Thursday, 8 October 2020
Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise today to speak on the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020. This bill sets out the proposed framework for the newly established executive agency, Services Australia, to replace the now abolished department of human services. I don't think anybody on this side of the House is surprised that this government is stripping humanity out of government services.
Labor supports modifications to public sector governance structures that lead to good outcomes for employees and the Australians who rely on those services. However, this bill fails to address the core issue at the centre of Services Australia's problems, and that is the arbitrary staffing cap imposed across the Australian Public Service by the Liberal government. The staffing cap is both nonsensical and counterproductive. Supposedly introduced to drive efficiencies on the delivery of services, it has instead resulted in a dramatic deterioration of service delivery and a massive cost blowout in the use of consultancies. Consultancies are scooping up hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money and creaming off their lucrative fees along the way as backdoor starting operations.
Services Australia staff help Australians in their moments of greatest need. These hardworking, and indeed overworked, staff provide financial relief to those unable to work, to older Australians, to carers and to people with disability. They assist people in finding counselling and social work services. They help jobseekers find meaningful occupations or prepare them to re-enter the workplace. More than 70,000 Tasmanians receive the age pension, 1,000 are carers and almost 4,000 students receive some form of income support. All require interaction with Services Australia to varying degrees, not to mention the tens of thousands receiving JobSeeker.
The important work done by Services Australia has never been more obvious than in the first six months of this year, with staff managing a remarkable workload from dealing with the bushfire response in January to managing the surge in new applicants for JobSeeker that arose in March as a result of COVID-19. From March to June, the staff at Services Australia processed around 800,000 new claims for JobSeeker. That's the number they would normally process in two years. It was an incredible feat. They went above and beyond to help their fellow Australians, and I never again want to hear derision from those opposite about the value and importance of public sector workers. These people turn up to work every day and slog their guts out to ensure their fellow Australians can receive the assistance they require in their hour of need.
Labor did welcome the government's announcement on 22 March to engage 5,000 additional new workers to help manage the extra demand. But 5,000 happens to coincide almost exactly with the number of people the Liberal government have cut from the front line since 2013. There are currently 1.45 million Australians on JobSeeker and another 160,000 are expected to join them by Christmas. The job for Services Australia is not getting easier any time soon.
The only way to ensure that Services Australia, and indeed the public sector as a whole, can meet the demands placed upon them is to remove the arbitrary staffing cap. Since coming to power, the Liberals have cut nearly 19,000 jobs from the Australian Public Service and capped staffing levels at around or below 2006-07 levels, but it's not like it has led to any savings. Government jobs have become outsourced agency jobs that cost taxpayers more but pay staff less. It's a false economy for everyone except the consultancies that are creaming off hundreds of millions of dollars in fees from the taxpayer. It is mind-bogglingly stupid from both a hard-headed economic point of view and a bleeding heart point of view.
In Tasmania, more than 600 federal Public Service jobs have been lost since 2013. In the 2018-19 financial year alone, Tasmania lost 158 Centrelink and Medicare jobs. The Department of Health workforce shrank by 30 per cent, the Department of Veterans' Affairs workforce by 23 per cent and the Bureau of Meteorology workforce by nine per cent. We've lost AFP officers and agents, and Tuesday's budget made it clear that there's no plan to bring them back. As an aside: if the Prime Minister is serious about creating jobs in the regions—and we've heard from the Deputy Prime Minister today about regions—then how about re-creating Australian Public Service agencies in regional cities and regional towns, reopening the offices and staffing the counters? How many older Australians who live in the regions have to go online and try to navigate nearly nonsensical websites? They just can't make sense of them, and, when they phone up trying to get advice, they're on hold for hours.
Imagine what it would be like in regional cities and regional towns if you could go into a Centrelink office, a Medicare office or a department of ageing office and actually have human beings at the counter who are trained and ready, willing and able to help people in regional cities and regional towns to get the services they deserve. Right there are some job ideas for the government. With these cuts that we've experienced in Tasmania, it's not as though demand for these services was dropping off. These were busy people. They had work to do. Now that they're gone, those who have been left behind have even more to do. Is it any wonder that it takes so much time for a call to be answered?
In August 2019 the Senate referred to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee an inquiry into the impact of changes to service delivery models on the administration and running of government programs. In its report the committee called for the average staffing level cap to be abolished, calling it an 'inflexible and arbitrary imposition' and noting that outsourcing government services is an activity 'fraught with risk'. The committee also argued that privatisation leads to 'a loss of capability in the Public Service, potentially throwing away decades of knowledge and expertise'. The report also reflected industry and union concerns about how outsourcing affects staff, as those working for private entities are often casualised or on contracts, are paid less and have worse conditions than permanent employees. I might also mention here that the committee recommended that the Morrison government scrap its plan to privatise Australia's visa system and instead look for an in-house solution within the Department of Home Affairs.
I support the calls from the Community and Public Sector Union to scrap the cap. Staffing cuts and caps mean that, regardless of how much work needs to be done, agencies have been forced to arbitrarily limit their permanent staff. They can either squeeze their remaining staff as hard as they can in order to drive productivity beyond human capability or they can find a backdoor way to put more people on. Most senior managers and executives try option A. They try to squeeze their staff before surrendering to the reality that staff can only do so much and that they need option B: more people. But the staffing caps mean they need to hire consultancies, who then provide the staff to do the same jobs that public sector staff used to do. The private staff are paid less. For instance, they get 9½ per cent superannuation, not the 15.4 per cent that Commonwealth public servants get. And the consultancy owners—and this is the real rub—become millionaires from the fees they earn, and that is no exaggeration.
So staff are paid less, the public gets a worse service, it's more expensive to the taxpayer and the consultancy owners are millionaires. It's no wonder that under this government labour hire and the contracting out of public sector work has ballooned. If it were less expensive and led to better service then you might think: 'Okay; what's wrong with that? Maybe they've got a good idea. Maybe we need to rethink the model.' But it's more expensive, and service is worse. Nobody wins except the consultants, who become millionaires.
New analysis by the Australian National Audit Office has found that the big four consultancy firms—Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PwC—now collectively reap $800 million a year in government contracts. Around $160 million of that is on genuine consultancy; the rest is simply on providing outsourced staff to do jobs. It would be cheaper to employ permanent staff in the APS, but that's against the government's staffing cap. It is a farcical way to run a government. A review by former Telstra CEO David Thodey recently found the use of external contractors and consultants to deliver work previously done in house was a key factor behind the decline in the capability of the APS. Well, blow me down with a feather!
Too many phone calls to Services Australia go unanswered every year, and Australians waste far too much time on hold trying to access Centrelink services, causing great unnecessary distress. In the fortnight from 23 March, for example, instead of speaking to a person who could help them, callers to Services Australia were met with 6.5 million busy signals, two million congestion messages and 1.5 million unanswered calls, with an average call wait time of more than 40 minutes. It's a disgrace. The CPSU tells us that 1.5 million calls unanswered is business as usual. This is not about the pandemic. This is not, 'Gee, we didn't see the pandemic coming; everything's gone to rubbish.' This is business as usual under this government. It is symptomatic of the Liberals' incompetence in government at every level. Far and away the majority of constituent inquiries to my electorate office are in regard to the delays in the processing of Centrelink claims, and I'm sure the same could be said for many of my colleagues. We are, in effect, an outsourced office of Centrelink. This government has denuded staffing at Centrelink to such an extent that people are coming to their federal MPs seeking assistance from us.
A few months ago I had a call from Jo, who lives in the town of Broadmarsh in my electorate. Jo had lodged a claim for JobSeeker in January. Illness had prevented her from working since the end of last year and she was fast using up her savings on day-to-day living expenses. Despite many calls and visits to the local Centrelink service centre, Jo's claim had not been processed by the time she contacted my office in May. Our wonderful Centrelink liaison contact was able to get Jo's claim processed within a day or two of us contacting them. But it should not take intervention from a federal MP for a claim to be seen to. Five months for a claim to be processed is just outrageous. This is a woman who was out of work, using up all her savings over five months. She was worried. How was she going to pay her bills? How was she going to put food on the table? Five months without income—it's an absolute disgrace. I know it's no fault of the staff within Centrelink. They are exhausted. They are working beyond human measure. Jo's story is by no means a one-off. It is commonplace for my office to assist constituents who are owed thousands of dollars in back pay because of the long delays in processing their claims.
Robodebt—I don't even know where to start. I've only got two minutes; I need another 20 minutes. This government and this minister wrongfully, illegally raised more than 470,000 debts against Australians, primarily against low-income earners. That's the legacy of this government—robodebt. I can't even begin to imagine a government wilfully, as the evidence is now emerging, and knowingly raising debts against Australians that the government knew they didn't owe. The government actually knew these people did not owe the government money and yet told them to pay up anyway. I know what that's called out in the real world. That's called theft; it's called stealing; it's called extortion. It's an absolute disgrace. Yet the minister behind it continues to sit on the front bench alongside his compatriot, Minister Tudge, who's been found by the Federal Court to have behaved criminally. How is the man still in cabinet?
The Federal Court has found a minister of the Crown to have acted criminally. You're looking at me quizzically, over there, barrister Deputy Speaker, but that's what the Federal Court said.
I'll conclude on that remark. But that's what the Federal Court found.
A government member interjecting—
It's not an allegation. It's a finding by a Federal Court judge; it's not commentary. So robodebt under this minister—
A government member interjecting—
Wouldn't be hard to find comments, mate.
A government member interjecting—
Can I just make the observation that I don't think that some of the members sitting in this House right now want to be defending people who have acted criminally.
I want to support what the member for Lyons has just said and I particularly want to take up his point about how the outsourcing of these roles by Centrelink, by Human Services, has meant that the staff in our electorate offices have seen and heard about a lot of trauma. They've heard a lot of very difficult stories from people who it was wrongly claimed owed money to the Commonwealth and who don't know how they they're going to pay some of these robodebts. It's been difficult not only for the staff of Human Services but also for the staff at our electorate offices. So I want to thank the member for Lyons for making that point and I want to acknowledge the staff in my electorate office in Darwin—in particular, Sharon, who, during this whole sorry saga, has been a caring person who has listened to and helped some of these very distressed individuals through what has been a traumatic time. We know that some of the people wrongly charged with owing money to the Commonwealth—they didn't—lost the battle with that mental anguish and, in some cases, took their own lives.
Like the member for Perth, I'll be speaking for about 10 minutes or so, and I welcome, as he did, anyone from the other side—any minister of the Crown—who wants to stand up and apologise for all the hurt, anguish and distress caused by that program. We've seen that no action has ever been taken against any minister in this federal government of Australia when there's been clear evidence of wrongdoing. It's like they're all Teflon. They've got their own standards of behaviour. There is no ministerial code of practice anymore; it's just whatever Scotty from marketing believes he can get away with—and he seems to get away with a lot. He's just got away with putting out a trillion dollar budget, after haranguing our fine Labor governments for reacting to a global crisis like the GFC by putting money into things like social housing, by stimulating the economy, which brought us through that difficult time, that difficult financial time, for our country well—exceedingly well. And we had high standards of ministerial responsibility. They threw royal commissions at us. We held our heads high, behaved honourably and got the country through that crisis when it visited our shores.
I just wanted to echo those words, as well as the words of the member for Oxley, who spoke incredibly well about some of the people in his electorate who were adversely affected by robodebt; and of the member for Cowan in her passionate acknowledgement of Human Services staff and her advocacy for people on the margins—people on low incomes and people who are not eligible for support. We saw that in the budget just the other day, with those over 35 not being eligible for assistance to get back into the workforce. People might remember Newstart; it was before the JobKeeper slogan. Those opposite and the Prime Minister seem intent on having that go back to $40 a day. You might be an over-35-year-old working Australian. You might have a mortgage, and you might have kids and child care, and you're trying to get back into work. Was there any new childcare assistance? No. It's back to $40 a day as of Christmas time. Happy Christmas from the Prime Minister and Treasurer!
I'll now go to the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020. The core issue here is Services Australia, the arbitrary staffing cap imposed across the public sector and the effect that has had on human services. It's the exorbitant amount of money that's being spent on labour hire, outsourcing and consultants when Australians could be employed in good, secure jobs and helping other Australians who need a hand. Those Australians are in their greatest hour of need and greatest despair, something we've seen in the past months. We've got people who've never come into contact with Centrelink or Human Services before in their working life. They've paid taxes, but COVID and the stop to some commercial activity have meant that some of these people have needed assistance from Human Services for the first time. We do acknowledge that there was a big need to bring on and engage additional workers through the agreement—service delivery partners, labour-hire agencies and redeployments from within the APS. The staff did their very best.
Unfortunately, the demand for Services Australia's Centrelink services is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. We hoped that there would be some more encouragement provided in the budget for more jobs to open up without depending so strongly on the write-offs that were announced—as well as those write-offs that were announced for business that will hopefully generate more economic commercial activity. Those opposite fail to understand that it is people on lower incomes who spend almost all of their income—by necessity—in the economy. They very much need that assistance. On this side, we have consistently called out the government for its disgraceful running down of the APS over the past six years. We know that they've sacked 19,000 staff since they came to office, not to mention the litany of service failures, including robodebt, that I mentioned previously, as well as using the NDIS underspend to prop up their budgets. I've been working with NDIS staff in Darwin, and, again, like Centrelink staff, they're doing a good job. They're doing the best that they can.
But I want to bring the House's attention to the fact that, in my electorate, at least 25 per cent of APS positions—those jobs for Australians—are gone. This was from the government who said they were going to decentralise the APS into regional areas of Australia. Well, I'm in Darwin. You've not moved anything to Darwin; you've cut 25 per cent of the APS jobs in the Greater Darwin region. You might say, 'Well, they probably weren't needed.' But, if you said that, you would be an idiot. Agencies have been forced to outsource and contract out, spending exorbitant amounts—more than it would have cost to have Australians employed in those roles as part of the Australian Public Service.
Famously, some of these cuts have been in the Australian Electoral Commission, and what the Northern Territory has seen is tens of thousands of Territorians not even on the roll. The AEC APS staff were cut from 15 down to three. You might say, 'Well, what were those 15 doing?' They were in something called the Indigenous Electoral Participation Program, the IEPP. Where did this government move those positions? To Brisbane. So they moved positions from Darwin to Brisbane, even though, as I would hope most honourable members understand, the Northern Territory has the highest percentage of Aboriginal Australians in our nation: 30 per cent. Up to one-third of them aren't on the roll. They are not getting a say in what is happening in their country.
Territorians will decide who represents them in this place, but the Prime Minister still hasn't said a word about the fact that the AEC was going to take one of our Northern Territory seats away. Fortunately, some Nationals have said: 'That is not on. Regional Australians are so underrepresented in this place.' There's a concentration of MPs, particularly from those on the government benches, around the big cities on the eastern seaboard. There have been three, I think, from Sydney—the last three prime ministers. I won't call it a deliberate disenfranchisement of Aboriginal Territorians, but what they've overseen is a cut in AEC staff—the very people who are supposed to be enfranchising Australians—
Mr Pasin interjecting—
Now, two-term Tony, you may not have picked up on the fact that the deputy—
I am struggling to understand how this comes anywhere close to anything we are meant to be talking about in the chamber at the moment. And this has just been going on for 10 minutes almost. He has taken us past the point of exasperation.
An honourable member: North Sydney.
Oh, North Sydney! I think you are being one of the PM's numbers men in the caucus decisions that we didn't want. I'm just glad the member for New England stood up—
Services Australia and APS people have been let go by the government that you're a member of. In the Northern Territory that has had a specific outcome, which has been a massive decrease in enfranchisement. I'm extending, through you, Deputy Speaker, my thanks to the member for New England, who said: 'Enough of that—regional Australia has been underrepresented for too long and we can't let another regional seat go.' I would expect that someone from Sydney would argue against that, as I understand some have been, but it's unfortunate. Australia is a big place. The Northern Territory is one-sixth of the Australian land mass—250,000 people. They deserve to be represented fairly down here. (Time expired)
I want to thank the member for Solomon for his entertaining contribution to this debate. I will also thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for ensuring that he was able to make that contribution. Normally, of course, the member for Solomon would wear far more provocative garb in the chamber, but I think it is good that the minister for energy is here—
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. What I was going to say was, of course, that the member for Solomon's tie—if I may get that point out—is something that perhaps, if the minister for energy would consider plugging it into the national grid, could solve all our energy problems.
We are here to speak today about the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020. We are not here to talk about the grievances of members opposite, who may not have seats after the redistribution. The independent Electoral Commission will determine that. That's what it says about those opposite, that we're here talking about servicing the most vulnerable Australians—
Ms Butler interjecting—
The member for Griffith can shout as much as she likes, but those of us on this side are actually interested in helping vulnerable Australians. That's why we're in here talking about the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020. Throughout this pandemic, this government has been taking every possible step to support Australians and help get people back on their feet and back to work as soon as they can. Services Australia has been at the forefront of the Australian government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, providing support to millions of vulnerable Australians.
Since March, Services Australia has delivered more than $21.2 billion in additional payments and processed more than 1.7 million JobSeeker claims, providing income support to people in need. More than $12.4 billion in the coronavirus supplement has been paid to new and existing eligible income support recipients in addition to their usual payment.
This government's economic support payment has delivered more than $9 billion to some seven million lower income Australians, people that those opposite are yet to mention when talking about this bill. These include people like pensioners, other social security and veterans' support recipients and eligible concession card holders. Some $14.9 million in pandemic leave disaster payments has gone to almost 10,000 people who work in Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia and New South Wales and who have been directed to self-isolate but don't have sick leave or payments through JobSeeker or JobKeeper. The crisis payment is also available to assist individuals who are in financial hardship as a result of being required to quarantine.
As of February this year, Services Australia has been established as an executive agency under the Public Service Act. Schedule 1 of this bill amends various pieces of legislation to support this establishment. In particular, this bill makes direct textual amendments to legislation so that acts correctly refer to Services Australia or the Department of Social Services; amends various secrecy provisions so that information that was held by Services Australia or the department of human services as a department of state can continue to be protected by those secrecy provisions; and amends the Human Services (Centrelink) Act 1997 to protect the name 'Services Australia' from unauthorised use. This change is needed. It is needed to ensure that legislation clearly and correctly refers to Services Australia or the Department of Social Services. This will allow the federal government to continue in its duties, supporting Australians through the appropriate agencies. The legislation will also ensure that the name 'Services Australia' cannot be used inappropriately—for example, by a business or a union seeking to imply a connection with the Australian government.
Schedule 1 will also amend various secrecy provisions so that information that was held by Services Australia or the department of human services as a department of state can continue to be protected by those secrecy provisions. This schedule will operate retrospectively from 1 February 2020, the date Services Australia was established as an executive agency. However, the expansions to the offence relating to protected names will only apply from the day after royal assent. In a rapidly evolving environment, Services Australia has worked closely with policy agencies to streamline processes and to ensure people impacted by the pandemic receive the government's unprecedented economic support as quickly and easily as possible. This includes the billion-dollar JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs, which have kept people in jobs and kept businesses in business. We have made it easier for people to claim payments and access support through this crisis. Online payments have been upgraded to accommodate the surge in demand, and additional staff have been mobilised to call centres and payment processing. In fact, in the space of 55 days we processed 1.3 million JobSeeker claims. That's the number normally processed in 2½ years. At the peak, we completed more than 53,000 claims in a single day. We are processing the majority of social security and welfare claims in eight days, which is nearly 20 days faster than last year, and calls are being answered about 15 minutes faster than last year.
Also, myGov now has the largest capacity of any authenticated online platform in Australia. The system remained stable despite averaging up to 837,000 sign-ins daily during the peak month of June, compared with an average of 575,000 in June 2019. It is now possible to manage all Medicare related claims, changes or inquiries online or over the phone. This includes newborn enrolments, re-enrolments for people returning to Australia, linking Medicare cards to myGov and transferring people from one Medicare card to another. Australians are encouraged to make sure their details are up to date with Medicare, including their bank account details, during this time. Services Australia service centres have remained open throughout the pandemic, but we encourage only the most vulnerable in the community to visit. Most business can be completed by using Services Australia's online and call service options.
Schedule 2 of the bill makes governance changes relating to Services Australia. Currently the Human Services (Centrelink) Act, Human Services (Medicare) Act and the Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act require the chief executive of Centrelink, the chief executive of Medicare and the child support registrar to be different SES employees in Services Australia. It is no longer necessary for those offices to have different occupants, given Services Australia has broad service delivery functions and the overall responsibility of the CEO for the operations of the executive agency. Schedule 2 amends the Human Services (Centrelink) Act, the Human Services (Medicare) Act and the Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act so that the CEO of Services Australia will also be the chief executive of Centrelink, the chief executive of Medicare and the child support registrar. This will extend to an acting CEO of Services Australia.
Schedule 2 also amends the Human Services (Centrelink) Act, Human Services (Medicare) Act and the Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act to allow the Governor-General to appoint a person as chief executive of Centrelink, chief executive of Medicare and child support registrar if the office of the CEO of Services Australia ceases to exist. The chief executive of Centrelink, the chief executive of Medicare and the child support registrar exercise statutory powers and functions under many acts, so it is essential that there is always a person in those offices for service delivery to continue uninterrupted.
This bill will also amend the Human Services (Centrelink) Act and the Human Services (Medicare) Act to require a person acting under a delegation, for example the Secretary of the Department of Social Services or a subdelegation, to comply with any direction given by the delegator. These changes are needed to streamline governance arrangements in Services Australia. It will improve deliverability and efficiency, further assisting Australians in their hour of need.
That's what this bill is about. It's about helping people when they need to be helped, at this point in time when people need help. It is not about pre-selections in the Northern Territory. It's not about union featherbedding in our Public Service. It is about helping vulnerable Australians. It disappoints me, at this time, in this place, during this pandemic, that there are some people who can't see past the vested interests of those constituents that they claim to represent to help our most vulnerable Australians. I commend this bill to the House.
That was a masterclass in buffoonery from someone who clearly doesn't understand the connection between the importance of staffing these services properly and the effect that the services have on the lives of our constituents—that is, the people who we not only claim to represent but do represent. So let me, for his information, explain some of the experiences that people in my electorate have had when they have had to rely on public services during the coronavirus pandemic and recession.
I've got a quote here from someone who contacted me, absolutely distraught. She said: 'I know they're overwhelmed, but I just keep going in circles. I waited for someone to contact me, like the instructions said, and they finally did. They took my details and created a linking code to link my CRN to myGov, but the names don't match. She said this was supposed to fix this, but it didn't, so she put me through to tech support to fix it, but when I got through to someone it was something to do with education, so the guy transferred me again. I waited for two hours to get through but then received a message that they were too busy to take my call and to call back later, and the call was ended. I kept trying all day, to no avail, until I finally got through just before 10 pm on Monday night. The lady tried to help me but said the area I needed was closed and she would email them. I waited but heard nothing, so I called again at 8 am this morning and was told again that I needed the help desk. This lady offered to go through for me, rather than transferring me. However, when she got through, she was told the team I need isn't available and she had to log a call back. No time frame was given, and I assume everything is closed for the next four days. I cannot even claim JobSeeker until this gets sorted. I've given my ID three times now over the phone. I don't have any income. I had to submit a humiliating application to my real estate agent this morning, as with every bill I pay, to justify why I need relief with my rent. The truth is I need relief with everything because I have no income coming in until the JobSeeker goes through.' This was the experience of one of my constituents who tried to use public services and was incredibly distressed and distraught, like so many people across my electorate and across all of the electorates that are represented in this chamber.
I had another woman come through. She said: 'I would like to advise you that, as we speak, I've been on the phone for hours with Centrelink for a CRN. I don't even know if I'll get one today. I have rent to pay this week, with no money to pay it with. Will my family become homeless?' This was a question from another constituent of mine who was going through this situation. So to the member for Mackellar: yes, we do care about staffing for public services. It's not because of 'vested interest', as he said; it's because these public services are the public services that people need when they are at their lowest point—when they have nowhere to turn. They rely on the support.
Labor will—and everyone should—support modifications to public sector governance structures that lead to good outcomes for employees and the Australians who rely on those services. But this bill fails to address the biggest core issue at the centre of Services Australia—that the arbitrary staffing cap imposed across the public sector has led to an overreliance on labour hire to keep up with demand as well as exorbitant overspend on outsourcing and on consultants.
Staff at Services Australia have over recent times—and of course I'm talking about the recession, the pandemic and the national bushfire crisis that preceded them—had to manage a remarkable workload, whether they were dealing with people who had lost their homes in the bushfire, people who had lost their jobs because of the recession, people who were trying to negotiate on real estate, people who were working out how to pay their bills and people who were working out how they were going to be able to focus on getting things done for their kids and their families when they were under so much stress and pressure because of a loss of income. So many people have needed help, and the Services Australia staff are there for these people. As I have read out to you, they are people who are just trying to help, but they're understaffed and overworked. So when people are calling in their moments of greatest need and despair, the Services Australia frontline staff are working very hard to try to support them. They in turn deserve support from their government and from the people in this place.
I do want to give specific thanks to all of the people who live or work in my electorate. We've got some great public services and we've got some great Centrelink offices that have had very stressful times and that have had incredible demands on them—not just the workload demand but the human and emotional demands that are carried by those people, who, on behalf of the people of Australia, are at the front lines trying to help those most in need. People who work at Centrelink and people who work at Services Australia are people who are doing their absolute best to try to help, so I want to thank them.
As I said, I've got some great Centrelink offices in my electorate. I've got a number of people who live in my electorate who work in public services, and there are more who don't live in my electorate but come and work in my electorate. To all of them: thank you for everything you have done during these extraordinary months that has led up to today. Thank you so much for the work that you have put in. We know your jobs are rewarding, but we know that they're tough, and we are very grateful to you.
We were very happy back in March when the government announced that they were going to engage 5,000 additional new workers to help move through the demand on Services Australia, but it also bore stating at the time and bears repeating now that this is almost exactly the number that this government—the Morrison government and the Liberal-National government—over its time in office had cut from frontline services over the previous six years prior to that date. We're now in our third term of a Liberal-National government in this country. This is a government that has consistently cut public sector staff, and we see the consequences of that when the rubber really hits the road. We've seen the consequences of it this year. In my portfolio of environment, we've seen the consequences of the cuts to public sector staffing through the massive delays, noncompliance and errors that the Audit Office found in the environment department in relation to decision-making under environmental laws—a 510 per cent increase in approval delays, 79 per cent of decisions affected by error or otherwise non-compliant and 95 per cent of key decisions being made outside the statutory time frames in the 2018-19 fiscal year. So we see the consequences of public sector job cuts.
We as a nation are now reaping what the Liberal-National government has sown over now more than seven years in office. And given the series of crises that we've faced in the past 12 months alone—I've talked about the bushfires, I've talked about the pandemic and I've talked about the recession, but of course there's more: there was the drought, and in some parts of the country there were floods—I hope that the government, in reflecting on the way those crises have been managed, will reflect on the value of employed public sector workers who can do a lot to relieve the suffering, the stress and the problems faced by Australians. And I hope they will reflect on the impact their cuts over many years have had.
One thing that should be considered and that clearly needs to be addressed is the situation that has arisen because of the arbitrary staffing cap placed on Services Australia, along with the rest of the Public Service. It is really important that this government faces up to the difficulties that have been caused by their smaller-government agenda, as they have previously called it. What they really mean when they say that—it's just code for cutting jobs and cutting services. Australians are sick of it. They've seen the consequences of it and they don't want to see it anymore. And, as I said, I certainly hope this government will reflect on the consequences of their actions for Australians, both in my electorate and across the country.
I'd like to see the government really reflecting on the consequences of outsourcing, where you have a worker next to another worker or two workers potentially doing the same job for different pay and conditions, and the impact on workloads of artificially low and constrained numbers of workers in these services. I'd like the government to consider all those impacts and, more broadly, I'd like them to consider the stories I have read out here in my contribution—the stories that were provided to me, unsolicited, by people in my electorate who were terrified and distressed, who needed help and didn't know where else to turn.
I'd like the government to think about those stories being replicated suburb by suburb, electorate by electorate, across this entire country—the distress that people have felt. I'd like them to think about that now in the context of the fact that we have nearly a million Australians unemployed, with the government expecting more than 160,000 more before Christmas. They need to reflect on the quality of public services and the importance of proper funding in this country. So, while I support the bill, it is important that we do make those comments in respect of the public service provision and the people on the front line who are responsible for it.
I'm speaking in support of the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020, and before I get to the crux, to the details of the bill, I also wish to add my praise and thanks to all the wonderful staff of Services Australia, who over recent months have been doing a sterling job in providing support to Australians in their time of need. I represent an electorate that has as part of it Sydney's economic powerhouse: Sydney airport. Anyone who goes to Sydney airport at the moment knows that it's on its knees—it's a ghost town. And many people who work around the airport or are associated with the airport have lost their jobs or been stood down. They've been calling on and have been provided with services and support by the wonderful staff of Services Australia.
I also have in my electorate the University of New South Wales, one of Australia's largest universities. And of course many have been affected by COVID there, who have either been stood down or have lost their jobs. Unfortunately the government chose not to support the higher education sector, one of the most vitally important employers not only in my community but in many communities throughout the country, particularly rural and regional areas. Many people who work in the university sector have suffered and have had to call on the staff of Services Australia.
I also want to recognise the emotional element of this sort of work. Often when people are under stress and pressure, having lost their job or been stood down—losing income, with their family budget under pressure and having bills and a mortgage to pay—they can get anxious and they can get quite testy, particularly over the telephone or if they're experiencing frustration in dealing with the internet. Quite often it is the staff of Services Australia and the former department of human services who bear the brunt of that frustration, and they do a great job in dealing with that and ensuring that people still get the service they deserve in these trying times. I think it is important that we also recognise that there is an emotional element in the work that these people do in providing support for Australians, in their time of need.
The bill sets out a structure for a newly established executive agency, Services Australia, to replace the now abolished Department of Human Services. Labor supports modifications to public sector governance structures that lead to good outcomes for not only the Australian people but also the employees of the government who work in these departments. Staff at Services Australia have managed a remarkable workload in recent times, from dealing with the bushfire and the response in January to the surge of new applications associated with that. Then, of course, they have been dealing with drought—not only over the course of the last 12 months but basically for the last four or five years—and the new challenges that that has brought with the new programs that the government has been providing to assist those affected by drought. Then we were hit with COVID, and the wave of people who lost their jobs and were accessing government payments for the first time were having difficulty navigating that system. We all remember the queues of people lining up for unemployment benefits, for JobKeeper payments, for the first time in their lives. The skill, experience and dedication that Services Australia staff showed to the Australian public during that time was quite remarkable. These undoubtedly are tough but rewarding frontline services jobs and they deserve our greatest thanks and efforts, always, but in particular over the past few months.
Approximately 800,000 new claims have been processed for JobSeeker, the same number of applications that would generally be processed by the agency across a two-year period. I think that perfectly highlights just how hard people in this agency have worked over the course of the last few months. Many of those new applicants have never accessed Centrelink before and one-in-eight new applicants need to apply for a CRN—a registration number—for the first time. Labor therefore welcomed the government's 22 March announcement on engaging 5,000 additional workers to help move through the new demand at Services Australia—poignantly, almost exactly the number they have cut from the front line over the past six years. I think that says everything about this government's approach to the Public Service—the cuts that are routinely undertaken by this coalition government, the contracting out of waves of jobs that are highly important to the proper delivery of services. And let's face it: that's the reason Australians pay taxes. We pay taxes so that we get access to decent services, be that through Medicare, through education or through Services Australia and other frontline jobs. We pay taxes to ensure that we get access to good services. The notion of good services, and paying taxes for them, has been broken down by this government successively over the last seven years. It's not just across Services Australia; it's across basically every single government agency in the Public Service. There have been job losses, staff caps and contracting out, and quite often it costs the government and the budget a lot more money than it ordinarily would to have those employees directly employed by the government and doing work directly for the government. There have been a number of cases where the Auditor-General has exposed waste and mismanagement, particularly in relation to work that is contracted out to private organisations. There seems to be a posse of them, if you like, that seem to get all of this work that is contracted out by the government. There have been instances where there has been abuse of public funds and it hasn't been in the interests of the Australian taxpayer and the Australian people.
Services Australia initially 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 across the Australian Public Service. Unfortunately, the demand for Services Australia's services is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. Despite the Morrison government's illusion that somehow the economy is going to snap back in March, many Australians are still going to experience being stood down or unemployed at the time that some of these government payments are proposed to run out. That's going to put enormous pressure on the staff of Services Australia, particularly when a lot of these people learn that they are no longer receiving support but don't have a job to go back to. That is going to be a big challenge for Services Australia management and staff, and it's something that this government should be aware of in the lead-up to that March deadline.
This bill fails to address some of the core issues that exist at Services Australia. I mentioned some of those earlier, such as contracting out and the diminution of expertise in the area. A classic example in the Public Service is when this government got rid of a number of employees of ASIC, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. They did that in the lead-up to the banking royal commission. When the banking royal commission hit, it found that the regulator wasn't sufficiently resourced to deal with the litany of complaints about financial services coming from across Australia. When the government actually woke up to it and decided that ASIC needed additional personnel, it was too late. A lot of the expertise, particularly around investigations and prosecutions, had been lost, because the Abbott government had got rid of it in the 2014 budget. The government then, arguably at an additional cost to the Australian taxpayer, had to go searching for people to fill these positions in the lead-up to the banking royal commission. The royal commission was critical of the fact that a lot of the expertise of the regulators had been lost in the lead-up to these scandals occurring, which affected literally hundreds of thousands of Australians and their welfare. That is a classic example of this government's short-sightedness when it comes to the Public Service.
This arbitrary staffing cap that the government applied across the Public Service has led to an overreliance on labour hire, as well as exorbitant overspends and outsourcing to consultants, to keep up with demand. I note that in the budget released a couple of days ago the government saw fit to lift the cap by 3½ thousand across the Public Service. But, again, in the ultimate act of short-sightedness, that lifting of the cap only lasts 12 months. They're going to revert back to the original cap in 2022. The 3½ thousand that they're going to bring in to deal with the extra demand associated with COVID, which is going to last well and truly beyond the next 12 months, are going to be removed in 12 months time under this government's plan. If that's not short-sighted and working against the interests of the average Australian, I don't know what is. That is once again going to see enormous pressure placed on those that are doing the work and are the public face of providing support for Australians during this difficult period.
The reality is that the staffing cap is a cut in real staffing numbers and also, in many respects, a privatisation by stealth, because a lot of that work then ends up in the hands of the private sector. It ends up being profit for private organisations, when it could be revenue that comes back into the government coffers to ensure that we build the Public Service and build better services for all Australians. Agencies are forced to outsource, to contract out, to spend exorbitant amounts on consultants or to engage labour hire contractors to staff departments to make up for the lack of in-house staff that we've seen across a number of government departments.
The shadow minister for the environment spoke before me in this debate and mentioned the fact that a lot of private organisations in Australia are saying that government approvals for environmental projects are taking too long. There's a reason why those approvals are taking too long. It's because this government has cut the resources and staff that are there to assess those approvals. The government has been claiming that there's something wrong with the EPBC Act and its operation, that there's too much green tape, when in reality those opposite are themselves the problem because they got rid of department staff that were specifically tasked with assessing projects and their suitability for environmental approval, and with providing timely decisions so that, where projects do meet the tests in the EPBC Act, they could be up and running as quickly as possible and provide jobs for Australians. So there's a bit of hypocrisy in this government's argument that there's too much green tape, because actually they're the problem—they cut staff and services in our public sector.
This bill is a positive development. It does reorganise a very important department, but the government really does need to wake up to itself and realise that if you're going to deliver decent services—services that Australians pay taxes for—then Services Australia and other government departments need to be properly resourced, and that means ending some of the contracting out, the outsourcing, and removing some of these arbitrary staffing caps that have held back Australians and meant they haven't got the services that they deserve.
I'll make a few brief remarks about the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020 before I get cut off. I'll talk about the second reading amendment later on. At its heart this bill is not controversial. It proposes a framework and a change in structure for Services Australia replacing DHS. It modernises terminology and streamlines reporting lines. Labor supports modifications to governance structures across the public sector where they will improve outcomes. I hope it's successful.
Sure, it's a little reorganisation and, as the Prime Minister loves above all else, it's a marketing bill. It has rebranded DHS. DHS is now called Services Australia. That's great. The government is big on announcements and small on delivery. This government is very big on spin—we see it with the budget and we hear it in question time every day—but it falls short on delivery. That's certainly what we see here with its rebranded Services Australia. It's great spin, a new logo, new letterhead and a new name. When you reorganise things like this it's hard to join the dots of what has happened in the past and hard to join the dots in the budget papers. This government is short on delivery.
I'll repeat what other speakers have said. The bill fails to address the core issue. The core issue that drives people nuts—people in my electorate and right across the country—is the lack of skilled, permanent, trained staff at Centrelink, Services Australia, DHS or whatever you want to call it this week. There are simply not enough public servants there to do the job.
The government's ASL cap was introduced when Tony Abbott became Prime Minister. In a brilliant piece of public policy then Prime Minister Abbott introduced the ASL cap. It's a fancy way of saying that he cut 15,000 jobs from the Australian Public Service in his two-year term. Malcolm Turnbull maintained them and this Prime Minister is similarly addicted to this privatisation by stealth. As the Australian population continues to grow year after year—or at least until now—the number of public servants to support and service the Australian people does not rise, so this means that, in practical terms, for seven long years under this government we've seen a cut every year to the number of public servants available per head of the Australian population.
Make no mistake, this is privatisation by stealth. Public sector managers—secretaries of departments, CEOs or whatever you want to call the head of an agency—are forced to get the work done by outsourcing and employing more expensive labour hire workers, consultants and contractors. The Auditor-General revealed this. It's no wonder the government just cut his budget, because he shines light on these things and what is really going on in departments and public administration.
The APS had more employees in June 1992 than in December 2019, despite the fact that the Australian population grew by 46 per cent over that period. Can anyone honestly say that services at Centrelink are better? Last year there were 46 million unanswered calls—that is, for every Australian, two calls didn't get answered. The biggest frustration I certainly hear about from people is the waiting time to get through to Centrelink and get an answer on what has happened with their age pension application, their Newstart application, their healthcare card and those basic things that Australians have every right to expect some decent service on.
This bill does fail to address the core issue, which is the privatisation and the overuse of labour hire firms and consultants. We've seen thousands of call centre jobs outsourced under this government, and that will continue. And, as the previous speaker, the member for Kingsford Smith, said, buried in the budget papers is a little commitment to increase the number of jobs in Services Australia, but it's a one-off; it's for this year. They're saying that, after this year, they're going to go back to using more labour hire workers and casual staff, and it doesn't actually solve the problem in a sustainable way. I'll talk further on the second reading amendment in part B of my speech.