House debates

Tuesday, 20 October 2020


Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020; Second Reading

5:14 pm

Photo of Ed HusicEd Husic (Chifley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Yesterday I reflected on the important work of Services Australia in various communities and thanked in particular a lot of the public servants within Services Australia for the work they do. I also reflected on the fact that Services Australia has one of the biggest IT and digital budgets, outside of Defence, in the federal government. In particular, it is home to the Digital Transformation Agency. Under the ministerial arrangements, the minister for Services Australia is the minister for the Digital Transformation Agency as well.

The concept of the DTA was supported by Labor. We saw the value in using technology to deliver better services to the public, so we've been a long-time supporter of it. But what's happening to the DTA is a tragedy. It has been slowly drained of its essence. It's been slowly drained of its vigour and its ability to deliver on what its charter was initially—even in this budget, with what we've seen with the number of staff. During a pandemic, at a time of soaring unemployment, one thing the federal government could do, as I said last night, is take on more people, talented people, to give them a job and give them a start. There are so many people out there who have digital skills and could be brought on to help deliver government services better, and that could be done within the Digital Transformation Agency. What have we seen happen? We've seen the Digital Transformation Agency lose staff in this budget. In fact, the budget shows the average staffing level has fallen from 217 in the last financial year to 182 in 2020-21, despite the agency receiving a funding boost, so they've got more money!

The Digital Transformation Agency was supposed to be home to the best and brightest tech talent within government to do the job needed to transform the way we deliver services using technology. It has not actually become home to talent; instead, it's becoming is a honey pot for consultants. In the budget they cut the number of staff but increased the funding. Who is the winner? The winner is consultancy after consultancy. We have more DTA contracts for Boston Consulting Group and KPMG. Deloitte's contract with DTA has tripled, to nearly $30 million. Boston Consulting Group gets another $300,000 pay rise from DTA. DTA consultant costs are up by five times in one year.

It's not that I have a problem with consultants; some of my best friends are consultants. But the reality is that the DTA was not meant to be a clearing house for consulting payments. It was supposed to bring in talent to work on problems with the way government was delivering services and come up with solutions. Now what we're seeing is consultant after consultant being brought in. I guess it's no surprise that the head of the DTA is a former consultant of Boston Consulting. Please don't think I'm suggesting there's anything wrong. What I am saying is that if you have an ex-consultant in and your consultants' pay-outs are increasing and the number of employees you've got is decreasing, it's a bit rich.

The other thing I find surprising is that they brought on consultants and paid nearly a million dollars to work out funding options. They brought consultants in to work out how DTA could get more money, which then eventually went to extra consultants. The only activity we're seeing is conceptualising of what could be done to bring on more consultancy work and make existing consultants better, instead of bringing in people with talent to help the Public Service deliver its service to the public more efficiently. It's just wrong!

That's the problem with the government: they don't believe in the Public Service. They think the Public Service is something to be constrained rather than celebrated. In this great city of Canberra there are so many great public servants. We have criticisms of some of the higher-ups, but there are a lot of people in this town doing great things to help the people of this nation. At a time where a pandemic has ripped through employment in this country putting people to work for the betterment of other people in this country is a noble ambition and a worthy ambition at that. But this government is all about contracting out. It's all about bringing the consultants in. They're the only ones that seem to be doing well out of this. Instead of using technology in a way that would deliver meaningful results, meaningful benefits and concrete outcomes they're just not doing it. It is an absolute disgrace.

We will have legislation like this that we're debating now. We'll talk about name changes and give effect to name changes. We don't need branding and marketing exercises. We need a serious effort, during a pandemic, to help the nation out, to help its economy, to build jobs, to build better services and to do it in a meaningful way, not just create a consultants' carousel that enriches some of these big agencies at the expense of what we believe can actually truly be done to deliver better service for the public.

5:21 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] This bill is meant to be about how Services Australia, the government department that administers many of the services that so many people rely on, like Centrelink, could be improved. It comes from a government in the middle of a pandemic that has done nothing but attack the public service. I've had firsthand experience of this in my electorate. When the pandemic hit it was as clear as day, certainly to us in the Greens, that it was going to result in high levels of unemployment. We knew that because the social distancing restrictions that were imposed meant that large parts of the economy were going to grind to a halt. The government didn't seem to get that message. They came out with their usual trickle-down approach and of giving huge amounts of money to business and hoping for the best.

Of course, what happened was that millions of people found themselves suddenly unemployed. That meant—and again it wouldn't take a genius to think this through—high demands on services for Centrelink. Nowhere was that being felt more than in Melbourne, and in Abbotsford in the electorate of Melbourne where one of the busiest metropolitan Centrelinks is located. So what did the government do? The same government that comes along here now and says, 'Pass the bill because it's going to improve it.' What did they do? They said, 'We are going to close it.' They came up with the flimsiest of excuses saying that the tenancy was at an end and they couldn't find anywhere else. I'll tell you what, if you can't find a vacant office block in the middle Melbourne in the middle of a pandemic then you are not looking very hard, Minister. That excuse was so flimsy that everyone could see through it. People knew that not only could the Centrelink stay but it needed to stay. The cat was belled when the landlord came out and said, 'Oh no, we haven't actually evicted the Centrelink. We want it to continue.' So all of a sudden the government was boxed into a corner. The community stood up strongly and said, 'We want our Centrelink to continue.'

It takes a particular kind of genius to close a Centrelink in the middle of one of the biggest pandemics we have seen, with images of depression-era dole queues, as it was then, snaking around the corner in an area of high need like Melbourne. That's what the government did. The community said, 'No way, not on our watch' and the government has been forced into a back down. Everyone was going to be told to go off to South Melbourne, to travel seven kilometres at a time when everyone was being told to stay close to home. With five kilometre limits and being discouraged from getting on public transport, the minister said, 'Everyone should just get on a tram and travel seven kilometres to South Melbourne,' showing he had no understanding of the area of Melbourne or the needs of the people.

That is now going to stay. That decision has been reversed by the minister under community pressure and we are going to keep our Centrelink in Abbottsford. That is a terrific thing and it's testament to the community standing up to a minister and saying, 'People need their services, especially in the middle of a pandemic.' But it comes not as a bad and strange decision to make in the middle of a pandemic but as part of a practice from this government when it comes to dealing with the Public Service and with Centrelink. The government has now embarked on a systematic practice of shutting Centrelink offices and telling everyone, 'You are no longer going to be able to have your problems resolved by coming in and talking to someone face to face.' The government has closed a number of high-demand Centrelink offices and sees the Public Service only as something to cut. That's doubly wrong in the middle of a recession.

It's wrong in the middle of a recession because so many more people will be relying on the services, as was the case in Melbourne and as has been the case around the country, but it's also wrong because the Public Sector should be key to the recovery. We are going to need a plan to get out of this recession that we're in, that gets unemployment down not to the six per cent that's the Treasurer's target but down to two per cent, which is where it was in the period between World War II and the 1970s. One of the ways that we can do that in the middle of a recession, when the private sector is suffering great uncertainty, is by growing the Public Service and investing in the services that people need. Our recovery plan needs to be not only green to deal with climate crisis but also pink to deal with the number of women who have lost their jobs, quick to be able to be put in place right now and also safe. That's one of the things that the Public Service can deliver.

So investing in the Public Service instead of cutting as this government is doing is a key to economic recovery in and of itself, and we're going to need to do it, because the government the is locking in six per cent unemployment in its budget forecasts. That means two million people in this country either without a job or without enough work, and the government thinks that's fine. The government is choosing six per cent unemployment. It could drive it down to two per cent if it wanted to, if it had the courage to do what governments did after World War II: invest. Use this period to ask the big corporations to pay their fair share of tax, borrow since money is at the cheapest it's ever been and use it to invest. At World War II, this country had its highest-ever debt levels—120 per cent of GDP—and they brought it back down to normal within a decade or so because they used it to invest. But that's not what this government is doing. This government is saying, 'Instead of investing and bringing it back down to two per cent unemployment, we'll just factor in six per cent.' That's going to mean more demands on Centrelink and more pain for the Australian people. I make the point that the government is choosing to do this. The government could choose two per cent unemployment and could choose expanding the Public Service to get us back to full employment and to provide the services that people need, but instead it is choosing high unemployment and choosing cuts to Centrelink.

But it's not just cuts to the services. It ultimately results in the government spending just as much, if not more money, because they contract out Centrelink services to consultants. That is part of the privatisation and neoliberal myth. The neoliberal myself tells us you cut back on government services and it is somehow better for the government. No; you end up spending the same amount of money, but you give it to the private sector. The problem with that is that, when it comes to essential public services that don't need to be run at a profit, because they're being run for the public good, the private sector comes along and says, 'Yeah, we'll take some of that money, but we want to take some of it as profit.'

Helping people get back to work should not be something that you make a profit out of. It certainly shouldn't be something that you become a millionaire doing. But that is what this government facilitates. The Greens have estimated that when you add up not only Centrelink but all those other areas of government services where the government helps big corporations make a massive profit off the back of public subsidies, we're talking about the equivalent of about $10 billion a year. That's $10 billion a year that should be going into jobs instead of going to profit. Especially in the middle of a recession, it should be going into jobs.

Nowhere is that more needed than in Centrelink, because the demands are high and the number of staff should be increasing in the middle of a recession. It should not be an excuse for people in the job service or call centre industry to turn a quick buck out of people's misery. Note: we should be investing in and expanding our public services at this time. That is why the Greens are pushing for a Senate inquiry into privatisation, into the last four decades of the failure of Labor and Liberal neoliberal policy, which has seen everything being privatised, deregulated and contracted out. It has failed the Australian people. It is time to unwind it. Name changes such as those being talked about in this bill aren't going to cut it. We need a mindset change. We need to say public services should be run for the public good and shouldn't be an excuse for big corporations to make a profit out of. I just want to make this point: I'm not talking about big corporations that have made their own way in the private sector; I'm talking about big corporations that make their money off the back of public subsidies. In the middle of a recession, with a million people still unemployed—and the government forecasting, banking on and being very happy with two million people either not having a job or not having enough work for the next couple of years—that $10 billion should be going into jobs and services, it shouldn't be going into profits for big corporations.

This all comes at a time when the government says we can find $99 billion in subsidies for big Corporations and the very wealthy in this budget, and we can find money for tax cuts for millionaires that Liberal and Labor both vote for. They say they can find that, but they can't find enough money to lift JobSeeker. That's not only going to put stress on Centrelink staff, which we are talking about and this bill; with a million people still unemployed, and the prospects of unemployment remaining very high for a long time because the government is baking that in, we need to keep JobSeeker at $1,100. We cannot cut it. It should stay there. We need to keep people who haven't got a job at the moment, in the middle of a recession, out of poverty. We need to make sure people can live above the poverty line.

The government's move to cut JobSeeker at a time when it is most needed will plunge thousands of Victorian families into poverty. An analysis of government data by The Guardian estimates that about 420,000 people now living in Melbourne under lockdown are going to be impacted by those cuts. My community in Melbourne will be the frontline of people impacted by these government cuts. The government brings a bill in here and says, 'Let's talk about improving Centrelink because it's about improving people's lives.' Well, one good way of improving people's lives is by not cutting JobSeeker when we are still in the middle of a lockdown.

My office has heard from constituents who are at present only just managing to cover their rent and are extremely worried about the prospect of losing their house or going further into debt now that the coronavirus supplement has been slashed. My office has heard from young people who are currently employed but have been told their employment is likely to come to an end as the government winds back various supports and the social distancing restrictions here remain. What's next for those people if they lose their job now, in the middle of a pandemic, when joblessness is high? After the recent changes they might have to wait up to 13 weeks before they can receive support from JobSeeker. If you've just lost your job in the middle of the pandemic, the government—as if nothing has changed in Victoria, as if, all of a sudden, all the jobs are available again—is now going to make people wait up to 13 weeks before they can receive support from JobSeeker. My office has also heard from another couple, both jobseekers, who have had to spend their savings just to make ends meet during the pandemic but may have their payments affected now that the assets tests are being reintroduced. That's one thing the government hasn't thought about. Some people, because of the uncertainty we are in at the moment, have done what they can to amass savings. And now the government is going to penalise them for that by reintroducing the assets test, so they will get even less money because they have taken steps to look after themselves.

We have moved in the Senate to keep the coronavirus supplement at $550 a fortnight. We will introduce a bill into the Senate to make that happen, and we hope that it gets support. In the Senate, the Greens also tried to stop the reintroduction of that liquid asset waiting period and that assets test that is going to impact millions of Australians, but, unfortunately, it was blocked by the government.

So, when the government comes in here and says, 'We want to improve services to Australians,' forgive us for being sceptical. In the middle of a pandemic, you are cutting the level of social security payments to people. When we've got 12 people applying for every job—and the figures in Victoria are worse than the national average—and when so many businesses are struggling to get back on their feet, because the social-distancing restrictions that come from tackling the coronavirus remain in place and are likely to remain in place for some time, don't come in here with mealy-mouthed bills about name changes and suggestions for doing things that might help. Don't cut JobSeeker, keep JobKeeper going for as long as it's needed in Victoria and invest in public services that are going to grow jobs and meet the needs that people have. Let's build more public housing. Let's have free education. Let's have free child care. Let's do that instead of giving tax cuts to millionaires. That is the way that we're going to get to full employment and deliver some legacy for young people, who stand to be a lost generation if the government continues going down this path.

5:36 pm

Photo of Josh WilsonJosh Wilson (Fremantle, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm glad for the opportunity to speak on this Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill and to support the second reading amendment moved by the member for Dobell. I would like to start by acknowledging the work done by the member for Maribyrnong. He's been a warrior for the rights and interests of vulnerable Australians for a long time.

As others have observed, this bill itself is unobjectionable. It's always good to make administrative changes and changes to governance arrangements in the interests of making the system work better. Even mild improvements of that kind are welcome in such a critical area of government policy and support, because when we talk about the Department of Human Services—or Services Australia, as it has become—we're talking about Australia's social safety net. It's there for all of us. Hardly any of us will go through our lives without at some point relying on its support. Our need for its buoyancy is always closer to us than we might think, and we've seen that in the course of the present crisis.

We're talking about the programs and resources and, especially, the public servants, whose purpose is to support people in need. Yes, that includes people who are in trouble or people who are in crisis, but it actually covers a significant portion of our community: older Australians, single parents and their kids, people with disability. Reorganising a departmental structure, modernising terminology, clarifying reporting obligations—that's all good stuff, but it would be better if the government lifted its eyes, changed its course and perhaps changed its broader perception of our world by focusing on how to protect and enhance our social safety net and on how to enable, look after and lift the morale of those who are employed within the Public Service to assist people who have lost their jobs, to assist single parents and people who are unemployed or facing homelessness and to assist older Australians and carers and people with disability. Admittedly, that would be a pretty significant turnaround by the party of robodebt and pension freezes and Public Service cuts; from the party that instinctively and repeatedly divides Australia into 'lifters' and 'leaners'; from the party that instinctively and wrongly looks to weaken our budget capacity through tax cuts for already profitable big businesses, including foreign multinationals.

While there's nothing particularly wrong with this bill, there's definitely something wrong with the approach of the government in general. How much better would it be if the appetite for administrative tinkering that we see in this bill was only the prelude to a larger shift directed at making more substantial and desperately needed improvements? How much better would it be if the government took seriously its responsibility to ensure that our social safety net was the properly resourced and properly functioning foundation of a caring and egalitarian Australia? That should always be our objective.

What we've experienced over the last 12 months, starting with our first national-scale climate disaster in the form of the largest bushfires we've ever suffered and now, of course, in the form of a global pandemic, has displayed in even sharper relief the importance of our social safety net. Take JobSeeker alone. Over 27 days, from 25 March, 1.9 million intention-to-claim forms were lodged online. In the 55 days after the launch of JobKeeper, 1.3 million JobSeeker claims were processed. That's the volume that would normally be processed in 2½ years. In less than two months, the system accommodated a volume of claims that would normally stretch over 30 months. At the peak, more than 53,000 claims were completed in a single day. Many of the applicants had never accessed Centrelink support before in their lifetime, with one in eight new applicants needing to apply for a CRN.

The torrent of urgent support work in those first months of the pandemic was stemmed by hardworking Centrelink staff whose morale and best interests are sustained in advance by the work of the mighty Community and Public Sector Union. Those Centrelink staff rose to what were enormous and extraordinary challenges, and they should be recognised and celebrated as some of our most essential workers, but they haven't, and they don't receive the respect and support they deserve from this coalition government.

There's a phrase in the way the changes in this bill are described, which I want to draw attention to, and that's the claim that these changes will be 'a more efficient and effective way of delivering government services'. Of course, that begs the question what exactly is meant by 'efficient' and 'effective'? I'm sure that at various times in the last few years, in the government's mind, robodebt would have been considered the epitome of efficient and effective: a brutal, dehumanised, badly calibrated and ultimately faulty, illegal, computerised trawl through the circumstances of hundreds of thousands of Australians. The government defended it and has continued to defend it. They have argued in defence of its effectiveness and its efficiency. It was a frightening en masse assault that wrongly and illegally attributed debt to hundreds of thousands of Australians, and yet the Attorney-General, around that time, said:

At the moment those moneys have been refunded. There will be an argument as to whether or not we undertake to try and recoup any debts using other methodologies.

No doubt he meant other efficient and effective methodologies.

In truth, even the basic order of that phrase is wrong. We should be focused on making sure that policies and programs are effective and then consider how they can work in good time and be delivered at fair cost. In the areas of health, education, welfare support and environmental protection—all the key areas of Australia's shared wellbeing—the starting point should always be the setting of high-quality standards of achievement. Set those standards and those outcomes as your lodestar and navigate towards them. That way the achievement of those standards becomes the definition of 'effective'.

It's not hard to imagine the kinds of standards or tests that we need to apply in this area. Are people who need help getting support? Are people who are facing disadvantage receiving appropriate care and assistance? Are they being enabled to participate in the social and economic life of this country to the greatest degree, to be included, to be valued and to contribute to Australian society? Is the support sufficient? What will be the reality for people on JobSeeker when it reverts to $40 a day, which is apparently what the government intend.

Over the last few months I, and all local members, have heard stories that are at the same time both positive and desperately sad. For example, single parents and pensioners who describe how the COVID-19 supplement has allowed them to purchase a heater or get their car fixed or afford a bike for their kid or pay for some dental work. It should never be the case that it takes a pandemic to lift support to a fair and reasonable level in Australia.

When we focus on an effective social safety net we should ask some questions. Can people who need it get access to advice and assistance in a way that is timely, straightforward, courteous and responsive? Can they trust the system will be fair? Can they have confidence they won't be made to jump through ridiculous hoops that will be breached on a hair-trigger, pushing them into further crisis and often further financial trouble? Are the various parts of the social safety net properly linked up together? Does the income support and the employment service side of things and the question of housing and any issues related to disability support or specific veteran support work with as much harmony and coordination as possible? And are we valuing and supporting the public servants, the women and men, who deliver on these standards, always recognising and valuing that it is their skills, their commitment and their emotional resilience, above all, that holds up our social safety net?

It's considering all these kinds of questions that the amendment moved by the member for Dobell and the work done by the member for Maribyrnong seek to help the government do a few things that are clearly needed and would make a substantial difference—things that would go a lot further and deliver a lot more than the technocratic bits and pieces contained in this bill. In truth, there isn't any great mystery about the broader issues that need to be addressed within the scope of the renamed Services Australia in order to help guarantee that it meets the needs of our community and is in keeping with our values and our ethos.

We know that the people who work within this vital part of our Public Service have been squeezed and neglected. We know that the outsourcing and privatisation of aspects of our social safety net have achieved what privatisation in this area of service always brings—namely, a lower quality and more expensive service. We know that a system with arbitrary staffing caps and differential rates of pay and differential conditions for employees undertaking the same work through different arrangements is not only unfair; it is dysfunctional.

I want to point out that in Western Australia, my home state, the impact of staff cuts has been extreme. In 2013, when this government was elected, there were 7,500 Department of Human Services staff in WA. Last year, the staff number was down to 6,500. That's a drop of 14 per cent—1,000 jobs; one in seven. Some of the cuts have been sharpest in rural and regional Western Australia. For example, in what's termed the Outback South region—the offices in Leonora, Kalgoorlie and Meekatharra—there's been a loss of 215 staff. In Outback North, which covers Port Hedland, Broome and Derby, I understand they've lost 46 staff. When you make those cuts, you're not simply reducing services and support for a local community, for people in need and especially for those facing acute disadvantage; you're weakening local economies and the vibrancy of rural and regional towns.

In the face of the many things that have gone wrong—the many things that are being done badly by this government—some of the solutions that should be under consideration are not really all that hard to arrive at. And this is precisely what the shadow minister has consistently pointed out. If you want to meet what should be the core responsibility of the Australian government and guarantee there's a high-standard and high-quality social safety net for all Australians, as the foundation of our fair and egalitarian way of life, then you have to focus on what effective care and support actually means, and you need to make sure the people who deliver that care and support are valued. That's not what is happening at the moment. That's not the path this government has chosen. But it's not really that hard. Unfortunately for this government, what we have seen is a tendency to squeeze and squeeze and squeeze again; to make the lives of people who need help most harder; to make the opportunities for people who already experience significant disadvantage fewer; to make efficiency, in the end, a euphemism for punching down, a euphemism for taking away from those who have least and for failing to support those who need help the most.

5:48 pm

Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party, Minister for Decentralisation and Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

This bill, the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020, amends various pieces of legislation as a result of Services Australia being established as an executive agency on 1 February 2020. The amendments ensure references to Services Australia and the Department of Social Services are correct. To support service delivery, the bill makes governance changes to Services Australia. The CEO of Services Australia will perform the existing statutory roles of Chief Executive Centrelink, Chief Executive Medicare and Child Support Registrar. This change will sharpen the service delivery focus of Services Australia and ensure that the CEO is fully accountable for how administrative decision-making powers are delegated within the agency.

The bill will amend the Human Services (Centrelink) Act 1997 to prohibit a person from using the name 'Services Australia'—for example, as part of a business name—if that falsely implies a connection to Services Australia or Australian government service delivery. The bill introduces a requirement for a person acting under a delegation—for example, from the Secretary of the Department of Social Services, or a subdelegation from the Chief Executive Centrelink or Chief Executive Medicare—to comply with any directions from the delegator. I commend this bill to the House.

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

The question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.