Thursday, 12 November 2020
Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020; Second Reading
[by video link] I would like to reiterate what I said before I was interrupted: Labor believes every Australian has a right to a social safety net. If you don't believe in this right, then you will not invest in the services which underpin it. Services Australia customers know that there has been an erosion in services, because they see the impacts every single day. Nowhere is this starker than for customers of Centrelink. Year on year we hear stories of people waiting 30 minutes, 40 minutes or even hours on the phone trying to get through to Centrelink's national assistance lines. And the number of calls going unanswered by Centrelink is now in the order of 55 million a year—that is, 55 million times when someone has picked up the phone to Centrelink and, instead of waiting on the phone, as I said, for 30 or 40 minutes or maybe an hour or longer to get through, they've received an engaged tone.
The effects of the erosion of services by this government are often felt at a local level too. In 2016, the member for Franklin, Julie Collins, and I had to mount a campaign to maintain face-to face services in Kingston, where my electorate office is based, because the Liberals tried to close the local Centrelink and Medicare office. The closure of the Kingston office would have caused massive difficulties for people in the local area, who would have had to travel to the Hobart office where parking is more difficult to find, particularly for anyone with mobility issues.
After more than 3,000 residents of the area signed our petition and 300 attended a public meeting, the government did back down and instead co-located the office with Service Tasmania. This was a major win for the community, but it was an outcome celebrated by people who should never have had to fight for it in the first place. The outcome for residents in Kingston and the surrounding suburbs was better than the foreclosure of the office, but it was less than ideal. Service Tasmania's shopfront is simply too small to maintain privacy in a co-located office. Centrelink customers have to discuss sensitive personal issues within earshot of people getting their drivers licence renewed.
You'd think that those opposite would have learnt from the backlash that they received over attempts to close the Kingston office, but they were at it again when they applied the co-location model to another office in Huonville. Co-location followed a gradual reduction in services at the Huonville office, including when Services Australia reduced the number of staff from three to two, in 2017. Both the staff reduction in 2017 and the co-location in 2020 prompted a number of concerned calls to both my office and that of Ms Collins. Unfortunately, the government failed to listen to the community once again, and the co-location at Huonville has gone ahead. This government either doesn't understand or doesn't care that people need face-to-face services. Not everyone has access to the internet or enough confidence to use it in all their dealings with Centrelink, even when Centrelink's online services are working. And, as I mentioned earlier, the phone services are notoriously difficult to access.
Even if people can use internet and phone services, I believe people have a right to deal with Centrelink in the manner that suits them. I've heard stories of other Services Australia shopfronts that had been slated for closure only to have the government backflip on their decision. Even when these closure decisions are reversed, communities still face great angst over the prospect of losing their local Centrelink or Medicare office and, when it is saved, they usually end up with a diminished service.
There are other consequences to the government's erosion of Services Australia. It's worth speculating what may have come of the robodebt debacle had the resources been allocated to apply more human oversight to the system. The mess that the government mired themselves in through the automated debt recovery program is a cautionary tale about how cutting costs leads to cutting corners and, in turn, cutting corners can cause monumental mistakes to be made.
It's ironic that in their efforts to save taxpayers' money through the robodebt system the government has ended up costing taxpayers substantially more. When they were finally forced to pay back all the $721 million they'd illegally extorted from Australian social security recipients, all that was left to show for the system were hundreds of millions of dollars in costs. It defies logic. It really defies logic. Up to July last year, the government had already spent $400 million on that flawed system. They've since thrown more money out the window, including $34 million in legal expenses fighting the largest class action in Australia's history. More of this cost could have been avoided if they'd applied more oversight.
As if the difficulties for Australians who rely on Services Australia weren't bad enough already, the situation has been made even worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March this year we saw queues outside several Centrelink offices stretching for hundreds of metres around the block and the myGov website crash due to overwhelming command. This led to the bizarre situation where the minister claimed that the website had suffered a distributed-denial-of-service attack, only to have to retract that statement hours later and admit that the site was unable to cope with the influx of newly unemployed people trying to apply for payments. The Morrison government knew well in advance that the pandemic was going to lead to a rush on Centrelink services, but they failed to provide for it. This will go down in history as one of a number of failures in the handling of the pandemic by those opposite.
In the pandemic there have been as many new JobSeeker claims received in 55 days as Services Australia would usually deal with over a 2½-year period. That number includes 280,000 people who sought help from the agency in just one day. One in eight of these new applicants also had to apply for a Centrelink reference number, meaning it was the first time in their life they had needed to seek government income support.
The 5,000 new workers the government announced they would engage in March were sorely needed to manage the additional demand created by the COVID-19 pandemic, but, unfortunately, it is the same number of workers that have been cut from the agency over the past six years. Eventually the government engaged a total of 14,800 extra staff, including through labour hire agencies, direct engagement with Services Australia and redeployment from across the APS.
Australia's post-COVID economic recovery will be slow, and the higher demand for JobSeeker payments is unlikely to disappear soon. If those opposite really want to improve the quality and services delivered by Services Australia, particularly through the pandemic, then a useful solution would be to abolish the agency's staffing cap. The cap on staffing levels makes no sense whatsoever. It doesn't actually limit the number of employees working for the agency; it simply limits the number who are employed directly. The staffing cap forces the agency to turn to expensive external consultants and labour hire agencies to do work that should be done by Public Service employees.
In July last year it was reported that Services Australia had entered into a massive $881 million worth of labour hire contracts over the previous two financial years. The Minister for Human Services at the time, Minister Keenan, relied on a KPMG report to back this massive outsourcing effort, but he refused to release the report, because of cabinet confidentiality. All this privatisation and outsourcing doesn't help contain the agency's costs. It doesn't improve its services. It doesn't help the agency retain long-serving employees with knowledge and experience. In fact, I'd argue that in all three cases it does the opposite.
So what does this nonsensical policy achieve? If anything, it helps the Morrison government in their ideological war against workers. The use of outsourcing, contracting and labour hire is a back-door avenue to undermining wages and conditions when those opposite can't slash the pay and conditions of public servants. This has led to a situation where two workers may work for the same agency and do the same job but have entirely different pay and conditions.
As I said at the outset, Labor will support this bill. We support anything that supports public services and outcomes for employees and customers of Services Australia, but this government has a long way to go to demonstrate that it is serious about supporting the millions of Australians claiming child support, Medicare benefits and government income support, for whom Services Australia is their lifeline. Judging by the record of those opposite, I expect we will see these services continue to erode. It's what the Liberals and Nationals have done for the past seven years, so why should we expect anything to be different now?
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 the Chief Executive Centrelink, the Chief Executive Medicare and the 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, if that falsely implies a connection to Services Australia or to 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 the Chief Executive Medicare to comply with any directions from the delegator. I commend this bill to the Senate.