Senate debates

Thursday, 12 November 2020


Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020; Second Reading

11:33 am

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

The Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020 sets out the proposed framework or structure for the newly established executive agency Services Australia to replace the now abolished Department of Human Services, DHS. The bill proposes a number of changes that aim to modernise terminology and streamline the reporting lines associated with transitioning DHS to Services Australia. Labor supports the modifications to government structures across the public sector that lead to good outcomes for employees and Australians who rely on those services. While this restructure may aim to do this, and we hope it is successful in doing so, the 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 agencies to keep up with demand, as well as an exorbitant overspend on outsourcing in consultants.

Staff at Services Australia have managed a remarkable workload in recent times, from dealing with the bushfire response in January to managing the surge in new applicants for the JobSeeker allowance that arose throughout March and April. Services Australia staff are there for Australians in their moments of greatest need and sometimes greatest despair, whether it is providing financial relief to those unable to work, such as older Australians, carers and those with disability; providing access to counselling and social work services; or helping jobseekers to find meaningful occupations or prepare them to re-enter the workforce. These are undoubtedly tough but rewarding frontline service jobs, and the staff deserve our greatest thanks for their efforts always but, in particular, over the past few months.

Labor welcomed the government's announcement on 22 March to engage 5,000 additional new workers to help move through the demand on Services Australia. But it wasn't lost on us that it is almost exactly the number they'd cut from the front line over the past six years. Services Australia ended up bringing in an additional 5,200 staff through existing agreements with their service delivery partners and other labour hire agencies, and there were 1,500 casuals directly employed by Services Australia. They were complemented by 3,400 staff redeployed from within Services Australia's own ranks and 1,700 staff redeployed from other APS departments and agencies.

During the height of the pandemic period there were approximately 800,000 new claims processed for JobSeeker, the same number of applications that would normally be processed by the agency across a two-year period. Many of these new applicants had never accessed Centrelink support before in their lifetime, with one in eight new applicants needing to apply for a CRN. This demonstrates that when you properly fund staff and resource the public sector they are capable of remarkable service, and Australians are very thankful to all the staff at Services Australia for their efforts in supporting the nation in its time of need.

Unfortunately, the demand for Services Australia's services is unlikely to dissipate any time soon—despite the Morrison government's plan to snap them back—with many Australians expected to experience unemployment or underemployment for some time. Labor remains gravely concerned that the DSS secretary, Kathryn Campbell, has now been returned to a position of oversight of an agency in which she was responsible for designing and implementing the robodebt scheme. She is now overseeing the mop-up of one of the worst first failures of governance in Australian history.

In 2013 the staffing cap was placed across the public sector without weighing up the capabilities or requirements of each agency or department either at the time it was placed or looking into the future. Doing away with the arbitrary quota will allow the newly established executive agency to recruit for the appropriately determined amount of resources required to deliver the ambitious agenda placed on them by the recent COVID-19 pandemic response without needing to rely so heavily on labour hire and external consultants.

The reality is that the ASL staffing cap is both a cut in real staffing numbers and privatisation policy by stealth. Agencies are forced to outsource, contract out, spend exorbitant amounts on consultants and/or engage labour hire contractors to staff departments to make up for the lack of in-house resources. Too many phone calls to Services Australia go unanswered every year, and Australians waste too much time on hold trying to access Centrelink services, causing great, unnecessary distress.

There is more value to the taxpayer through staff being directly employed by Services Australia, without unnecessary spending on expensive labour hire agency fees. Directly employing workers within Services Australia provides an engaged, stable and experienced workforce with less turnover and a greater capacity to serve the needs of Australians. It is completely unfair and unnecessary to have two workers doing identical work but receiving different pay and conditions simply because one is lucky enough to have direct APS employment while the other is contracted to work through a labour hire agency. As many Australians inevitably struggle to re-enter the workforce following the Morrison recession, the professional services that the staff at Services Australia will offer will broaden and specialise in areas such as social work, financial counselling, job readiness and employment services placement. These are highly specialised areas, and no-one is better placed to support Australians than an adequately resourced Public Service, not labour hire employees engaged on an insecure basis and receiving lower pay and conditions.

In conclusion, I formally move the second reading amendment standing in my name and that of Senator Pratt, which has been circulated:

At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate calls on the Government to:

(a) abolish the "ASL offset rule", which has the effect of capping average staffing levels within Services Australia;

(b) stop the excessive use of consultancy firms and contractors to outsource important government services including Centrelink; and

(c) recognise that the staffing cap is a false economy that undermines the quality of government services, especially those delivered by Services Australia".

11:40 am

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020. This bill makes a number of consequential amendments to update legislation to reflect that Services Australia was established as an executive agency on 1 February 2020. Services Australia has now replaced the former Department of Human Services. The second part of the bill makes governance changes to executive staff at Services Australia—namely, the CEO of Services Australia will now perform the existing statutory roles of the chief executive of Centrelink, the chief executive of Medicare and the Child Support Registrar.

I understand this bill seeks to make service delivery more efficient and effective. I would like to say that the government has a lot of work to do to ensure that Services Australia is trusted by the people it serves. To many, the agency is known as Centrelink. Although it undertakes other services, the interface most people have had problems with, I have to say, is Centrelink. There's a lot of work to do to make sure that Services Australia delivers services and serves Australians. Trust in Services Australia—called 'Centrelink' by a lot of people, as I said—has been severely eroding for quite a long time but particularly since the robodebt debacle. Some people who settled their robodebts are still having difficulty having their debts reviewed. I've heard from people who have faced significant difficulties getting answers about their debts, including those debts that were raised before 2015. The government says it's now easier to have debts from before 2015 reviewed, but I've had a lot of feedback that that is still extremely difficult and that people aren't getting adequate responses to their questions. People across Australia are doing it incredibly tough, with millions of people experiencing unemployment and underemployment. Despite this, the government has decided that this is the right time to resume chasing people for debts. I'm worried that this will result in many new debts being raised, given the huge increase in the number of people on income support payments.

I also have little faith in Centrelink's ability to resolve these debts fairly and clearly explain the process. One of the major reasons Centrelink fails Australians is to do with staffing levels and investment. We saw a huge mobilisation of new staff at Services Australia at the beginning of the COVID period, which was to support the massive influx of people accessing our social safety net. We acknowledged at the time, and continue to acknowledge, that the huge increase in the number of staff helped tremendously in making sure that people could access the social safety net in a fast and efficient manner. An additional 500 staff were brought on to deal with the increase in demand. But it shouldn't take a pandemic and a recession to ensure that the Centrelink call centres and offices are adequately staffed. Centrelink should have adequate staff all year around. These staff should be properly paid and employed in ongoing positions, instead of contract positions. The government has started winding back the number of surge staff who were brought in, but we need to ensure that Centrelink has sufficient permanent staff so that Centrelink can meet the need. Recently we heard about Centrelink offices being closed down and staff being laid off. Thanks to strong community pressure, the government backflipped, at least on one decision, earlier this year, which was to close—

Debate interrupted.