middle of the year, we were accumulating a backlog of people applying for the age pension. We consistently measure our service. I meet with my department every week to go through how our service provision is going. When it became apparent to me in July that we were getting a backlog in age pension processing times, and processing times were therefore creeping up, I instructed the department to set up a task force to ensure that age pension applications were being processed as quickly as possible. As a result of that task force, the department put an extra 100 staff into claim processing and I'm pleased to say that they are making excellent progress.
The backlog that existed in July has now been eliminated. We processed 4,000 pension claims last week—we usually get about half that coming in on any given week. That's a 70 per cent increase on the processing of age pension claims on this time last year. The total backlog has been eliminated, and the people who are applying for the age pension would have noticed a very significant improvement to their service. We also continue to encourage anyone who is applying for the age pension to apply up to 13 weeks in advance, before they become eligible. That way, we can make sure that the appropriate paperwork is provided and we can process claims before applicants become eligible, which includes a seamless transition onto the pension.
We are proud of our record in making sure that the Department of Human Services has the resources it needs to do its job. These contracted workers, 2,750 people, who are proud of what they're doing, who are working very hard and who are getting results for the government and the people whom they serve, are people who the Labor Party are going to throw onto the scrap heap. That's not surprising, because their record in government was completely woeful. Almost 5,000 people were cut out of the Department of Human Services, resulting in a tenfold increase in the time it took for people to get their phone calls answered when they called through to the department. Don't believe me; look at the ANAO report from Labor's time in office. (Time expired)
The minister just told us that age pensioners in this country deserve a government that delivers the services they need. That was probably the only true and accurate statement in the 10-minute speech we just heard. Let's talk about all of the vulnerable people in our communities, in my electorate and in electorates around the country who are getting appalling, negligent service from this government. Let's start with the aged-care sector—I'll come back to the minister's portfolio—and I see the shadow minister here. Let's talk about the over 1,200 people still waiting for a home care package.
It's 120,000. Thank you, shadow minister. One hundred and twenty thousand are waiting for a home care package. My office spends week after week after week dealing with elderly people in our communities who have been assessed as needing a level 4, the highest level package that can be provided, and who still are waiting 12 months to actually get one allocated. That means that their families—if they're lucky enough to have the support of a family—cannot function while they're trying to fulfil the responsibility that this government has assessed it should be delivering, and it's taking a year.
Let's talk about the people in our community with disabilities. Let's talk about the mismanagement, the poor planning and the under-resourcing by this government that has gone into the rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme across our electorates. There are many people who were anticipating, as all of us were, the implementation of this major, important reform for people with a disability. If it works well this is a great thing. I hear from people in my electorate how great that is. But let me tell you, under this government, when it's not working, and when there are problems, it's appalling. It's an appalling experience for people.
Again, there is case after case in my office where we are having to fight and battle to get decent, reasonable outcomes for people when they have problems. Similar to what the shadow minister said about this sector in human services, a lot of it's because they haven't resourced it properly. They haven't been able to ensure that the people who are in place running it at the departmental level have continuity, experience and skills. These are complex matters. The minister himself admitted that with pensions. You need experienced people to be able to work in that space.
Let's talk about our littlest children, our most vulnerable under-five-year-olds, who need preschool education. This government can't even guarantee ongoing four-year-old preschool for those kids who really need preschool to be able to be prepared to perform when they go into kindy. They can't even guarantee what they have already got, the four-year-old preschool, let alone meet Labor's commitment to give two years of preschool.
In the minister's own portfolio area, and in my seat—that borders with my colleague the member for Whitlam—we have some of the most disadvantaged communities across the suburbs of Warrawong, Port Kembla and Berkeley. What has this government done? They've taken away their Centrelink and Medicare offices. So single mums with toddlers have to try and get on a bus and go into Wollongong to meet their requirements for Centrelink. Many of the aged people in those suburbs are from non-English speaking backgrounds. Forget the phone system for those people, let alone the massively long waits you get when you ring. It is complex for them. They need to talk to someone face-to-face. They've taken away their Medicare and Centrelink offices at Warrawong. This is what this government is doing to the most vulnerable in our communities. The age pensioners that I am hearing from in my office day after day are experiencing exactly what our shadow minister described.
I won't use their names, but Mr L of Figtree lodged a claim in early May this year. He approached our office in October because he hadn't heard anything. We had to chase it and get it resolved for him. Mr G of Figtree lodged in December 2017. He was rejected in March, appealed and had to come to us again in October to get a resolution, that's what they're struggling with. The government needs to wake up to how it's treating these vulnerable people.
It is important to talk about age pensions and it is important to talk about our senior Australians. It was said to me once that when you get to about 50 years of age you start to think about what your financial plan is. There are many Australians who are concerned about their financial plan as they prepare for their senior years, and also for age pensioners who are receiving benefits from the Commonwealth.
The government doesn't have any money; it has your money. It administers the money of Australians. We will be handing down a balanced budget next year at the next budget in April. What that simply means is that the money that we collect equals the money we spend. That is called responsible government. If you spend more money than you collect, you accumulate debt. As a result of that debt, what you are doing, effectively, is borrowing from our children and our grandchildren. Instead, if we're proud Australians, we should be investing in our children and grandchildren and not leaving them with a legacy of debt because we haven't lived within our own means. People on age pensions in Australia are fortunate that we have sound, responsible government that enables them to receive an age pension.
Not only do our senior Australians receive an age pension; they also receive the benefits of our health budget. To remind Australian people who might be listening just how fortunate we are, living in a country with a population of 25 million and with the 15th biggest economy in the world, if you added up the total gross domestic product of the 40 poorest countries in the world and you put all that money into one bucket, that would be the same amount of money as Australia spends on our health budget for 25 million people. Just think about that for a moment. We invest in the health of Australians substantially.
We also invest in the welfare of Australians substantially. Australians spend $115 billion a year on health—$70 billion from the federal government and $45 billion from the states—largely for our senior Australians. On welfare, Australians spend $174 billion—a third of our total expenditure as a country. That is for five million Australians. If the criticism here today is that somehow we're a little slower than we should be at paying out that welfare, because we want to make sure that when someone applies that we do our due diligence and we administer it properly, then that is a criticism I'm prepared to take. Because I want to know—if we're going to run a balanced budget and not borrow from our children and our future children—that the people who are applying for benefits are bringing the right documentation to us and are legitimate in their claims. We say to Australians, 'If you are going to receive an age pension, you know when that date is coming.' It's not like an unemployment benefit. If you're unemployed, you might be working one day, you turn up to work, and the next day you're out of work. In that instance, you do need payment instantly. But if you know that you're coming towards the time that you'll be eligible for your pension, you have time to plan to get your paperwork in, and it is appropriate that there is integrity in our welfare system. We are very fortunate to have such an essential welfare system.
If you talk to people in my electorate, our retirees and our pensioners, they want the capacity to be able to earn a little bit of money as well as receive their pensions. We have just made changes that allow them to go from earning $250 a fortnight to $300 a fortnight. And another benefit in this is that they can earn that in a lump sum. Because of the seasonal nature of my electorate—which has almonds, olives, table grapes—we are now seeing more and more of our senior Australians coming in, working, and earning up to $6,500 in a lump sum. This does not affect their pension eligibility, and they then go off and spend that as they travel around regional Australia. Our government is delivering for pensioners. Our government is delivering a solid budget, a stable budget, so pensioners can have confidence that their pension is going to be paid. They can have confidence that they're not living at the expense of their children and grandchildren. That is what good government is about it. That is why we're a great country. It is not just an accident; it's because we manage the economy well. Our senior Australians know that. They trust us, and that's why they're going to vote for us at the next election.
The member for Mallee gave us a little bit of a tutorial on how government finances work and how budgets work. But, clearly, when governments have money they put it into areas that are their priorities. Under this government, older Australians are certainly not a priority. In my electorate of Braddon, I have a disproportionately high number of older Australians in my community. There are approximately 15,000 age pensioners, and many, many more waiting to go onto the age pension in the coming months and years. But what we've seen under this government are constant attacks on older Australians. Every single time, Labor has fought against those attacks.
What we're seeing now inflicted on our older Australians are these ridiculous delays in processing age pension payments, absolutely ridiculous delays. I don't know how many on that side hear from people in their communities about these delays. We never hear people on the other side tell stories of their constituents who come to their office for support, but I feel a bit like a pseudo Centrelink office. People come to me when they're at their wits' end. We know that they are spending their savings while waiting for their payments to be processed. If they don't have savings, what are they doing? How are they surviving? This government doesn't really seem to care that these people are waiting and waiting. The minister talked about processing times, the target time and so forth, but that is not the reality out in voter land at all.
I have many stories of people in my community who have come to me at their wits' end. In May I heard from Marsha from Boat Harbour, who waited seven months to receive her age pension. She kept contacting Centrelink—when she could actually get through—asking, 'What else do I need to provide you?' They said: 'Nothing. You don't need to give us anything else. You just have to wait. There are some delays.' Then there are Annette and her husband from Wynyard, who made an application in July and were informed that their payment would be made on 18 September. That seemed okay, a two-month wait. They could probably wait that out. But, after that, they continually received messages from Centrelink advising them that there was a backlog of applications and there would be a further delay. Four months from the application date, two months after the original advised payment date, Annette and her husband's pension was finally granted, and that was because of my intervention. I'm sure every member on this side has intervened at every opportunity they can to help people access their pension payments.
Geoff from Port Sorell applied for his pension on 28 April this year. After contacting Centrelink on 4 August, four months after lodgement date, to check on what was happening—as you would—he was told he should expect another three to four months delay. Geoff was told that, as he had money in the bank, his modest savings, he would just have to wait a bit longer. I mean, how unfair is this? These people are making decisions to end their employment, to go onto the age pension, they get everything organised, they wait a few months thinking, 'This is okay; I can live with that,' but then are told, 'Oh, no, you've got to wait even longer still.' It shouldn't have to come to that.
I remember doorknocking during the by-election recently when I met Gary from Burnie. I knocked on his door and he said: 'I have been waiting four months for my pension. I don't have any money left. What am I to do?' I said, 'I can help you with that,' but he said, 'I shouldn't have to come to my MP to help me get a payment that I have been waiting four months for.'
This is what the people on the other side don't seem to understand. This is because this government has continued to trash Centrelink staffers, to demonise those workers in our public sector. They're privatising Centrelink by stealth. They're putting people on contracts in labour hire companies—people who are paid less, who are casualised, who don't have security of work, who are dealing with complex Centrelink applications—when we have a public sector who are trained well, who are very, very competent, who are mostly in regional communities like mine. I know the member for Bass has a number of Centrelink staff there as well. But this government wants to privatise that service.
What will Labor do? In my electorate there are 30 empty Centrelink desks—30. We will employ 50 public sector workers to fill those desks. Five of those will be roving Centrelink staff so that they can go to the communities, because not everyone can get on the internet. Not everyone has a computer, nor do they have access, particularly in regional Australia—and I think the regional members would appreciate that. Those staff could go to areas like King Island, Circular Head, the west coast of Tasmania and help those people with complex Centrelink needs and make sure they get their payments processed on time.
I am pleased to speak on this matter today because those opposite and their state colleagues in South Australia—my home state—have a particularly horrendous record when it comes to taking care of our senior Australians. In my electorate this is felt particularly keenly. On this side of the House, the government have a plan for a strong economy, which means we can afford to be as generous as we can be and we can afford to guarantee the essential services that our senior Australians need.
Last year there were nearly 3.5 million claims for income support payments and concessions, including the age pension, and the vast majorities of these claims were processed within four weeks. It is the coalition government that has cleaned up the mess that Labor left us when they cut almost 20 per cent of the customer-facing workforce—that was 4,800 staff—in the Department of Human Services, resulting in long delays and poor customer service. Are those delays any surprise when they had cut 20 per cent of the customer-facing workforce, 4,800 staff?
In comparison, on our side of the House, we have a plan for a strong economy that has ensured we have a social security system that is efficient, sustainable and supports senior Australians. It supports them to work longer and to retire comfortably. Life under Labor, for our senior Australians, would be very, very different. Those opposite will impose a retiree tax on our senior Australians which will hurt around 900,000 Australians who have worked hard and saved hard to provide for themselves in their retirement. Australia's tax system has been designed to ensure that shareholders pay tax on the dividends they received at their marginal rate. By abolishing tax refunds on dividends, Labor is effectively introducing double taxation.
Where will Labor's taxes end? The $45 billion tax grab will hurt thousands of people in my community who will have no choice but to rely on our social welfare system to survive, despite having worked hard throughout their lives to be self-sufficient in their retirement. If that weren't bad enough, Labor's housing tax will go after these same people, who own their own homes and might own investment properties as a form of stable investment. Those opposite's negative gearing policy would further destroy the nest eggs that Australians have worked hard to build over their lifetimes.
Many senior Australians have investment properties that they acquired to fund their retirement. Those opposite want to punish self-reliance. Their housing tax will hit 1.3 million Australians who negatively gear their properties, across every state and every territory, and it will hit every Australian with equity in their home. What about the pensioners who rent their home? They will be worse off as well, due to having to pay more thanks to the negative impact on the housing market that Labor's policy will have. This is, without a doubt, a lose-lose policy. If you own your own home, it will be worth less. If you rent your home, it will cost you more. Labor has no concept of fairness and absolutely no care for our senior Australians.
In contrast, our government, the coalition government, is protecting senior Australians and their retirement savings that they worked hard to create. It is also a government that is looking after the health and welfare of our senior Australians, particularly in the aged-care sector. Coming from South Australia, not one single one of us can or will ever forget the devastating impact of the Oakden disaster and the treatment there of our most vulnerable South Australians and their families. That's what happens under Labor governments. They neglect those people who most desperately need our care and protection. Our government is ensuring this will never happen again with a one-stop shop for aged-care complaints and a royal commission into the aged-care sector.
It was also the state Labor government that closed down our beloved and iconic Repat hospital, which catered to so many of my senior residents, senior Australians and our veteran community. It cared for them for more than 70 years. I am proud to say that I am working closely with my state Liberal colleagues in the Marshall Liberal government to reopen Repat, reopen the services and look after some of our most vulnerable senior Australians.
When it comes to the federal government and the Commonwealth, it's hard to think of a more important service responsibility than providing income support through pensions for older Australians and people with a disability. It's in the nature of income support that, when people need it, those people need it badly and they need it quickly. If you can't get that support, you go without. If you can't get that support, you're put under severe pressure. There is no good reason for older Australians and Australians with disability to be prevented from accessing income support. We've heard people in this debate today talk around it. They talked about other aspects of policies that may or may not affect older Australians, but they haven't addressed the point of this matter of public importance: why are these intolerable delays occurring? Why are they getting worse?
There's no good reason we can't expect that pension applications in this country get processed quickly. We should expect that technological change makes processing easier and faster, not slower, more dehumanised, more painful and more frustrating, but that is exactly what has happened since the very dawn of this government. What is happening is that people who need income support and who are eligible for it are waiting longer and longer. They are waiting for months and months. It's not because, as the assistant minister suggested, there's some question or some evidence about peoples' eligibility; they are waiting months and months because of a basic service delivery failure of this government.
Those delays began with the very beginning of this government, and they were entirely predictable. All of us in this place hear from people experiencing what are extraordinary Kafkaesque delays. You would have seen, through constituent statements and adjournment debates over the last several years, members on this side getting up and telling those stories, and silence from the other side. Their officers are hearing it too, but they're not speaking up on behalf of those people facing those kinds of intolerable delays. In the last financial year alone, the average processing time for the age pension went from 36 to 49 days. There are 5,000 claims sitting with the department that have been waiting for more than 70 days. Last year, 48 million calls—almost two phone calls for every living and breathing Australian—to Centrelink went unanswered, and millions of people abandoned calls out of sheer frustration and, I'm sure, on occasion, sheer exhaustion.
Earlier this year in March, I was contacted by a resident in North Fremantle. She was still awaiting the resolution of her age pension claim that was lodged last July. It was lodged in July 2017. This person was diagnosed with cancer in the middle of last year. At age 67, after working in Fremantle hospitals for more than 30 years, she decided it was time to step back from her demanding role in a cardiac care unit and look after herself. She waited nine months to have her pension application processed. This is a stark, bizarre and unacceptable failure of basic service delivery.
But there's no great mystery as to how the failure occurred. Under this government, it was entirely predictable, deliberate and self-inflicted. The recipe for this astonishing failure was pretty obvious: you cut the Public Service, you cut staffing levels, you freeze wages, you remove workplace flexibility, you outsource services and you undermine skills, morale and corporate knowledge within Centrelink and—hey, presto!—you wreck it. You wreck our social compact. You wreck the age pension system in this country.
It does make me think of a Mike Myers film—I can't remember exactly what it was called; he was some sort of self-help guru. He had a self-help book called Does it hurt when you do that? Don't do that. You would think that that's some advice that this government could take. Instead, vulnerable people in our communities around this country are waiting for months. They're facing the insecurity and the stress of going without income support. Instead of bearing down on the problem and fixing it—instead of doing something about it—this government's focus is on cutting public sector jobs, squeezing and demoralising the public sector workforce and privatising and outsourcing anything and everything that moves.
They've always been obsessed with small government. They're taking that to bizarre levels this week: the government is getting smaller with each passing day. Instead of looking after the people who need support, this lot are always on the lookout for enemies. Their enemies are the public sector, the public broadcaster, the Community and Public Sector Union and just about anyone who needs help in this country, especially disadvantaged and vulnerable Australians. We on this side of the House take a different approach. We're going to restaff Centrelink, maintain the energy supplement for seniors in this country and restore funding to the public broadcasters. We've got a completely different agenda. I think Australia and Australians are looking forward to seeing a change in this place after five years of hopelessness from that lot over there.
It's great to rise in this place today to talk about pensioners and older Australians in my electorate. I want to thank all the pensioners in my electorate, almost 20,000 of them, for their contribution to Australia. I often speak in schools, and I'll go and talk to the young people. We know that we have the best country in the world, and that's because of those older Australians: the legacy that they've left us, the work that they've done and the contribution that they've made to Australia. That's why it's so important that we continue to run a strong economy. We know that in April next year the budget will be in surplus for the first time since the Howard government some 12 years ago. That's great news, not just for older Australians who rely on essential services but also for our children, the younger people in our electorates right around the nation, because they won't be hit with higher taxes and debt because of this current generation. So a surplus will be great.
Mr Deputy Speaker Hogan, did you know that the unemployment rate nationally is down to about five per cent? Listening to those opposite, you wouldn't know that over a million jobs have been created in Australia over the last few years, and so many more in just this year alone. Every fortnight, there are five million Australians who receive a pension.
If you listen, I'll explain. Every fortnight, five million Australians receive a pension. I want to thank those Centrelink staff in Deception Bay and in Redcliffe who help out constituents in my electorate. Five million Australians is a lot of people who receive the pension every fortnight. Every week, the federal government invests some $3.3 billion in pensions. That works out to $174 billion a year, which is well over a third of our budget. The best way that we can provide certainty to older Australians is to continue to run a strong economy. When over a third of your budget goes on social services and on pensions, when healthcare costs continue to go up and the government's increasing funding, when education costs are going up and the government's increasing funding and when defence costs are going up and the government's increasing funding, it's all because of a strong economy.
Last year there were nearly 3½ million claims for income support payments and concessions, including the age pension. I want to say to people in my electorate that, if you are going to claim the pension, it is best to claim before you hit that age pension age. We know that the member for Chifley and others increased the age pension age to 67. That's what it is at the moment. So the government recommends that you apply up to 13 weeks beforehand so that we can properly assess the application. For most applications, the wait time is often because of documents that are needed. The application doesn't progress until all documents have been lodged, so it's very important that you give plenty of time.
For those listening, I want you to know that, if you do have to wait, of course it's back paid. All of the pension is back paid. If you listen to those opposite—
Ms Burney interjecting—
No, you've had your turn. I'll speak now, thank you. It is back paid if you're waiting. The government is managing millions and millions of dollars every week—billions of dollars every fortnight—and these applications have to be properly assessed. I've been able to help a few people in my electorate, such as: Caroline from Mango Hill, whose application was granted and back paid; Wayne from Burpengary East, whose application was granted; and Thomas from Margate, who brought in a chocolate bar to the staff to say thank you. Thank you, Thomas, but my job as the federal member is to help you. There was Sandra from Deception Bay, who was applying for the age pension and got back paid $6,000, and she was very happy with that; John from Mango Hill, who was applying for the age pension and got $6,000 back paid; and Janice from Redcliffe, who I helped last week. She met with me in the front of my office, and she came in with a bottle of wine for my staff because she also got her age pension. That's my job. I'm very happy to do it.
The pension has never been stronger, our economy has never been stronger and everything is at risk with those opposite, who want to put higher taxes on housing, income, business and electricity bills. When the member for Herbert gets up, she might like to talk about those pensioners who she's about to flog with higher electricity bills because of increased taxes— (Time expired)
For the information of the member for Petrie, let me share with him what happened to a gentleman named David McIntosh, of Holland Park, when he actually did submit his paperwork 13 weeks in advance as suggested. He waited for his money for a further 10 weeks. He waited for a letter to arrive. It did, eventually, informing him that he was ineligible because of his assets. Four visits to his Centrelink office and six weeks later it was approved. He said:
It seems the assessors couldn't add up the information I had provided, and each time they came up with a different total.
Not that hard to add six numbers together—
but apparently for Centrelink it was problematic.
Time and time again our pensioners have received nothing but chaos, cuts and attacks from the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, and time and time again Labor has fought every one of those LNP government cuts. First there were the Abbott-Turnbull government's changes to the age pension. Labor voted against these changes to the pension assets test, but unfortunately the Greens and the Liberals did a deal to cut the pension. Then Labor blocked the Abbott-Turnbull government's cuts to pension indexation in the 2014 budget. Those cuts would have seen pensioners lose $80 a week over 10 years. Then Labor blocked the Abbott-Turnbull government's attempts to reset the deeming threshold rate, a change that would have seen half a million part-pensioners made worse off. The out-of-touch LNP government also tried to reduce the pension for retirees who go overseas for more than six weeks—too bad if you had family to visit.
On top of that there was the Turnbull government's unfair plan to axe the energy supplement, a payment designed to help vulnerable Australians with the cost of energy. The LNP voted three times to cut it, and Labor fought that every step of the way. Then there was the most ridiculous of them all, when the out-of-touch LNP government tried to increase the pension age to 70. This change would have meant Australia had the oldest pension age in the world. How out of touch could LNP members be to think that a builder, a concreter or a farmer could work until they were 70?
Our models about how we plan and staff for the workload are not quite working for age pension when we get that six-month delay …
These major delays are simply injustices to older Australians and a result of the systematic mess the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government have created. The No. 1 issue raised with my office is from constituents who have major issues because of the significant delays in accessing their pensions. Imagine going to a Centrelink office to try and get your pension sorted, be delayed time and time again and then be told: 'When you're down to $1,000 in your savings, come back and see us. We might be able to help you.' It's simply not good enough.
A female constituent applied for the age pension in April 2018 but has heard nothing. She's been waiting almost nine months. My office contacted Centrelink, who advised that the application was being processed but were unable to provide a time frame. A male constituent applied for the age pension on 17 February this year and was given an estimated completion date of 7 April 2018. This constituent phoned the hotline on 16 May 2018 and was informed no progress had been made and all the required documents had been uploaded. He was advised there was a backlog of claims for age pensions. After waiting six months, he attended the Centrelink office on 13 July, when it was confirmed that no progress had been made. The gentleman made this point very clear to my office: he said that even though there are significant delays the staff at the office had spoken to him very respectfully and were helpful. He said, 'It's not the Centrelink staff's fault.' We know it's not the fault of the Centrelink staff. This government has put staff under incredible pressure by making severe cuts to staffing and through the use of outsourcing and privatisation by stealth, using labour hire workers.
Last financial year 48 million calls to Centrelink went unanswered. How on earth could the government respond to that? They cut a further 1,280 jobs from Centrelink and outsourced 1,250 jobs to labour hire. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was the architect behind these cuts—let us not forget that. He signed off on them when he was the Treasurer, and he continues to support job cuts, outsourcing to labour hire and the significant delays in accessing pensions for thousands of older Australians. (Time expired)
Thank you to the members opposite for bringing forward this matter of public importance, and I mean that sincerely. With millions of Australians on the age pension, ensuring the pension is sufficient, accessible and fair is critically important, and bringing forward this matter today allows us to explain the great work done by this government to help retirees across the country.
Each fortnight, Centrelink delivers payments to more than five million Australians, providing more than $174 billion in payments every year. In 2017-18 alone, the Department of Human Services had more than 967 million interactions with Australians. Last year there were nearly 3.5 million claims for income support payments and concessions, including the age pension. The vast majority of these were processed within four weeks.
This is a very different story from when those opposite were in government. During their time, they ripped out more than 4,800 staff from the department. This was almost 20 per cent of the customer-facing workforce that processes claims, answers questions and helps people get the services they need. We understand that it's essential to invest in people and digital services, which is why the government have engaged an additional 2,750 staff to help us continue to improve our customer experience, especially for older Australians. This gives older Australians access to the services they need, where and when they need them.
Delays can also occur if applicants fail to provide all the required supporting documentation when lodging their claim. This occurs in more than half the cases and often requires the department to go back to the person before the claim can be processed. When all the required supporting information has been received, the claim is finalised quickly. We also encourage all people to apply for the age pension up to 13 weeks before they become eligible. That way, we can ensure that all the appropriate paperwork is provided and process claims before applicants become eligible, ensuring a seamless transition to the pension.
It's quite clear that some of those opposite don't quite get how pensioners earn—or how the economy works, for that matter! The policy of those opposite to take away dividend refunds will take a sledgehammer to the income of retirees and double dip into taxes. Under Labor, most retirees, or anyone on an income below $37,000, will lose their dividend refund. For the 900,000 Australians hit, this is worth around $2,200 a year for each individual. Currently, most retirees who receive dividends from those shares get a refund on the company tax that has already been paid on their behalf. By abolishing tax refunds on dividends, Labor would take a double tax dip. Eighty-four per cent of the individuals impacted are those on taxable incomes of less than $37,000, and 96 per cent of the individuals impacted are on taxable incomes below $87,000.
The Australian tax system has been designed to ensure that shareholders pay tax on the dividends they receive at their marginal tax rate. Labor's retiree tax would hurt those who saved to be self-reliant, who planned diligently for their future and who want to have a stable retirement.