Thursday, 3 September 2020
Today, I'd like to raise a very troubling issue. It was brought to my attention by Newcastle based Kelso Lawyers, who specialise in compensation for victims of institutional child sexual abuse. Kelso Lawyers support survivors to undertake civil claims, seeking compensation for sexual abuse directly from institutions like the Catholic Church and state governments. Following a successful mediation, the lawyers provide Centrelink with a settlement agreement, and Centrelink, in turn, provide a formal clearance to the institution, confirming whether the victim owes any money to Centrelink. The institution must either receive a nil clearance or pay the amount owing on the clearance before the funds can be released to the survivor.
In their letter, Kelso Lawyers stressed to me how important a quick Centrelink clearance is for the survivors' healing process. Indeed, this has historically been the case, with Centrelink usually providing these clearances within a week, or two at the very most, of the application. But, in recent months, everything has come to a grinding halt. Shamefully, survivors are now routinely being left waiting a month, two months or even more for Centrelink to complete this vital administrative task.
When Kelso Lawyers contacted me in late July, they had requests dating back to early May. They told me that their attempts to impress on Centrelink the dire impact of the delays on their clients' mental health fell on deaf ears. Centrelink told them of 'major delays' and refused to provide any sort of time frame for a resolution. Shockingly, Kelso Lawyers were even told that 'no priority' would be given to victims of child sexual abuse. Of course, this leaves survivors stuck in limbo and none the wiser about when their ordeal will finally be over and they can start the journey of healing.
When I learnt of this problem, I immediately contacted the shadow minister for government services, the Hon. Bill Shorten, and we wrote a joint letter to the Minister for Social Services, Senator Anne Ruston, and the Minister for Government Services, Stuart Robert MP. We outlined the problem and urged the ministers to urgently investigate the issue and provide Centrelink with the resources necessary to ensure that the agency's time frames don't stand in the way of survivors receiving timely settlements. To their credit, the office of the Minister for Social Services got back to my office very quickly. Within a few days, all but two of the Kelso clients' cases, pending clearances, were resolved. Regretfully, this fix did not last. Within a few weeks, the backlog had built up again, and it is now right back to where it was.
This is untenable. You shouldn't have to complain to your local MP for government to perform its basic responsibilities. It's important to note that most of these survivors have already waited decades to get to this point in their proceedings, so being forced to endure additional wait times for purely administrative reasons is cruel beyond belief. These are the very people who have been on the receiving end of the most abhorrent human behaviour you can imagine. They have been let down in the most appalling way by their abusers, by the institutions and by society. By failing to provide clearances in a timely manner, Centrelink and this government are letting survivors down all over again.
I want to make it clear that Centrelink staff are doing the absolute best they can, but the reality is that they are stretched to the brink. Centrelink is there to serve people who are often at their very lowest ebb. They might have just lost their job, suffered an illness or had to start caring for a loved one who can no longer look after themselves. But too often it only adds to the pain and misery of vulnerable Australians. Regretfully, this is the predictable result of years of neglect at Centrelink—of cuts, of arbitrary staffing caps, of widespread outsourcing of important jobs to labour hire companies.
Four thousand staff have been sacked since 2013, and the agency has progressively outsourced core functions to private companies. The diabolical human cost of not investing properly in public services has been laid bare for all to see in recent months. I call on the government to give Centrelink the resources it needs to ensure that all survivors awaiting clearances are treated with dignity and respect and have their clearances processed as an absolute priority. (Time expired)