Centrelink is a mess

Published on Mon 27 March 2017 10:42am

Mr Wilson (10:42am) — Every week my office takes on new cases that emerge from the torrent of issues generated by the Centrelink system, which is in crisis. The cases are new; the issues are well worn. They typically include people trying to receive the age pension, youth allowance or Newstart allowance, or people trying to deal with requests for information or debt notices from the Department of Human Services.

They typically include people who wait inordinate amounts of time on the telephone, people who are perpetually directed to use online processes that often do not work, people who lodge claims and send letters that go without response for months and people who provide documents that magically disappear and are requested again. These problems have been exacerbated by the robo-debt debacle. They are being made harder by the government’s failure to support and resource Centrelink staff.

Last week I heard from a resident in North Fremantle who is still awaiting the resolution of her age pension claim that was lodged last July. This constituent was diagnosed with cancer in the middle of last year and, at the age of 67, after working in Fremantle hospitals for more than 30 years, decided it was time to step back from her demanding role in a cardiac care unit to take care of herself in retirement.

From the time of lodgement nothing was heard until November, when a letter arrived that sought further information. It was duly provided but only resulted in a failed claim notice on the myGov web portal. No explanation or further instructions were provided. Through December several calls were met with reassurances that the process would end shortly. Then in February a letter arrived seeking yet further documents, because the retiring nurse was a beneficiary of a family trust, a small investment property and modest superannuation—all assets that she disclosed at the outset.

The relevant documentation was delivered, and a dutiful officer spent two hours scanning and uploading the paperwork. Now, you would think at this point the end was in sight—but, no; upon lodging a complaint last week, my constituent was informed that the documents were still outstanding. This kind of maddening ring around leaves people in a state somewhere between rage and exhausted depression. My staff members are happy to work with constituents to clarify and resolve their issues and, in many cases, we have assisted people in considerable distress, having received notice of a very substantial debt.

We are given generous assistance by Centrelink liaison staff and social workers within the department, but it is clear that the volume of demand, the flaws in the system and the oppressive approach to managing the workforce in recent times are creating intolerable delays and errors.

Centrelink staff have been waiting for and working towards a new and fair employment agreement in good faith since June 2014. They have not received a pay increase for three years; instead, jobs have been cut, job security has been weakened and working conditions made less flexible. It is well past time for the government to bear down on these systemic problems. They are hurting Australians who can least bear it.

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