House debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020


Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020; Second Reading

4:41 pm

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Dobell has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question. I call the member for Bruce—in continuation, I think.

4:42 pm

Photo of Julian HillJulian Hill (Bruce, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes. Thank you, Deputy Speaker. I addressed, in the first few minutes of my speech, before question time, the substantive bill. I'll turn my remarks now to the second reading amendment.

This bill on Services Australia fails to address the core issue, and the core issue is the lack of staff to do the work at Centrelink for the Australian people. This government is addicted to cutting and privatising public services. The little-known ASL cap, which was introduced by this government, by Prime Minister Abbott, is effectively a staffing cap that forces departments to privatise their operations. It's privatisation by stealth.

What it means is that, over the last seven long years of this government, as the Australian population has grown and aged and as the demand for quality public services naturally has continued to increase, government departments and agencies have not been allowed to employ any more staff. The practical effect of this is: either service quality goes down and people can't get through on the phone to Centrelink, or government agencies are forced to privatise and to use temporary, casual, labour-hire workers throughout their operations. We see this through Centrelink. When people try to call them, they can't get through—46 million unanswered phone calls; that's two for every Australian. We see it right through the National Disability Insurance Agency. They have about 3,000 staff and thousands more casual labour-hire workers.

Astoundingly, we even see it in the aged-care quality regulator. The government's failings in aged care are manifest, but the quality regulator, the federal government body that's supposed to oversee quality in the aged-care sector, also has numerous casual workers staffing it. Ironically, many of these casual workers are supplied by the same company that supplies casual staff to nursing homes. Talk about a conflict of interest!

Thousands of call centre jobs in Services Australia have been outsourced. Indeed, the former DHS secretary stated, at Senate estimates: 'We don't want to let our service levels drop. If we were just to allow our staffing levels to drop to the ASL cap then there would be an impact on service. We are engaging staff by other means so that we can continue to provide the service that customers want.' In plain English, it means that Services Australia needs more staff to do their work but they are not allowed to employ them. So, the response is to hire more-expensive casual labour workers to do the job. It is a false economy. It actually makes no sense. These workers often are sitting alongside public servants, and they are actually paid less to do the same job, but the private firm that supplies them takes a clip on the ticket and makes a profit from them. The taxpayer doesn't save money. This is not even what some might argue is a proper use of labour hire workers to fill a temporary need or a surge in demand—seasonal work. Perhaps the tax office explains to us that they have seasonal work—that's their response. These are basically permanent labour hire workers—permanent casuals. In 2018 there were more than 2,000 of them in DHS, because the ASL cap, the staffing cap, has not been raised.

The government, of course, loves their labour hire mates. We saw this with their failed visa privatisation. Unbelievably, they are so addicted to privatising public services that they waisted $92 million of taxpayer funds trying to outsource the visa and citizenship processing system—$92 million! About half of that went to Boston Consulting. Goodness only knows what you get 40-something million dollars for to design a failed privatisation.

One of the key proponents of this, the key bidders, was one of the Prime Minister's close mates, Scott Briggs. His firm donated $133,000 to the Liberal Party. They didn't get a great return, because they had to abandon the failed tender after blowing $92 million. But imagine what could have been done if they put that money into actually employing some public servants to do the job and had stopped this nonsense of casual labour hire workers staffing government departments.

Labor and the members on this side of the chamber at first welcomed the government's announcement in March that they recognised the urgency of restaffing Centrelink and were going to employ 5,000 new workers to help with the increased demand with the Morrison recession, as it started off. But now we've learnt that they brought on 14,800 new staff and 6,500 of these were through service delivery partners and labour hire agencies. Another 7,000 were from across the APS and a few others were from within Services Australia. So, even in times of crisis, after cutting thousands of staff since they were elected, they still can't bring themselves to just employ more public servants.

Their ideological obsession shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who actually follows them in this area. The Treasurer said before the budget that he was inspired by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and that these people were figures of hate for the Left because they were so successful. I think they're figures of hate for ordinary people because they are leaders who cut and privatised state owned enterprises and public services. Over the last 40 years their policies have directly led to massively increased inequality in Western countries, including Australia, and the degradation of public services. In the middle of a national or global crisis where unity was needed, our Treasurer was off seeking inspiration from a person who said she didn't even believe in society—there was no such thing.

Forty years on from the failed policies of privatisation and so-called small government, it is time that the government actually admitted that their slogan of small government has failed. It is actually meaningless. It is a marketing slogan. If you have a look across the budget papers over the past 10 or 20 years there is very little material difference in the size of government between either party. There is a whole lot of rhetoric about small government over there but, if you have a look at spending as a percentage of GDP, it peaked under Malcolm Turnbull. It was high under John Howard and had a little bump with Kevin Rudd for a couple of years with the GFC. It bounces around between about 24 per cent and 26 per cent of GDP. The myth of small government over there, that somehow they will spend less just because they are Liberals, is not borne out by the facts. What Liberals really mean when they say small government—and through policies like the ASL cap, it is destroying public services, including Services Australia—is privatising public services, sacking public servants, employing labour hire workers, getting expensive consulting mates to do the work, and attacking the most vulnerable people in society.

Unashamedly, I don't support this privatisation approach. I challenge the government that I don't believe most Australians do either. This small government thing sounds okay. It sounds like we might save a bit of money or get a bit of better value, but it doesn't stack up. Ask ordinary people if they would rather the government spent the taxes employing proper skilled public servants who have permanent jobs and are not treated as permanent casuals, like the hidden underclass staffing government departments now, never able to get a home loan, never knowing from week to week whether they will be sacked and given the flick, without any rights. As we saw with COVID-19, the casualisation of the Australian workforce has been a terrible thing for this country. Who knew sick leave has a purpose? There's a point to sick leave. There's a point to having a permanent job. Surely, when somebody turns up to work year after year for four or five years in a row, they should have a right to actually be an employee of the Australian government, and not be an employee week to week living hand to mouth as a labour hire worker, which tens of thousands of people across the Public Service in Australia are now doing because of this government's policies.

These policies of privatisation are not without consequence. We've seen, as I mentioned, far too many casual labour hire workers staffing the NDIA, the National Disability Insurance Agency, doing assessments on vulnerable people and their disabilities: 'Do they get a plan? Don't they get a plan?' We've seen the aged-care quality regulator staffed by casuals—unbelievably. We've seen the impact at Services Australia of literally thousands of, effectively, permanent temporary labour hire workers because there's this mad, blind ideology of privatisation. It doesn't save money. It doesn't deliver better service. It really makes no sense. We've also seen it, to be fair, in Victoria with the hotel quarantine disaster. The use of private security guards there led to a public policy failure. This is something that all sides of politics should reflect on. There are many cases where it is simply not appropriate. Continuing this idiotic approach of privatisation doesn't deliver good quality outcomes and doesn't deliver value for money for the taxpayer.

We should not be proud of the fact that the Australian Public Service has fewer workers now than it had in 1992. That should not be a source of pride. We shouldn't be proud of the fact that we still have 15,000 fewer workers in the Australian Public Service than seven years ago when this government came to office given that the population has grown by 20 or 30 per cent and is ageing. This is not a source of pride. Any government, whatever their political colours, should see themselves as stewards of the Public Service. This is capability which has been built up by the taxpayer over decades. It should be preserved and nurtured. We should treat it as a stewardship responsibility, not as some sort of business management restructure opportunity where you just cut the numbers and think you've achieved something. It really makes no sense.

We 've proven this through the Public Accounts and Audit Committee. We looked at the figures last term. We had government departments come to us. The Australian Bureau of Statistics said: 'We could save literally millions of dollars if the government would stop the ideology and let us employ some staff. We have to employ these IT contractors. They're permanent. We pay a 40 per cent premium to employ them through labour hire firms instead of just employing them as public servants.' But logic doesn't sway the government. They're not actually interested in saving taxpayers' money. They're not interested in better service. The numbers don't persuade them. They're interested in this mad ideology of privatisation. For every Australian who calls Centrelink trying to get through on the phone, that really is what it boils down to. This bill is not going to help. It's not going to make your experience better to change the name—'Scotty from marketing' rebranding DHS as Services Australia. It's not going to help. You actually need to employ more public servants who know their job and turn up to work year after year and develop the skills to provide services.

4:53 pm

Photo of Pat ConroyPat Conroy (Shortland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to make a contribution on the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020. Services Australia, the old DHS, is a crucial government department for all Australians. Every single person in Australia relies on the information services they offer—from people making claims for payments, to families having a baby. to those needing help in an emergency. Despite this, the coalition government has proven time and time again how little it thinks of this fundamentally important government department.

While no one could have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic, Australians, including Services Australia employees, were let down during this extremely challenging period due to the government's inability to take swift action when the threat was identified. Centrelink, one key part of Services Australia, has experienced an unprecedented surge of customers over the last six months. Seeing the footage and images of people lining up out the front of Centrelink at the start of this crisis was devastating. It's something I hope we will never see again. It's one of the many reasons Labor urges the government to extend the JobKeeper wage subsidy and return it to its previous level. If they don't and if it ends too soon, we will see these heartbreaking images again because more people will lose their jobs. Scenes like this are a reminder of the Great Depression of the 1930s and should not be repeated in the 21st century.

Of course, while COVID-19 changed our lives so quickly there's no doubt Australians were let down by the Minister for Government Services bungling the Centrelink response. The government declared COVID-19 a pandemic in late February. Lockdown, social distancing, the introduction of JobKeeper and an increase to the JobSeeker base rate were looming, yet weeks later when it was clear the devastation the crisis would have on our nation the minister still had not bolstered Services Australia. They simply did not have the necessary resources to support Australians in their time of need. This resulted in those queues out the front of Centrelink and the myGov website crashing.

What did the minister do as a result? Instead of admitting he'd stuffed up, he blamed it on invisible hackers. It was disgraceful. These invisible hackers were the cause of the myGov website crashing, not the minister's own incompetence. Not long after that he was forced to admit that it was his fault that he did not anticipate the demand for Centrelink services. What was his response? What was his deep apology to the Australian people? 'My bad' were his exact words. 'My bad'. This was a minister of the Crown making a glib response to the huge stress and anxiety that he placed on so many people. Hundreds of thousands of Australians were in one of the most stressful periods of their lives. 'My bad'—I'm sure that was music to the ears of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who suddenly, through no fault of their own, had lost their jobs.

This complete lack of preparedness and poor implementation is not a surprise from this government. The Prime Minister is great with good news and spinning half-truths—such as we saw recently with the so-called vaccination deal, which was no deal at all—but when we have to respond to a serious situation promptly and efficiently he and his ministers display atrocious incompetence. They are all photo-op and no follow-up. To quote the Prime Minister: he doesn't hold a hose. He didn't hold a hose. He didn't help Services Australia during this period.

Of course it wasn't just the website and Centrelink offices that were inundated. In the fortnight from 23 March there were 6½ million busy signals, two million congestion messages, 1.5 million unanswered calls and an average call wait time of over 40 minutes. Many groups of Australians were impacted by this. The hotline for parents and families had 2.3 million attempts met by busy signals. Almost 300,000 inquiries to the older Australians hotline were met with a busy signal, while only 37,711 people got through to speak with someone. The BasicsCard inquiries had an average wait time of well over an hour, with many of these cardholders having no other source of income to rely upon. Imagine how stressful this would have been in this period for someone like this who had no other income but could not get through to speak to someone at Centrelink. The number of answered calls were comparable to other reporting periods and did not significantly increase until after 20 April, signalling that capacity in this area was not sufficiently ramped up to meet the needs of Australians until four weeks after the initial hit to employment.

The minister's 'my bad' isn't good enough. It never was good enough. It was such a glib assertion. But people might have copped it if he immediately leapt into action and solved the problem. Instead, we had another four weeks of chaos and lack of response. It wasn't good enough for Centrelink staff, who were inundated with inquiries and subjected to abuse from many stressed Australians. It certainly wasn't good enough for the Australians who were desperate for assistance, including the many constituents who contacted my office in desperation and often in a state of high anxiety because they could not make contact with Centrelink.

Just after the lockdown was announced in late March a distraught father called my office on behalf of his son, both of whom had been trying for days to speak with someone at Centrelink. The son hadn't even been able to apply for JobSeeker because he hadn't been able to get a customer reference number, the dreaded CRN. The father was exasperated by the situation. His exact words were: 'Can't you see that this situation is thoroughly unacceptable?' All my electorate officer, who was trying to assist him, was able to say was that of course it was and the government should have had a better system in place to deal with the sheer volume of applications. This was predictable. The minute lockdowns were contemplated by the national cabinet the government and the minister should have leapt into action and ensured that Centrelink had the adequate staffing resources to answer the massive flood of calls and visits that were coming.

Of course, the pandemic isn't the first time that the government did not anticipate the potential for our social security infrastructure to become strained. With COVID-19 taking off overseas long before it reached Australia, the government had months to prepare for increased demand at Centrelink, but they have a history of such lack of preparation. Past IT systems unpreparedness, such as the myGov outage at the 2019-20 tax return time and the 2016 census debacle, shows that the government has not learned from its mistakes, and it's the Australian people who suffer as a result. In fact, such is this government's lack of shame about its own incompetence that the one response you get from the Prime Minister to a minister stuffing up is to promote them. For example, you'd think the census debacle would have been grounds for sacking Minister McCormack. Instead, the Nationals party room, in their wisdom, with the support of the Prime Minister, made him Deputy Prime Minister. If this is the quality of the contributions of government ministers, I look forward to seeing where Minister Robert ends up after his 'my bad' moment.

The government also have so little regard for Services Australia that they failed to listen to its advice. Take the robodebt scandal, for example. Services Australia told cabinet in February that this program was no longer viable and called for it to be scrapped. But it wasn't until May, three months later, that the minister finally admitted that 377,000 Aussies had been ripped off by the Morrison government through this scheme and said that the government would refund people $721 million. Not only was this scheme the most expensive defrauding of or theft from Australians by a government; it also had devastating, unforgivable impacts on its victims. If the government had any respect for Services Australia or Australians in general, they would have announced their mistake in February. Instead, they ignored the advice from Services Australia and buried their heads in the sand for three whole months, choosing to come clean only when there was the threat of significant legal action hanging over their heads. It was disgraceful.

Finally, I want to turn to the impact that seven years of coalition government and the implementation of their conservative ideology have had on Services Australia and the many millions of Australians, ranging from students and single mothers to age pensioners, who rely on Services Australia. They have borne the brunt of the government's radical right-wing agenda. The coalition came to office in 2013—as they did in 1996—with a plan to slash and burn the Public Service. They have implemented this agenda with chilling efficiency, sacking tens of thousands of public servants. What conservatives never understand is that the government cannot provide services without public servants. Coalition members who, like me, represent regional areas, such as the member for Lyne and the member for Robertson, should explain to their constituents why the government they are part of has made it more difficult for Australians to access public services, like Services Australia. The rebranding of the Department of Human Services as Services Australia could not have come at a worse time for the government.

And what are the impacts of cutting employees of Services Australia over the past seven years? I'll tell the House. Many of my constituents, particularly elderly constituents who applied for the age pension, waited months and months for their applications to be processed. One lady at Cardiff contacted my office in desperation because her pension application had not been processed after six months. It was only when my office became involved that the application was approved, and this was not before the constituent had to use up nearly all the savings she'd worked so hard for in the course of her working life. There was also a gentleman from Charlestown who, whilst waiting over four months for his pension to be processed, actually had to go back to work in order to ensure that he could afford the basic necessities. And, when his application was approved, the department transferred the money into the wrong bank account and he had to wait until the bank processed a reversal before he finally received the pension.

My office, like every electorate office in this country, particularly the Labor ones, has had to intervene in case after case to get applications resolved. I remember a case where a young uni student had to wait over nine months to get their youth allowance approved. Centrelink weren't waiting for documents. They weren't waiting for further confirmation. As in almost all these cases, it was a lack of staffing that caused the delay, not any miscommunication or a lack of documentation. Centrelink physically do not have the staff to do the job that they are being asked to do, because of this government's cuts.

We can see that in the customer service approach in bricks-and-mortar Centrelink offices. If you go into a Centrelink office, you are instantly steered towards a computer or sent back out. You have to actually insist quite stridently if you want to talk to a human being. This isn't because Centrelink staff aren't trying to do their best; they just physically don't have the staff to handle the level of customer inquiries. At every single community assembly and seniors expo I held pre the COVID crisis, the No. 1 complaint was the lack of access to a human being at Centrelink to process pension applications and to answer simple questions.

If you're applying for a pension and you're 66 or 67, it's very daunting to be referred to a computer, especially if you've come from an industry that hasn't used IT like that. It's very daunting to be told to go and get a CRN and lodge all the documents online and then hope that it gets processed in time. It is unacceptable. I still maintain that, in a rich and developed country like Australia, it is a fundamental human right to be able to speak to a human, preferably in person, when you need assistance from the government. I think it's a reasonable proposition for people who've paid taxes all their lives, if they're unable to use a computer or don't have the resources to access a computer or the internet under the government's so-called NBN, to be able to speak to a human being. I think it shows the out-of-touch nature of so many coalition ministers that they don't understand that not everyone was born with access to these services or that not everyone is familiar with these services. Many of my constituents, be they in Windale or San Remo or places further afield, are not comfortable with using computers. They would like to speak to a human. If they've worked their whole life, I think it's entirely reasonable for them to ask to speak to a human to get help with a pension application or to answer a simple question about family tax benefits. Unfortunately, given this government's ideology—they haven't seen a public servant they didn't want to cut or a service they didn't want to defund—it is unlikely to change.

We come back to the origins of this bill, which is principally about rebranding, from a government obsessed with branding—not delivering, not implementing, but branding. It's not a surprise that it's led by Scotty from marketing.

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Pat ConroyPat Conroy (Shortland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | | Hansard source

I withdraw. I will use his correct title. They're very sensitive about it. The minister at the table was very keen—

Mr Howarth interjecting

You're very sensitive about it. You were ready to leap up from the table.

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The member for Shortland will address his remarks through the chair.

Photo of Pat ConroyPat Conroy (Shortland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | | Hansard source

The Prime Minister is all about marketing.

Photo of Luke HowarthLuke Howarth (Petrie, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Show some respect.

Photo of Pat ConroyPat Conroy (Shortland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll respect him when he respects the Australian people. He doesn't respect the Australian people when he is all about the photo-op and not the follow-up. He does not have an inch of concern for the Australian people. It's all about pursuing power and staying ahead with spin, and that's what this bill is, sadly, about—rebranding rather than delivering real services for Australians.

Mr Tim Wilson interjecting

We've really touched a nerve here. The two Liberal members in this chamber know I'm right, and that's why they're objecting so fiercely. They're very, very sensitive, and that goes to the root of this government. It is all about spin and marketing. It is not about serving the Australian people and providing the services they need. I say shame on them for that.

5:08 pm

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I will be supporting this bill, the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020, and I will also be supporting the opposition's amendment. I want to make something perfectly clear before I speak on: what I have to say this afternoon has nothing to do with the Centrelink staff. I think officers in Centrelink and in the department more broadly do a good job. They do as good a job as they humanly can do in very difficult circumstances. In fact, during the robodebt fiasco, for example, it was often Centrelink officers who were the source of information to inform the community and to inform us members of parliament about the problems with the scheme. I approached the Commonwealth Ombudsman on a number of occasions, passing on a number of concerns, and many of those concerns were informed by Centrelink whistleblowers. So my comments this afternoon should not in any way be taken as a criticism of the staff. Rather they are in support of the staff. The staff in the department, in particular in Centrelink, are labouring through very difficult circumstances. They're understaffed, underresourced and underfunded. They are having to be party to what I think is reckless haste to go online. They have to implement policies and procedures and laws created by politicians, which often, in fact, demonise Centrelink recipients.

The opposition amendment, I think, is well founded, because so many of these problems go to outsourcing. No wonder the federal government wanted to change the name of the department from the Department of Human Services to Services Australia, because the government want to take 'human' out of the equation. Far too often it's about some poor Centrelink client having to deal with a computer or a telephone or an ad in the paper or a nasty letter co-branded with an AFP badge.

In the 10 years I've had this job, and in particular since the election of the Abbott government in 2013, I have dealt with countless—certainly hundreds; it might even be thousands now—members of the community, particularly from the Denison and now Clark electorates, but also from right around Australia, who have had terrible problems dealing with the government, government agencies and Centrelink in particular.

I'll recount some of the sorts of things that have been brought to my attention over the years. One of the big issues is a lack of communication. In fact, I would say that it's probably the biggest frustration experienced by Centrelink customers. Here are examples. People spend hours and hours waiting on the phone. Centrelink says there's only a 20-minute wait to get onto Centrelink, but that's if you can actually join the queue. Often the line is engaged or the line goes dead after you've waited a certain period of time. It may well be that the people who get through to Centrelink only wait 20 minutes in many cases, but a lot of people from time to time throughout the year—often the majority of people—can't get on the queue in the first place.

There's also the issue about Centrelink clients waiting months for the outcome of an application. For example, people call or go into Centrelink to follow up and are told there is a backlog and to keep waiting without being given any further information or time frame about their application. There's also the issue of the complicated and nonsensical forms and online applications that need to be filled in if you're going to attempt to deal with Centrelink. Indeed, I've had countless people approach me who thought they had submitted an application or uploaded the correct document when they had not. That often resulted in them not being back paid or no longer being able to appeal, because the time had expired in which they might have appealed some judgement.

What comes up quite a lot is losing documents. How on earth a federal government department or agency can so consistently lose client documents beggars belief. I'll make the point again: this isn't about incompetence by Centrelink staff; this is about Centrelink staff being under the pump and underresourced but doing the best they can with archaic systems that simply don't work. There's also the issue of random text messages or emails that are automatic and look like spam, which some receive from time to time. Just this week I had an email from someone who's niece had become so distressed by a text message from Centrelink, saying her payment was cut, that it put her in hospital due to a serious panic attack. That is a true story. When Centrelink was contacted, no-one could explain why the text was even sent in the first place. There is also the use of template letters that are automatically generated and don't make sense or provide any detail.

Then there is the appeals process. How can a person appeal a decision when they don't even know the reason for that decision? Having something complicated verbally explained on the phone is not good enough. How do you appeal? I've had countless people who thought they had appealed, because they had lodged a document outlining their appeal, but they subsequently found out that it was just sitting on their file.

There are so many problems with communications from Centrelink, which almost always go back to an underresourced agency with not enough people, archaic systems and too much haste to go online. Sometimes there is even a cultural problem where they don't want to help these people, but, fortunately, that's very, very rare. This doesn't affect just one particular payment among clients. I've had people come to me with problems with the age pension, with youth allowance, with the disability support pension and with JobSeeker, or the previous unemployment benefit. There is clearly a systemic problem. It isn't a problem with just one part of Centrelink or with the department. It's a systemic problem affecting all payments.

The age pension is a particular problem. It's one of the big issues. Frankly, for many age pensioners, dealing with Centrelink is simply too difficult, too hard to navigate. When they go into an office for assistance, these older Australians are just referred to online and phone services. Many people wait months for an outcome of their application and receive no communication at all from Centrelink during that time. Moreover, there are other problems with the system, with what goes on, not just customer service: the deeming rate's wrong; the assets tests and the assets assessments are poorly done.

With youth allowance, I've encountered a commonplace problem whereby the delays go for ridiculous lengths, so much so that I've had parents, schools and universities contact my office quite regularly—alarmingly regularly—because students haven't been paid their youth allowance. They're destitute, and the parents are unable to afford to pay their child's rent, food and other expenses. I've even heard of some students having to drop out of their learning because they had to work to earn money with which to eat or they had to return home, away from their learning institution.

On the disability support pension, I've had countless vulnerable people—terminally ill, permanently disabled and chronically ill people and people suffering from extreme mental health problems—contact my office because their application for the DSP has been rejected. And it's been rejected because the medical evidence was deemed insufficient, yet they are now on a two-year waitlist to see that specialist again. Or it's been rejected because an independent medical assessor, over the phone, disagreed with the information provided by their medical specialist. Or it's been rejected because the person's condition was getting worse and so could not be classified as stabilised. As a result, people are forced to drag themselves into Centrelink again and again—people with serious mental illness, people with serious physical disabilities—and drag themselves to see multiple specialists, when it is abundantly clear that this sort of treatment is unwarranted and they need the disability support pension and need it quickly.

And where do I begin with JobSeeker? One of the significant problems here, apart from the paltry amount that it used to be, at $40 a day—and let's hope it never goes back to $40 a day—is that too often there is an attitude from government that people who are on the dole are bludgers. The government then creates all these absurd hurdles for someone who is on unemployment benefits, and the agency will cut their payments in half if a compulsory meeting is missed because of sickness or other valid reasons. I talked in my opening remarks about demonising. And I'm not talking about Centrelink officers demonising Centrelink clients; I'm talking about the government demonising Centrelink clients. There is no better example of how that demonising manifests itself than the robodebt fiasco. Thank God the courts will hold the government to account for the robodebt fiasco. But please understand: it's not over.

In fact, just today I sent another letter to the Commonwealth Ombudsman bringing a number of issues to the attention of the Ombudsman, because the government's decision to only repay debts calculated wholly or partially on averaged ATO income data ignores the flawed and inconsistent internal processes that were applied to recalculate appealed robodebts. I've asked the Ombudsman to conduct another inquiry. I've lost count of the number of times I've approached the Ombudsman over robodebt, and I'm proud to say that it might help in some small way to encourage the Ombudsman to investigate these matters, to intervene and to be part of the process of holding the government to account.

Much has already been said about outsourcing. In fact, just yesterday I gave a 90-second statement about outsourcing. I'm pleased to see the opposition today picking up on the points that I raised yesterday and going into even more detail in the extra time that they've had. I'll mention again the figures that I mentioned yesterday. I'm talking about the Public Service broadly here, not just about any one department or agency.

I refer to the work done by Michael West and publicised on It shows that the number of outsourced staff in the Department of Defence is 1½ times the number of public servants in that department; the Attorney-General's Department spent $13.4 million on labour hire contractors last financial year; Home Affairs outsourced 1,082 positions, including intelligence analysts, legal practitioners and border enforcement officers; nearly 40 per cent of the department of infrastructure staff are outsourced, including 16 assistant directors—I will say that again: nearly 40 per cent of the department of infrastructure staff are outsourced, including 16 assistant directors—and 5,000 positions at the ATO call centres are outsourced. This is just madness.

No wonder the standard of service by the government to the people it's supposed to serve is so bad. No wonder members of parliament—and I'm sure government members of parliament as well—are approached by people every single day with legitimate concerns about the problems they're experiencing at the hands of government agencies. They're running into bottlenecks and roadblocks because there are not enough staff and there has been a hasty move to online processing of services. Basically, agencies are under-resourced and over-outsourced.

All of this is simply not good enough. It could be so easily turned around, but it will only turn around when the federal government acknowledges that there's a problem. When you have ministers dismissing issues and problems with, 'My bad,' and then just ticking the box to acknowledge the problem and moving on, it leaves the community with no confidence whatsoever—none at all—that the government really appreciates there's a problem and really understands that it's in the public interest to fix those things.

So, please, whether it be Centrelink or other government agencies, let's resource these public servants properly so that they can deliver a public service. Let's stop cutting the jobs. Let's stop outsourcing. Let's upgrade our systems. Let there be leadership from the very top of the government. The government should say: 'We are here to serve and we serve by having the very best agencies we can possibly have.' We can have the best agencies in the world, but we'll need to start with an acknowledgement of the problem and we need to follow up with serious funding of these agencies.

Let's stop demonising the people who rely on the government. Let's face it: the people who walk into Centrelink are some of the most disadvantaged people in the country. They should be the people we pull close and embrace and look after as well as we humanly can. That's our job. That's what the government has to start understanding. The government has to start doing its job. Let's resource these agencies. Let's stop the outsourcing.

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I call the member for Macnamara, who has finished doing his hair.

5:23 pm

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] There are no hairdressers open in Victoria at the moment. As soon as there are, I will be visiting my local one. But that's not why I rise today. I rise to speak on the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020. I start by echoing the comments of previous speakers from the opposition and say that of course we support this bill—and it's a bill that has some small machinery changes—but, like many pieces of legislation from this government, it really misses the core problems and issues. Instead of actually tackling the issues that our nation faces, this government fiddles around the edges and just tinkers with the small things. This bill does not go to some of the core issues in Services Australia that I will be speaking about today.

One of the most vivid weeks of my time as a member of parliament was at the start of the pandemic. I remember the member for Canberra, who has recently had a beautiful baby, saying that if this pandemic teaches us anything it is that people, through no fault their own, can find themselves out of work. If this pandemic can teach us anything, it is that anyone at any time, despite absolutely no wrongdoing on their own behalf, can find themselves out of work, and that's exactly what's happened.

We saw a million Australians join the unemployment queue. It was devastating to watch, and I'm sure that every member of the House of Representatives can think of examples of devastation when speaking to people, to businesses who have been operating for 20 to 30 years and to people who are close to them—people who are friends and who are family members. It really touched every corner of our society. A million Australians who have never had any engagement with unemployment benefits all of a sudden found themselves needing to access services and needing to access Services Australia or Centrelink.

I remember that throughout this really difficult period Australians were forced almost overnight to access the services. We all remember the queues around the corners and around blocks where Australians were forced to line up during a pandemic, one by one, standing next to each other in groups in their hundreds and in their thousands, waiting to access Centrelink services and Centrelink offices. Instead of planning, instead of accepting responsibility and instead of acknowledging the difficulty that literally a million Australians were going through, the hapless minister—to be frank, it is absolutely astonishing this guy is still a minister, but I'll come back to that—who oversees this program said that a bunch of hackers had slowed down the myGov website. He said that a bunch of hackers had made it crash.

Before that, there was also mass confusion around people having to line up in order to get a CRN. In the end, it wasn't true. They just didn't have the planning and the ability to do it through the myGov website in the first place, and then they had to revisit their processes and do it on the fly. We were told it couldn't be done; it was a mess. We had thousands of people standing next to each other on the streets, and the best that Minister Robert could muster was, 'My bad,' and that there were hackers who were trying to slow down the government processes. That is the minister responsible for the social safety net of Australians during a pandemic, so it is hardly surprising that he is overseeing scandal after scandal after scandal in this policy area.

I want to say something really clearly. I have only sincere thanks to give—and I'm sure that all members of the House of Representatives would agree with me—to the staff of our Centrelink offices, certainly the local ones. Locally, in South Melbourne and in Prahran—which just borders on my electorate—the staff do a herculean job. Throughout this pandemic, they have really risen to the challenge. We speak to them on almost a daily basis, going through specific cases and trying to help people access the services. I know my office is deeply committed to it and does a fantastic job.

I also want to extend a thankyou to the staff of Centrelink. But, of course, the staff at Centrelink are not treated with the thanks that they deserve from the government and from this minister. If you want to have a look at why, during the pandemic, during some of the most difficult days to work in our Centrelink offices, this government was looking at shutting down Centrelink offices. They had already been planning to shut down the Mornington and Newport offices, and then I remember that the minister decided that he was going to shut down the Abbotsford office and tell people: 'Just go down to South Melbourne. Just head on down to South Melbourne and that'll be fine.' People who are accessing these services are facing so much difficulty. For the minister to flippantly say, 'You can just go to South Melbourne,' when they were already under the pump, when they were at peak servicing and already doing their bit, shows exactly how the government sees their Centrelink staff. They do not value their work, they do not respect them and they do not give them the adequate resources that they desperately need in order to fulfil the crucial job of staffing Services Australia and specifically the Centrelink services. So, while we say thank you, this minister says 'my bad'. While we appreciate the work of Centrelink and Services Australia, the best that the minister can offer is, 'My bad—we didn't quite get it right.' He is the minister for 'my bad'—not myGov, 'my bad'.

One of the big issues in Services Australia is obviously the rate at which people are accessing the JobSeeker payment and the coronavirus supplement. One of the things that I find absolutely extraordinary is that the minister overseeing this program was once caught spending over $2,000 a month on home internet bills, which he later had to pay back. We can spend an afternoon having a laugh, thinking about how on earth you can rack up $2,000 of home internet bills, but let's put that aside for a second and actually look at something serious here. The rate of Newstart in this country, before the coronavirus supplement, was $40 a day or about $1,130 a month. At the moment there is an extra supplement of $250 a fortnight, which takes the payment up to about $1,630 every four weeks or a month—a little bit more depending on how long the month is. But let's be generous. Let's say, on the very worst-case scenario, it was just under $1,200 and, with the supplement at the moment, it's just under $1,700. This minister spent more on home internet, on downloads, than people receive in unemployment benefits in this country. This minister charged taxpayers more money—which he later had to pay back—than people receive, even with the coronavirus supplement, and almost double what they received under the previous rate of Newstart. This guy is spending more on internet than people in this country are getting as a social safety net, and it tells you everything you need to know about his priorities and what he thinks is fair.

I know that the government is absolutely desperate to bring the JobSeeker rate back down to the previous levels. I am dialling in from the greatest electorate in the country, the electorate of Macnamara in St Kilda—I can see lots of nodding going on in the chamber—

Honourable Member:

An honourable member interjecting

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I can't see who's interjecting. I am connecting remotely from St Kilda, proudly so, but I am not in the chamber, because Victorians have faced probably some of the most difficult months that we have ever had to face. I want to thank every single Victorian who has done the right thing and helped us to overcome what most countries around the world have not been able to do, which is to bring down their coronavirus cases.

Despite this, despite Victorians still not being able to have their family members over, to see their friends, to open their businesses, despite the fact that we are still asking Victorians to try to save other Victorians' lives and get us into a stage where we can come out of the current restrictions, the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and this minister are happy with reducing both the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments to Victorians. Victorian restaurants and businesses are absolutely on their last legs. They have done it tough. People on JobSeeker and on the unemployment queues are not there because they have done something wrong. They were working. People in this pandemic have found themselves in this position where they have had to join an unemployment queue that is so unfamiliar that they had to line up and try to access a CRN in the first place.

The Prime Minister and the Treasurer like to say that this budget is about saying to Australians, 'We've got your back.' They haven't got Victorians' backs. I'll tell you what they are doing. They have their hands in their back pockets, taking away supplement payments from Victorians during this pandemic. They have their hands in the savings and in the support payments for Victorians during this pandemic. This government doesn't have Victorians' backs. This government is taking funds and support away from Victorians in their hour of need, just at the very end of months and months of Victorians doing the right thing. It is hardly surprising, because the very people who are overseeing this clawback of support, the clawback of the JobSeeker payment, right at the time when Victorians cannot afford it, is the minister who spent more on his home internet than people who were receiving this payment receive in a month.

In this country, we have set up over years and years a social welfare system that is designed to be a safety net for Australians. It is there to try to support people. This government's record is to trash it, to reduce staffing, to send vulnerable people debt collection notices, and persist with the scheme, to be advised that it was illegal, and then to continue sending debt collection notices to vulnerable Australians. I know that many members have spoken of the absolutely heartbreaking cases of people who have received these debt notices, only to be told that they don't have to pay and this whole scheme was illegal.

Australians have gone through some of the most difficult periods in our country's history, especially in Victoria. We need to thank our Centrelink staff and work with them. We need more Centrelink staff. We don't need to be privatising Centrelink, we don't need to be privatising Centrelink offices, we don't need to be dismissing the needs of people who are in our social safety net. Australia is a fantastic country because we look after Australians, except this government doesn't. This government is slowly clawing back support from the very people who rely on it at the very time when they rely on it most. We can do better than cutting payments from Victorians in our hour of need but, unfortunately, with this minister and his track record of scandal and ugly ministerial behaviour, I don't hold out much. But we must do better than his hapless efforts.

5:38 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very pleased to contribute to the debate on the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020. The bill lays out the proposed framework and structure for the Department of Human Services replacement agency, Services Australia. As my Labor colleagues have mentioned, it puts forward a number of changes, really to modernise the terminology and streamline reporting in the transition to the new agency. Labor will support the government in these aims. What we are not willing to do, however, is to sit mutely while those opposite privatise the public sector by stealth. It is that point that the member for Dobell's amendment goes to. It calls on the government to do some very important things, including abolishing the ASL offset rule, which has the effect of capping average staffing levels within Services Australia. It calls on the government to stop the excessive use of consultancy firms and contractors to outsource important government services, including Centrelink. It calls on the government to recognise that the staffing cap is a false economy that undermines the quality of government services, especially those delivered by Services Australia. I am very pleased to put on the record today my strong support for these calls and that amendment. I do note that the budget flagged an increase of 3.5 per cent, but it was significantly below the staff cap and it only represents an increase of 325 people above the previous staffing cap.

It's important that we have these sorts of discussions in the Australian parliament about what we want from public agencies like Centrelink, especially as we start to make the big decisions about what sort of country we want to build in the future. COVID-19 has demonstrated that, when the will is there, big changes can be made and that this can happen very quickly. It has also demonstrated the importance of a strong, responsive Public Service. Contrary to the constant attacks and undermining of Liberal governments, who have long insisted on the virtues of small government, it turns out that the Public Service had a major role to play in the fight against coronavirus. Yet it's a role that could have been more effective had the Public Service not been subject to years of savage cuts and an unrelenting push to privatise essential services.

Centrelink has always been there for Australians when they have been at their lowest ebb. When people face bereavement or disability, they look to Centrelink for support. When they take on caring duties or get sick, they rely on Centrelink to get them through. Indeed, it's Centrelink that millions of Australians have turned to in recent months as COVID-19 restrictions threatened or destroyed an unthinkable number of jobs and businesses. Sadly, this profoundly important agency was found wanting because of the way it has been neglected by this government. As the queues grew, so did the frustrations with Centrelink's failure to keep up. Despite the hard work of committed staff, people queued for hours but weren't served. Calls to the hotline were unmet, with engaged signals or never-ending on hold messages. Online visitors reached a dead end when the myGov website crashed.

But these weren't problems born just of the pandemic. Under the Liberals, staff have been cut, queues have grown and phone wait times have ballooned. Additionally, an arbitrary staffing cap, installed by this government, has forced management to farm out some of its most sensitive and fundamental functions to casuals and contractors. The government pretends that this is about saving money, but everybody knows that's a nonsense, because contract workers cost the taxpayer even more than salaried public servant, even though they personally get paid less. The difference, of course, goes to the bottom line of private labour hire companies, who are making an absolute motza out of this mess. Too often we have seen staff start work in frontline roles without adequate skills or training, so that, when people do get to speak to a person, they often find they don't have adequate knowledge to answer their questions. I want to be clear: this is not the fault of any of these workers. They are just doing the best they can in the face of concerted government attacks.

The sad truth is that Centrelink has been so diminished by this government that it now struggles to fulfil some of its core responsibilities. Year on year this Liberal government has set out to starve Centrelink of resources and cruel its ability to deliver for Australians. But it gets worse. Not content with capping staff and slashing resources, the Morrison government recently turned its attention to shutting down Centrelink's physical presence in communities—the very offices that people go to when they need help. Indeed, this year, community after community has learnt that their frontline Centrelink offices are slated for closure. Initially, we thought it was just the one office. Then we learned of another and another and another. It quickly became clear that they weren't isolated decisions. No, they were part of a devious, coordinated plan to shrink Centrelink's frontline footprint by stealth. From Mornington and Newport in Victoria, to Tweed Heads, to my home city of Newcastle in New South Wales, local communities woke up in shock to find their Centrelink offices shuttered, merging or under threat.

Of course, the Morrison government wasn't honest with the public about these plans, which will leave jobseekers—needy and vulnerable Australians—out in the cold. Newcastle was one of the first to be targeted. The first I heard was when the minister wrote to me to tell me that the government will be closing the Mayfield and King Street Centrelink offices to replace them with a single office in a yet to be determined location. He talked coldly of consolidation, which of course we all know is Liberal code for cuts, cuts and more cuts. I can't begin to tell you how furious I was when I got this letter. How dare this government set about axing my critical local frontline services with so little regard for the consequences, how dare they treat Novocastrians with such contempt and how dare they think they can get away with this appalling plan.

When I found out what the government had cooked up and spoke to my community about the implications of these plans for them, I launched a community campaign. I called on Novocastrians to join with me in the fight to save our Centrelink offices at King Street and Mayfield. I asked them to denounce the government's nefarious plot. I requested their personal stories which showed what these local offices mean to them, and, boy, did they step up. It has been quite incredible, actually. I have received dozens and dozens of calls, letters and emails of solidarity. People wrote to me about how much they relied on Centrelink's frontline services. They shared their personal stories about what those offices meant to them and their families, and they sent me copies of the letters that they had sent to the minister urging him to axe this stupid plan.

If I was heartened by the letters of support, I was completely overwhelmed by the support for my community petition. Today, I'd like to formally record in the Australian parliament that 3,458 Novocastrians signed this petition which called on the government to axe this terrible plan and leave Newcastle's Centrelink offices alone. And I'd like to sincerely thank each and every person who took the time to write, to call, to email or to drop in to my office to register their dissent. On this matter, there can be no doubt: Newcastle loudly, proudly and unequivocally said no to these closures. I stand here now on behalf of my community to deliver this message. I say no to this shameful plan. Mr Morrison, Newcastle says no to this shameful plan—no to starving Centrelink of the resources it needs to properly support Novocastrians in times of need.

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Point of order?

Photo of Luke HowarthLuke Howarth (Petrie, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I ask that the member for Newcastle refer to the Prime Minister by his correct title. Thank you.

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I say no to the Prime Minister and to his appalling plan to deprive Newcastle of these Centrelink offices. I say no to his minister, who thinks it is a good idea to deprive Novocastrians of critical frontline services that have been so essential in getting us through this pandemic. I say no to reducing any of our frontline services and no to shutting down our local offices. I'm very pleased that the minister on duty tonight made that intervention, so that I had an opportunity to speak directly to the Prime Minister, who appears to be pretty tone-deaf about these sorts of issues. I hope the Prime Minister is listening very carefully today: the message from Newcastle is loud, clear and unequivocal, and I hope you understand.

It may well be that this government is starting to see the error of its ways after seeing the disastrous impacts of its ongoing campaign to hollow out public services. Indeed, we've already seen them postpone some of their plans to shut down offices—Abbotsford Centrelink in Melbourne, for example. But it's not enough. The government need to put an end now to the entire shameful plot that they have been hatching. They shouldn't allow this to be swept under the rug. I will not allow this issue to be swept under the rug, ready to be revived when no-one's looking. Maybe the Prime Minister thinks he can put that kind of shoofty over Newcastle. Well, I've got news for this government: we will be watching you very closely.

This plan must be abandoned once and for all. We are heading into the deepest recession we have seen in almost a century, and Australians need to know that Centrelink will be there for them when they need it. It is the Morrison government that has created this mess and it is the Morrison government that now needs to fix it. The government has an opportunity now to remedy the terrible, terrible situation in which it is placing so many Australians. It is diabolical for a government that relied on a professional public service to get millions of Australians through this pandemic to even contemplate paying back that loyalty, that service to our communities, by shutting the doors on those workplaces, saying, 'We don't need all these Centrelink offices.' At what point does this government stop and reflect on the serious implications of its diabolical plans—the implications for the millions of Australians who rely on Centrelink for professional advice and guidance and to receive timely payments? That is the whole purpose of a social security safety net.

Over a long period of time, Australian men and women fought very hard to ensure that this country had a protective social security safety net. It was indeed the blood and sweat of working men and women in this nation that struck the social accord that afforded the decent safety nets put in place in this country, whether it was income support through Centrelink or universal health care in the form of Medicare—hard-won victories. Of course, these offices that the government is intending to close down are also Medicare offices in many of our cities, country towns and regions. So it shows the complete disregard and disrespect that this government has for two of the most fundamental doctrines in this nation—that is, a universal healthcare system and a social security safety net. (Time expired)

5:53 pm

Photo of Tony ZappiaTony Zappia (Makin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I begin by commending the member the Newcastle for her contribution to this debate on the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020. Like so much of the Morrison government's legislation, this bill is more about window-dressing and cost-cutting than about service improvement. The bill re-badges the Department of Human Services as an executive agency called Services Australia that will have oversight of Centrelink, Medicare and child support registration. In the future, the departmental head will no longer be referred to as the secretary but as the chief executive officer.

These are largely superficial changes that will incur considerable implementation costs, including new titles, new structures, new contracts and extensive rebadging, which will all be worn by the taxpayers. I believe that none of these things will provide better services. I suspect the real reason behind these changes from the Morrison government is to bury its robodebt, COVID app and data breach bungles and the appalling difficulty people have experienced over recent years in dealing with those departments—and that's not because of the people who work within the departments. As other speakers have quite rightly pointed out, it's not the staff who are at fault here, but rather the fact that they have been working underresourced and undersupported for way too long.

There are two Centrelink offices in my region—one at Modbury and one at Salisbury—and I can only applaud the staff at those offices for what they have been doing during the time I have been the member for Makin. They have always been helpful and supportive. I know that they've always gone out of their way to deal with difficult situations. But when you don't have the support you need and when you are not allowed to do what you think is the right thing to do then obviously it means poor services for the people who need those services.

That all comes down to the number of staff who have been cut by this government since coming to office in 2013 and the staff caps that have been put in place by this government. We know that some 19,000 staff have been cut from the Public Service over the life of this coalition government. I note that only in March the Prime Minister announced that there would be some 5,000 staff reinstated. My questions to the government are: How many of those 5,000 have been reinstated? Are they full-time positions or part-time positions? Are they casuals or permanent staff? I don't know. Indeed, it would be interesting to know exactly what has happened since that announcement because the implementation of many of this government's announcements never seems to eventuate.

The staff cuts have meant that not only the officers have been left underresourced but also they have been relying heavily on temporary staff, as other speakers have pointed out time and time again. The problem with that, as I'm sure anybody would appreciate, is that temporary staff do not always have the experience or the familiarity with the issues that they are having to deal with on a daily basis, nor do they have the long-term knowledge of the people they are trying to assist. It means that when people go to those offices quite often they are dealing with one person on one day and a different person on another day and often getting different advice because of that.

Indeed, only yesterday I responded to constituents in my electorate who had been attempting for three years to resolve a matter with Centrelink. Over those three years they had got conflicting advice time and time again. This is probably because different staff have had to deal with the husband and wife each time they contacted the Centrelink offices. It was finally resolved as a result of intervention from my office. That was after a three-year period. I'm also aware that, in addition to the issue of staffing that has been referred to in this place by me and other speakers—

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Member for Makin, could you resume your seat. We have a six o'clock cut-off and there are a couple of things we need to do. The member for Makin will be able to resume his remarks when we resume. I table a document on the voting positions of non-aligned members.