Mr Wilson (4:05pm) — I am glad to speak on this matter of public importance, because Centrelink is a critical guarantor of social justice and social inclusion in our country—or, at least, it should be. What we have heard today are members on the other side not really taking issue with the mismanagement of Centrelink on their watch but providing excuses for why that has occurred.
Yet under this government, from the time of its first budget, there has been a recklessness, verging on neglect, when it comes to those facing disadvantage in many areas, and Centrelink is probably chief among them.
Every part of the social safety net and every part of the social contract has been squeezed and put under pressure, and that means people who desperately need it are getting less care and less assistance. They are being made to wait; they are being treated with disrespect—and, worst of all, they are often being made to feel as if it is their own fault.
In our society Centrelink should be the bedrock of care and support for Australians who need help, whether it is in a time of crisis or whether, in the case of age and disability pensioners, it is the foundation of their economic wellbeing. But Centrelink is not being enabled by this government to fulfil that role. In fact it has been hampered across the board, and there is evidence of that at every level. You can look at the top line statistics where complaints to Centrelink are up nearly 20 per cent and client satisfaction is down by nearly 10 per cent. The recent Ombudsman’s report shows that in the most recent period complaints to the Ombudsman are up by 24 per cent. You can look at the performance measures in the audit last year: a full third of all calls go unanswered. That is something like 22 million calls from people reaching out for assistance that they are not getting in a timely way. A third of calls require the person seeking assistance to wait more than half an hour.
There have been reports that age pensioners are waiting four months in some cases for their pension application to be processed. I am seeing that in my electorate. I have been a member of parliament for not much more than 100 days. I have people calling up my electorate staff, asking them to ring through to Centrelink for them, because they simply cannot get through. Mistakes are being made. I had a constituent come to my office recently who had been assigned a debt of some $25,000 based on assets of $180,000 that they just simply did not have. It is hard to understand how these kinds of errors occur.
Unfortunately, the policies of this government are compounding the difficulties that people face. It starts with cuts to community legal centres, which means that people who need financial assistance do not get it, and so they get pushed onto the social safety net. It is lack of access to or service at Centrelink itself, whether that is in person or on the telephone. In the case of trying to get access through the internet, which is how many people are being pushed to gain access, irrespective of the difficulties that they might have with language or age, there are numerous broadband black spots in my area that make that virtually impossible.
Any agency is only as good its staff, and that is the case with Centrelink. Over the years that agency, the bedrock of social justice and the social welfare net in Australia, has been well served by tens of thousands of Centrelink employees, who have a commitment to helping people. Staff take pride in their contribution to Australia’s social safety net because they know it is the foundation of our social democracy. But, as the member for Oxley pointed out, Centrelink staff have been undermined by this government at every turn. Centrelink staff and their union, the valiant Community and Public Sector Union, have been bargaining for nearly 2½ years just to tread water, just to hold on to the conditions that they already have.
The mismanagement of Centrelink is harmful. It is costly in money terms, which those opposite might understand, but it is more costly when it comes to families and individuals in desperate need, who cannot get the assistance and support that they deserve. It is costly in terms of the impact on people’s lives, on their prospects and on their futures. Saying ‘jobs and growth’ 7,000 times a day simply does not make it so. The reality in my state is that we are facing recession conditions with rising unemployment. People are under pressure. It is putting families into difficulty and distress. People in those circumstances need help. Pensioners need and deserve support. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and given timely assistance when they need assistance. That will not happen if Centrelink continues to be mismanaged. It cannot happen unless Centrelink staff are enabled and supported in their essential work.