House debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Bills

Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020; Second Reading

10:02 am

Photo of Justine ElliotJustine Elliot (Richmond, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am in continuation in speaking on the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020. I was speaking about the cuts to JobKeeper. From Monday 28 September the cuts and changes to the JobKeeper scheme meant that many local businesses and workers in my area lost all financial support while others had their payments slashed by between $300 and $750 per fortnight. We've also seen a massive increase in the number of locals receiving income support through JobSeeker and youth allowance. Currently more than 14,000 North Coast locals are on JobSeeker. That's an increase of more than 7,000 people on the North Coast who are out of work or suffering from reduced working hours and are now accessing income support payments to get by.

The COVID-19 crisis has also impacted younger people in my region, with a massive increase in youth allowance recipients in a six-month period. An additional 1,000 young people in Richmond have applied for and received youth allowance in the six-month period from December 2019 to May 2020. There are now more than 1,600 young people on youth allowance. That's 169 per cent more local young people between the ages of 16 and 21 who are accessing income support due to the COVID-19 economic crisis.

The significant job losses mean that more families across the North Coast are experiencing a real and devastating hit to their household budgets. That's why we need a concrete plan from this government about rebuilding and focusing on the recovery. Workers, businesses and communities need and deserve a very comprehensive and detailed plan to get them through this crisis, yet we did not see that in the budget. What we saw was a budget that racks up $1 trillion of debt but still doesn't do enough to create jobs or build for the future. It just leaves too many locals behind. These job losses are devastating for our local communities and our local economies, and, indeed, some of the hardest hit industries are those that've been disproportionally excluded from JobKeeper.

On our New South Wales North Coast some of the biggest job losses have been concentrated in the hospitality, the retail and the arts and entertainment sectors, with young Australians, elderly Australians and women impacted the most. The COVID-19 crisis has also been devastating to our local small businesses, with so many having to close, and, of course, now here we are in the Morrison recession. The government now presides over the first recession in decades, with record debt and hundreds of thousands more Australians unemployed. The fact is the Morrison recession will be deeper and the unemployment queues will be longer.

As those of us on this side of the chamber have said many times, we need to see the rate of Newstart, now JobSeeker, permanently raised. This is a call that's echoed by many community organisations. Whilst acknowledging that the JobSeeker coronavirus supplement was in place and did increase earlier in the year, many people are now worried about how they will afford the essentials now that the supplement decreased in September and is again decreasing in December. So we're back to the very original concern: the very low rate of Newstart or JobSeeker. But in the budget we saw no plan to lift the permanent rate of JobSeeker from that $40 a day rate.

The base rate of JobSeeker is so low that it presents a real barrier to people finding employment. Many on the payment are unable to afford internet bills or transport costs—things that are really essential when you're looking for work or attending job interviews. The fact is having JobSeeker, or Newstart, at such a low rate forces people to make some really impossible choices between paying for food or paying for rent, between buying clothes for their children or paying the electricity bill. An increase in the JobSeeker base rate would deliver to the members of our communities that need it the most, so we continue to call on the government to look at that.

In terms of the staffing at Services Australia, we did welcome the government's announcement earlier in the year for an additional 5,000 new workers to help them through this increased demand, yet that figure is almost exactly the number that they'd cut from the frontline services over the past six years. In my electorate of Richmond this government had cut 114 public sector jobs over this period and we've seen those numbers decline so much because of the government's cuts.

It's also of grave concern that the Morrison government's been closing down Centrelink offices around the country. In my electorate we are facing the closure of three Centrelink service centres in the Tweed area. The government intends to close the Centrelink service at Blundell Boulevard, Tweed Heads South; the call centre at Enterprise Avenue, Tweed Heads South; and the Centrelink administrative office at Wharf Street, Tweed Heads. They're all set to relocate to a yet to be determined new location on one premises. I have been inundated with concerns from locals about this. I've written to the minister outlining those concerns and asking for his urgent commitment to the fact there will be no redundancies or cuts to current staff when that happens, no adverse impacts for frontline customer contact, no adverse impacts to payment or payment-processing times and no further decline in the delivery of services to our local community. I believe the major Centrelink office should remain at its current location at Blundell Boulevard, Tweed Heads South, and I've said that on many occasions. It's important that locals can access the services that they need, that they're easily accessible and close to public transport. It is very important that it remain in that location.

When it comes to this government's cuts and incompetence we have also seen their robodebt scheme, and that's been an absolute debacle and caused a huge amount of distress. We saw hundreds of thousands of people issued with computer generated, false debt notices. And now more than $700 million is having to be refunded. It is just unbelievable that this has occurred. The government should immediately commit to repaying all of those people who've been impacted by it—some really severely impacted by it and the harm that it's caused. The government must allow an independent inquiry into the robodebt scandal as well.

We've seen, in terms of Services Australia or Centrelink, the threatened Centrelink closures across the country. We've seen an ongoing lack of resources, particularly when it comes to staffing. We've seen the robodebt debacle. We've seen major delays in accessing age pension payments as well. I know in my electorate this is an issue that many people raise with me—having to wait months and months and months to access that. We know the staff at Centrelink do an amazing job and are very committed people who are severely understaffed and underresourced by this government, so we need to see more resources there urgently to make sure those services can be provided.

Most Australians, at some point in their life, do receive support from Centrelink. Whether they're young, studying, doing it tough between jobs, raising a family or sick or whether they have a disability or receive an age pension, many people do use Centrelink services. Centrelink provides essential payments that are often a safety net or extra support that people need. It's been really disappointing that the Morrison government has taken a very harsh approach when it comes to resourcing Centrelink and the services people need. It really is a sign that the system is broken, and it's time that the government took a different approach to income support and a different approach to supporting people when they require it, at the most vulnerable time in their lives.

Whilst we agree with some regulatory changes in this bill, in terms of modernising certain aspects, we do have amendments in terms of staffing caps. We know how difficult they have made it to provide those services, particularly now as we continue through the Morrison recession and we continue to have people that absolutely desperately need those Centrelink services. So I'm calling on the government to resource Centrelink properly, to get those processing times down and to put the support where it's needed.

It's clear to see that the choices made by the Liberal and National parties continue to hurt regions like mine on the New South Wales North Coast. Their cuts to frontline services in our community mean that many locals are rightly feeling very betrayed. Whether that's at a federal or state level—or, indeed, sometimes at a local government level as well—when you look across the region, you see the disastrous impacts that the Liberal and National parties continue to make and how they hurt our community. There is widespread anger out there about all these cuts, and it's time for the lies, cuts and chaos to stop. It's so vitally important that they do stop, because we need to have more resources and more services right throughout our community. Particularly when it comes to Centrelink, we need more resources.

As I said earlier, the devastating impacts, particularly from the cuts to JobKeeper—with over 33,000 people having their JobKeeper payments cut—are affecting over 8,000 businesses. Those cuts are predicted to result in about $30 million a fortnight less in my local community, in my local economy. It is regions like mine that have been hit the hardest because of the nature of our industries—tourism, retail, hospitality, arts and entertainment. We have so many people on JobKeeper, on JobSeeker and on youth allowance, so we need to see more concrete plans from this government.

What we got from the budget was a $1 trillion debt and no real plan, particularly for older workers and women—nothing for them. We also saw nothing for child care and nothing for social housing. Regions like mine need the government to focus on those industries and the support that they need throughout the Morrison recession. It is a very difficult and devastating time right throughout the country, but it is regions like mine, in northern New South Wales, that are really feeling it at the moment.

We also need to see a greater investment in TAFE and our universities, and we didn't see that in the budget. What our young people need is proper training and skills so that they can get the permanent, secure, long-term jobs in the future that are so desperately required—again, especially for regional areas that were doing it tough and that will do it particularly tough right throughout this crisis. So I call upon the government to look at these regional areas and provide support for those industries and support right across the area as well, particularly for all those sections that missed out in the budget, the sections that the government decided not to fund. There are so many people that need support at this time.

10:14 am

Photo of Phillip ThompsonPhillip Thompson (Herbert, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Today, I want to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the people who are Services Australia. Services Australia incorporates Medicare, child support and, of course, Centrelink. Where was it that people flocked the day after the Prime Minister announced the necessary shutdown and the restrictions that we've never seen before? It was their local Centrelink office. The queues were like nothing we have ever seen before. In Townsville we have three Services Australia centres, and you could see the line-up from about a kilometre away. When people had lost their jobs, their income and their livelihoods, when they had nowhere else to turn, it was their local Centrelink office which became their lifeline. No-one wants to be standing in that line. No-one in this place wants to see the people of Australia lining up for hours in the Centrelink queue. But the global COVID-19 pandemic left them, understandably, with no choice in those early days.

Who was it that was on the other side of the service desks in those centres or on the other end of the telephone? Who were on the end of those lines? It was the people in Services Australia at Centrelink. The people of Services Australia were the ones doing their absolute best to meet the needs of our communities in distress as best they could. Were those community members friendly and polite? Hopefully, most of the time. But, of course, in these times tensions were high and wait times were long, so sometimes people lost their patience and things boiled over. Our people at Services Australia were the ones who had no choice but to cop it on the chin, resolve the situation calmly and move on as best they could. None of us endorse this kind of behaviour. There is no excuse for abuse, but, in the reality of the challenges of this year, and particularly the months of March and April, the risk was there.

I want to take a moment to thank each and every one of the people of Services Australia who worked, and continue to work, on the front lines in our Centrelink service centres during this incredibly difficult time. Thank you for your dedication. Thank you for continuing to come into work, despite the potential of health risks. Thank you for putting up with the abuse. Thank you for your incredible hard work in a very difficult time, which, hopefully, won't be repeated during the course of your careers.

During the first few weeks of the shutdowns I went to visit the Aitkenvale service centre to meet with the manager. I was keen to check in, make sure everything was going as well as it could and find out whether there was anything that they needed or that I could help with. I was very impressed with the way everyone was dealing with the situation they found themselves in. Everyone was acting incredibly professionally and making sure they were helping those who turned up asking for help. I want to give a shout-out to the staff at service centres in my electorate of Herbert—that is, Aitkenvale, Willows and Palm Island. Thank you for the amazing job you've done for our community of Townsville. You have stood with your fellow community and you have been the helping hand they so desperately needed. I encourage you to stick with it and continue to do our city proud.

What does this have to do with the legislation before us today? Behind the people who are on the front line of service delivery are many others behind the scenes—those who make up the agency we know as Services Australia. It was the systems that Services Australia already had in place before the pandemic that allowed us to get literally billions of dollars out of the door within weeks. We're talking about the investments we've made over the years in myGov, in the electronic payment systems, in the backend computer and in the phone networks. They all came into their own. Yes, we know there were some issues and delays due to the global pandemic, the likes of which we've never seen before, but, if a lot of that work hadn't already been done with the consolidations that have been made with Centrelink and Medicare over the years, we would have been in an incredibly different and much more difficult situation. We may have been forced to do things the old-fashioned way, which would have added even more unacceptable delays to payments and left people out on the streets and left families without food on the table.

The bill before us has come about as a result of the work that's been done to create Services Australia as an executive agency, removing some of the disused names from the former legislation and making some governance changes. This move has been important to make some of those changes that I have been speaking about to ensure effective and efficient service delivery to the Australian people. Firstly, I turn to the schedule 1 changes. These are very simple administrative changes and will enable the legislation to reflect the new set-up. Importantly, it won't affect delivery of services or be otherwise noticeable to the community. Also, it's important that we protect the name 'Services Australia', as we are doing by amending the Human Services (Centrelink) Act 1997. The last thing we want, for example, is for businesses to imply, by using the name inappropriately, that they have a connection with the Australian government.

Secondly, I refer to the schedule 2 changes. Currently, the Chief Executive of Centrelink, the Chief Executive of Medicare and the Child Support Registrar are required to be different employees in Services Australia. We are changing that so that the responsibilities of those three positions can be exercised by the CEO of Services Australia. Rolling these three positions into the one makes sense, as the CEO already has responsibility for the operations of the executive agency. This is simply a result of the hard work that has been going into consolidating everything and increasing the efficiency of the agency so that people in the community can get the help they need in the least amount of time possible.

As I've said, these are largely administrative changes. They need to occur as we improve government services for the communities that we all serve. And that's what we need to remember. This shouldn't be about government, this shouldn't be about agencies, this shouldn't be about red tape making life more difficult; this should be about the people of Australia, the people each of us represent in this House, and ensuring that they have the support they need through Centrelink, through Medicare and through child support. I commend this bill to the House.

10:22 am

Photo of Anne AlyAnne Aly (Cowan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm really pleased to stand here and speak on the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020. I've been waiting quite a while and it seems that every time it's time to speak about the bill something else happens, so I'm finally here. At one level this seems to be a fairly benign bill, with just some changes in terminology. References to 'Department of Human Services', DHS, are to be replaced with 'Services Australia' or 'the agency', and references to 'secretary' are to be changed to 'chief executive officer'. It ensures that information that was held by DHS before it became an executive agency continues to be protected. It protects the name 'Services Australia' from misuse and makes some consequential amendments, removing redundant definitions in line with those points. But there are some significant changes to the machinery of government.

Labor, of course, support this bill. But, at the same time, we're calling on the government to lift the APS staffing cap for Services Australia because of the consequences that that has had. I'm sure that all of us have stories to relate about the difficulties that our constituents have had in accessing Centrelink payments, particularly in recent times. I'll get to that in a minute.

I do want to acknowledge the contribution by the member for Herbert, because I think it's very fitting that he started by acknowledging Services Australia staff and the enormity of the challenges they have had, particularly with record unemployment in this very, very unusual year—I'm tempted to use the word 'unprecedented', but I think that word has been slightly overused. He is absolutely right to acknowledge the people who work at Services Australia and the very, very important work that they do.

While this bill does offer some really significant changes around governance and, as I mentioned earlier, some rather benign changes around terminology, it fails to address some of the core issues around Services Australia. I know that my Labor colleagues who spoke before I did have raised these issues, and those who speak after me will also do so. At the very centre of those issues is the arbitrary staffing cap which has been imposed across the public sector and which has led to an overreliance on labour hire to keep up with demand, as well as an exorbitant overspend on outsourcing and on consultants.

I think we're all rather haunted by those images of the lines at Centrelink that were splashed across our TV screens in March this year. And we're not just haunted by it. I think it really deeply affected every single Australian to see our nation and our country in such a situation. It brought back memories of wartime, the Depression and some of the darkest days in our history as a nation. And right there at the front line were the Services Australia staff. Like many of my colleagues on both sides of the House, we were inundated in my office with queries from people who were so desperate and so emotional. It was really hard not to get emotional when you spoke to people who, for the first time in their lives, had to go and stand in those lines and rely on social welfare, people who had to go onto a JobKeeper or a JobSeeker allowance and deal with a government agency or a social welfare agency for the first time in their lives.

Many of us, though, were very grateful that we live in Australia, where we do have such a social safety net, and we should absolutely be very proud of that in Australia. But if we're going to have a safety net, as we do, as the member has just said, we need it to be properly staffed. Over that initial period of the pandemic, when people were desperate and exasperated and were standing in queues or waiting on the telephone for hours on end, many people spoke to me about their experiences of the inadequate level of staffing at Services Australia. Of course, that's not anything new. Anybody who has had to deal with Services Australia or Centrelink before the COVID crisis hit knows that they could spend half their day on the phone being put on hold and—let's be honest—having to listen to some pretty horrible music, most of the time. But that's not the worst part of it.

The worst part of it is that, when people have to walk through those doors or get on that phone, they are at one of the lowest moments in their lives. I speak to this from the personal experience of having been one of those people. I remember the point in my life when I had to walk through those doors. At the very least, we should allow people to do that with dignity and grace. Keeping people on hold for hours at a time and keeping them waiting in lines for hours at a time does nothing to alleviate the stress, the pain and the mental health issues that are associated with people having to go on welfare. But, as the member for Herbert acknowledged, we are very, very fortunate in this country that we have frontline staff at Services Australia who do their best and who did their utmost during the crisis to provide a level of service to people that made them feel as well as they could in their times of crisis.

The staff at Services Australia managed a remarkable workload during that time—not only during COVID but even before that, dealing with the bushfire response in January and of course the surge of new applicants. These jobs are undoubtedly tough but rewarding for the people who take them on. They are what we might call the frontline jobs during the pandemic, and the pandemic has shown us that those people are our front line of defence against these security challenges that aren't your conventional types of challenges.

Labor welcomed the government's announcement on 22 March about engaging 5,000 additional new workers for Services Australia, to help with demand. But we do note that that number, 5,000, is exactly the number of workers the government have cut from the front line over the past six years. Imagine if they hadn't cut those 5,000 workers. Imagine the different experience that people who had to present at Services Australia and at Centrelink would have had, had this government not cut 5,000 workers from Services Australia over the past six years. I think it would be a very different image and a very different experience for those people.

Initially, Services Australia brought in an additional 5,000 staff through the agreements with their service delivery partners and other labour hire agencies, as well as 7,000 others redeployed from across the Australian Public Service. The fact is that there have been approximately 800,000 to a million new claims processed for JobSeeker, the same number of applications that would generally be processed by the agency across two years. So you've got two years of claims being condensed into a number of months, with many people claiming for the very first time—one in eight applicants needing to apply for a CRN for the very first time. I remember being on the phone at midnight to people who were struggling to find out how they could apply for a CRN, who had never had to apply for one before and who were totally lost. So there were 10,000 new jobs to deal with almost a million new claims. It hardly seems workable, does it? It hardly seems at all workable. So I think it is right that we acknowledge the incredible workload that the staff at Services Australia had to undertake.

We would like to see a lifting or a complete removal of the arbitrary staffing cap placed on Services Australia, as well as on the rest of the Public Service. We have a very good public service in Australia, and I speak as someone who was once, albeit many years ago, a public servant. Lifting that cap would allow the newly established agency to recruit an appropriate number of staff, determined by demand, and enable them to deliver the services that are required and to meet the increased demand brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

If workers are directly employed by Services Australia, it will allow for an engaged, a stable and an experienced workforce with less turnover. I've heard from people who have been employed by Services Australia through labour hire agencies, as well as from staff who have been employed directly by Services Australia, and their experiences speak very strongly to the benefits where staff are employed directly by Services Australia, and the productivity benefits that that brings to the Public Service. Those who are employed directly by the APS speak to me of their wealth of experience, but they also talk about the time and effort that's put into training people who come in through labour hire agencies and who are only there for a short term, and the wastage that happens in that situation.

In the time I have left I think it needs to be said, while I have the attention of the House or whoever is in the House, that the withdrawal of JobKeeper and JobSeeker, and the failure of this government to spend any of the money in the budget to plug the gaps in JobSeeker and JobKeeper, has seen people slip through the net. Every single member of the House here knows that there are people in their electorate who have slipped through the net—who are ineligible for JobSeeker or JobKeeper because of the status of the work they had or because of other conditions.

In this situation, there will continue to be added demand and added need for services and added pressure on Services Australia staff. So, while we support this bill—as I mentioned earlier, it is a rather benign bill—the real issue here is that we have and continue to have an Australian Public Service that meets the demands and needs of our population. We should be proud of our Public Service, and we want to be able to continue to be proud of our Public Service. But we cannot continue to rely on a Public Service model that veers towards privatisation, that outsources much of the work and that has lower productivity and lower efficiency because of that.

10:37 am

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Oxley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020 and commend the member for Cowan for her contribution to today's debate. I would have liked to have seen a few more members of the government actually enter the debate and talk about Services Australia—particularly in this climate of an economic recession, the Morrison recession, and the crisis that we're seeing with employment services and access to Australia's services in this country. I know the member for Cowan has been a long-term champion for access to income support. She's a lived-experience person, and I commend her for her courage in speaking out for the most marginalised and disadvantaged not only in her community but right across this country.

We know that the member, and every member on this side of the House, has horrific stories of people who have had terrible experiences with Services Australia. I was listening to the member for Herbert when I was in my office. I get quite angry, to be honest, when members of the government, and particularly the LNP in Queensland, parade themselves around as concerned and caring and commend the member for visiting Services Australia, and his office. He somehow wants to be congratulated for that. But I bet what he didn't do when he went to visit them was to say: 'I'm part of a government that cut the services by cutting employment in this organisation.' I'll bet he didn't go to them and say: 'Well, I was part of a government that cheered on when 5,000 employees were sacked, which made stress and strain unbearable for many of these workers.' I've met a number of people through the Community and Public Sector Union, and I pay tribute to the advocacy work that they have done, and it is horrific hearing some of the stories from frontline workers of the abuse, the violence and the intimidation from frustrated clients. These are people who don't have enough resources. Yet the government comes in here and says: 'Look at us! Look what we've done. We should be congratulated because we restored the 5,000 people that we sacked in the first place'! I mean, come off it!

Today's bill is an opportunity to raise my voice about concerns about the way Services Australia has been mishandled by this government—particularly in a pandemic where we've seen unprecedented economic turmoil, and now with the Morrison recession and what that means for the future of work in this country. I'm delighted that the member for Dobell moved this second reading amendment, because it allows us a voice on this piece of non-controversial legislation. It allows us to raise issues about the staffing cap, about the excessive use of consultancy firms and contractors and about—as the member for Cowan said: let's be honest—the privatisation of Services Australia and abolishing the ASL offset rule, which has the effect of capping average staffing levels within Services Australia.

This is a debate that should be had in this parliament, because of the impact of what Services Australia has gone through, through policy changes and through incompetence from this government and in particular the minister—I could be here all day talking about the incompetence of that minister—and what that means for millions of Australians who are now, through no fault of their own, forced to deal with Services Australia as they desperately look for income support.

So I just want to highlight the great work of Services Australia, the unbelievable commitment they've given to customer service—all those workers. I know in my own community, in the offices in Inala, in Goodna and right across the regional district that I represent through the Ipswich and south-west corridors of Brisbane, that in the 27 days from 25 March 1.9 million intention-to-claim forms were lodged online and 1.3 million JobSeeker claims were processed in the 55 days following the launch of JobKeeper. This claim volume would normally take 2½ years to process. Why? Because there wasn't the staff and there has never been the staff to deal with this kind of climate of economic uncertainty. At the peak, more than 53,000 claims were completed in a single day. Many of these new applicants had never accessed Centrelink support before in their life, as the member for Cowan illustrated, with one in eight new applicants needing to apply for a CRN.

In my electorate of Oxley around 19,000 people have been receiving JobKeeper payments via local businesses alone. That's approximately one in five businesses relying on some sort of income support, with another 5,000 people now receiving JobKeeper—25,000 people new, on the books of Services Australia. With many of these payments set to be rolled back in the next few months, I can tell you, the feedback from the workers I've sat down with and the businesses I've sat down with is that they are concerned about what that support will mean as they head towards the cliff in March. In the budget we saw a whole group of Australians being left out of the economy, which is a terrible thing, with the government more interested in the wrong priorities, I believe, and not providing long-term employment and support for those who particularly need it.

I want to touch briefly on the staffing cap that was placed across the public sector in 2013 without weighing up the capabilities or requirements of each agency department, neither at the time it was placed or looking towards the future. This has left agencies with no other choice but to outsource and spend an exorbitant amount on consultants. It's completely unfair and unnecessary to have two workers doing identical work but receiving different pay and conditions simply because one is lucky enough to have direct APS employment while the other is contracted to work through a labour hire agency. This becomes inequity in the workplace—

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Oxley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll take that interjection. Agencies have been forced to outsource and contract out time and time again, and we have heard firsthand of experiences, from talking to the Community and Public Sector Union, which does a fantastic job. I want to give a special shout-out to a local resident from my home state of Queensland, Bill Marklew OAM, who has been a great friend to many on this side of the chamber and I know the member for Griffith. Bill has had a long association with and was an advocate for the CPSU and was awarded an Order of Australia medal for his commitment and service, for advocacy for workers rights and also for the disadvantaged and marginalised in relation to forced adoptions. So, he's a wonderful advocate for many people, and he happens to live in the mighty suburb of Durack, just down the road from me.

In my office at Forest Lake we received numerous phone calls week in, week out from constituents—this was pre-COVID, pre the pandemic—from people who were unable to talk to someone, unable to get an answer back to them, unable to get the answers that they need to provide income support for their families. When we saw the long lines at Centrelink, wrapped around Wirraway Parade in Inala, I was not surprised because we saw that in the lead-up to the pandemic and we saw that long before this economic crisis unfolded.

The deputy national president of the CPSU has identified, since 2013, over 21,000 public service jobs that have been cut under successive Liberal governments, causing enormous damage to the capacity of the Commonwealth. The average staffing level cut has cut jobs and driven them to outsourcing labour hire companies and contractors. A Liberal government and job cuts—these same two terms have been in many sentences and it doesn't come as a surprise to many on this side of the chamber. Labor leader Anthony Albanese put it well when he said, 'At a time when we need muscle, the government has only left us a bone'. I thought that really summed up exactly the government's commitment to the Australian Public Service

For the last five minutes of my speech I want to turn to the impact that cuts to Human Services has had on the delivery of their services. I think it is important to raise in the parliament yet again the issue of the robodebt scandal. This is all linked into what this government's commitment to the Australian public sector, and particularly Services Australia, has meant. Robodebt is what happens when humans are taken out of Human Services. I can't say it any clearer than that. I was sitting in this place and heard the minister—from the Prime Minister down—simply dismissing it and saying, 'We have done nothing wrong. We have nothing to answer for.' They did have something to answer for. They were found to be acting illegally. I'm yet to hear a heartfelt apology from anyone inside the government, saying, 'We deeply regret what's happened. We apologise. We're upset about the 20,000 people a week we were trying to get money from.' I have one example of a retiree, a pensioner, living in Durack—it's all happening in Durack—at Aveo retirement village. I had spoken to her before. She rang me and I returned her call. She is a lovely retired schoolteacher who had a robodebt, because she had claimed too much when she was working. This woman was 92 and she had not worked for 23 years. She had a $1,680 debt and started paying off $60 a fortnight out of her pension, because she believed what the government said. She felt bad and she didn't want anyone knowing about it. She felt embarrassed talking to me about it. She said, 'I've never done anything wrong, Mr Dick. I just want to do the right thing. I wasn't sure and my daughter said I should check.' She didn't owe a cent—not one cent, nothing, zero. She had done nothing wrong. But she was doing the right thing. To my parents' generation, if the government says something you believe them. You have faith in the institutions. We obviously fixed that up—cleaned the government's mess up, if you will, in terms of this Services Australia bill today. I just thought to myself that this was just one tiny, microscopic example of what happened. Replicate that through every suburb, through every electorate right across the country and what do you get? You get tens of thousands of people who did nothing wrong. This government put in a scheme and, somehow, eight years ago it was Labor's fault that this woman got a debt under this government—insert 'ridiculous claims' by this government.

But that just demonstrates that when you take the humans out of Human Services and look at it through an ideological prism there is a human consequence. That was a really eye-opening matter for me, a real life experience, and I thought it was worthwhile putting it on the public record. I won't give the lady's name, because she would be mortified and embarrassed. But it goes to show the huge consequences for people when the government is so out of touch with what's happening in the community and doesn't look after those people.

A government member interjecting

I'll take that interjection. They used robodebt, an unchecked, out of control algorithm, with all the safeguards and human oversights removed—once again, the humans removed from Human Services. As I said, under the Labor government around 20,000 debts were raised per year; under this government, it was 20,000 debts per week. Just let that sink in for a moment.

Robodebt was predicated on harassing, bullying and frightening Australians into paying back money that in many cases they did not even owe in the first place. As yet, there's been no apology. I'd take an apology from the minister. I probably wouldn't get it from the Prime Minister. I'll take it from anyone from the government side who wants to jump up now. I'll sit down and they can offer a heartfelt apology.

Mr Robert interjecting

Well, if the minister is offering an apology to the people of Australia for robodebt, I will sit down. He's not taking me up on that offer, which is not surprising. It's time for the government to wake up and realise that Australians rely on Services Australia. It's time that they properly funded and staffed it and ensured that the services that Australians need and rely on are delivered to them.

10:52 am

Photo of Patrick GormanPatrick Gorman (Perth, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This government has let down the people who work for Services Australia and it has let down the people who rely on Services Australia. I agree with my good friend the member for Oxley, who says we need an apology for robodebt. I think I'm going to go for about 10 minutes; I'm happy to be interrupted at any point for that apology for robodebt. People have been treated incredibly poorly by this government when it comes to the debts they didn't owe but were hounded for for months.

We debate this bill, the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020, in the context of the budget handed down on Tuesday night, which showed that people who are relying on Services Australia still get no certainty when it comes to their JobSeeker payments after December of this year. On Tuesday we saw students who rely on Austudy payments being whacked with a 113 per cent fee increase for their university studies. We saw pensioners get some one-off cash-splash payments but no permanent increases. We saw nothing for child care, which of course is administered through the Services Australia architecture, and we saw nothing for social housing, which is often paid for out of people's Centrelink payments. I do find it very odd to have a piece of legislation called a 'governance amendment' from this government. When I hear 'governance' and think about this government, I don't think of improvements to Services Australia; I think of sports rorts, robodebt, Jam Land, Helloworld, Ruby Princessand $30 million for Western Sydney Airport land. That's what I think of when I think of governance and this government. All of those governance failures by this government don't give people much faith in the governance of Services Australia.

We know that Services Australia has been merged into another beloved megadepartment by this government. Even this government knows that mergers don't always work out that well. You just have to ask the Liberal-National Party of Queensland how well mergers work out to know that they don't always end in a happy merger. It's a very unhappy merger, a very unhappy thing, and even with that merger they have to rely on Pauline Hanson's preferences to get anywhere. I'm sure that their dirty preference deals with Pauline Hanson will work out just as well as they did in Western Australia, where Colin Barnett did a comprehensive preference deal with One Nation and it blew up in his face.

My test for this piece of legislation is: does it result in more efficient services, better outcomes for staff and better outcomes for those Australians that rely on these services? When it comes to this government, though, we've seen so many cuts to our Public Service it has meant we've had to add 5,000 staff back into Services Australia to enable them to respond to the coronavirus crisis. We know this government refused to implement any serious support for those who work in the arts, resulting in huge queues of people who would have been happy to continue their work in the arts but, instead, were forced to go and knock on the door of Centrelink and go onto JobSeeker.

We also have the huge problem of the arbitrary staffing cap, leading to outsourcing and incredible overreliance on labour hire in our public sector. What we end up with is two workers doing exactly the same job, serving exactly the same clients and being paid incredibly different rates of pay. That doesn't sit right with me, and it shouldn't sit right with anyone in this place. We also know that, because of this government's inability to actually resource Services Australia properly, in the fortnight from 23 March, there were 6.5 million busy signals of people trying to get through. I accept it was an extraordinary time in our nation's history, but 6.5 million busy signals—that's a lot of people who, when they needed help from this government, did not have their phone calls answered.

I'm a huge supporter of the work that the team at Centrelink do. I visited Centrelink Morley in January of this year. Centrelink Morley is one of the largest Centrelinks in Western Australia. I said hello to Cheryl, Helyn and their team, and I want to say a huge thank you to the team at Centrelink Morley for all the work they did. At that point in time, I was there to thank them because a number of their staff had actually come over to the eastern states to help with local service delivery in response to the bushfires. Less than two months later, they were finding themselves in another crisis—on the front line, helping people in their darkest hour. So again, in May of this year, I went to say thank you, to keep their spirits up. They had worked incredibly hard, done lots of overtime and were dealing with people in incredibly stressful situations.

Data shows that, in March, 8,554 people accessed services at Morley Centrelink. There were 4,331 in April and 4,336 in May. And, despite the fact that this Centrelink is relied on by thousands of Western Australians every month, when I wrote to the minister and said, 'Can you guarantee that it will stay open?' he said, 'We've got a lot of online services.' All I wanted to know was whether my local Centrelink would stay open during this crisis, and the response I got was: 'Go online.' It is unbelievable that we can't even get a guarantee from this government about Morley Centrelink—one of the busiest Centrelinks in Western Australia.

I want to share a story about my constituent Rita, who went to apply for her age pension. For many older Australians, applying for the age pension is an exciting point in your life. It's the conclusion of your working life. You are embarking on that next step to enjoy a well-earned retirement. Rita did all the right things. She went into Centrelink and got all her documents together. They gave her an envelope. That envelope had on it the address in Canberra to send the documents to so that she could receive her pension. The only problem was that Centrelink had forgotten to renew the PO Box with Australia Post. And she wasn't the only constituent. For all of these people sending their documents in, the documents were going in the shredder because Centrelink hadn't even renewed their Australia Post PO Box. I know this because I contacted Australia Post and said: 'What's going on? Why are these documents that my constituents are sending not going anywhere?' And Australia Post dumped Centrelink in it. They said: 'The delay is a result of the item being posted to a reply paid PO Box service which had not been renewed. Attempts were made to alert Centrelink of the items on hand and the lapsed renewal, and the delivery centre held the items to allow opportunity for renewal of the service and collection of items by Centrelink representatives. Neither occurred, following a few delivery attempts that were unsuccessful.' That is how this government runs our Centrelink service. It's disgraceful.

I'm aware the Deputy Prime Minister is about to make a ministerial statement. I will end by saying something about the City of Perth. In March of this year I was contacted by CPSU members working for Services Australia in the Perth CBD saying that they were uncomfortable catching public transport at that point in time. They needed cheaper parking. The City of Perth responded to that and brought parking fees down to $10 a day. I want to congratulate the City of Perth for doing that and also take this opportunity, in closing, to thank the commissioners of the City of Perth who are about to step down as we go to council elections. I want to say thank you to Andrew Hammond, Gaye McMath and Len Kosova for running the Perth city council in an incredibly difficult time and in incredibly difficult circumstances. They have done a great job for the people of Perth and I thank them.

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The debate is adjourned and made an order of the day for a later hour.