October 08, 2020

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

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

Scenes like this are a reminder of the Great Depression of the 1930s and should not be repeated in the 21st century.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can see that in the customer service approach in bricks-and-mortar Centrelink offices.

If you go into a Centrelink office you are instantly steered towards a computer or sent back out. You have to actually insist quite stridently if you want to talk to a human being. This isn't because Centrelink staff aren't trying to do their best; they just physically don't have the staff to handle the level of customer inquiries. At every single community assembly and seniors expo I held pre the COVID crisis, the number one complaint was the lack of access to a human being at Centrelink to process pension applications and to answer simple questions.

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

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

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Zimmerman):  Order!

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

Mr Howarth interjecting

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

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

Mr CONROY:  The Prime Minister is all about marketing.

Mr Howarth:  Show some respect.

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

Mr Tim Wilson interjecting

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