Morrison’s cuts eroding our social safety net

Published on Tue 20 October 2020 5:36pm

If you want to meet what should be the core responsibility of the Australian government and guarantee there’s a high-standard and high-quality social safety net for all Australians, as the foundation of our fair and egalitarian way of life, then you have to focus on what effective care and support actually means, and you need to make sure the people who deliver that care and support are valued. That’s not what is happening at the moment.

Mr Wilson (5:36pm) – I’m glad for the opportunity to speak on this Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill and to support the second reading amendment moved by the member for Dobell. I would like to start by acknowledging the work done by the member for Maribyrnong. He’s been a warrior for the rights and interests of vulnerable Australians for a long time.

As others have observed, this bill itself is unobjectionable. It’s always good to make administrative changes and changes to governance arrangements in the interests of making the system work better. Even mild improvements of that kind are welcome in such a critical area of government policy and support, because when we talk about the Department of Human Services—or Services Australia, as it has become—we’re talking about Australia’s social safety net. It’s there for all of us. Hardly any of us will go through our lives without at some point relying on its support. Our need for its buoyancy is always closer to us than we might think, and we’ve seen that in the course of the present crisis.

We’re talking about the programs and resources and, especially, the public servants, whose purpose is to support people in need. Yes, that includes people who are in trouble or people who are in crisis, but it actually covers a significant portion of our community: older Australians, single parents and their kids, people with disability. Reorganising a departmental structure, modernising terminology, clarifying reporting obligations—that’s all good stuff, but it would be better if the government lifted its eyes, changed its course and perhaps changed its broader perception of our world by focusing on how to protect and enhance our social safety net and on how to enable, look after and lift the morale of those who are employed within the Public Service to assist people who have lost their jobs, to assist single parents and people who are unemployed or facing homelessness and to assist older Australians and carers and people with disability. Admittedly, that would be a pretty significant turnaround by the party of robodebt and pension freezes and Public Service cuts; from the party that instinctively and repeatedly divides Australia into ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’; from the party that instinctively and wrongly looks to weaken our budget capacity through tax cuts for already profitable big businesses, including foreign multinationals.

While there’s nothing particularly wrong with this bill, there’s definitely something wrong with the approach of the government in general. How much better would it be if the appetite for administrative tinkering that we see in this bill was only the prelude to a larger shift directed at making more substantial and desperately needed improvements? How much better would it be if the government took seriously its responsibility to ensure that our social safety net was the properly resourced and properly functioning foundation of a caring and egalitarian Australia? That should always be our objective.

What we’ve experienced over the last 12 months, starting with our first national-scale climate disaster in the form of the largest bushfires we’ve ever suffered and now, of course, in the form of a global pandemic, has displayed in even sharper relief the importance of our social safety net. Take JobSeeker alone. Over 27 days, from 25 March, 1.9 million intention-to-claim forms were lodged online. In the 55 days after the launch of JobKeeper, 1.3 million JobSeeker claims were processed. That’s the volume that would normally be processed in 2½ years. In less than two months, the system accommodated a volume of claims that would normally stretch over 30 months. At the peak, more than 53,000 claims were completed in a single day. Many of the applicants had never accessed Centrelink support before in their lifetime, with one in eight new applicants needing to apply for a CRN.

The torrent of urgent support work in those first months of the pandemic was stemmed by hardworking Centrelink staff whose morale and best interests are sustained in advance by the work of the mighty Community and Public Sector Union. Those Centrelink staff rose to what were enormous and extraordinary challenges, and they should be recognised and celebrated as some of our most essential workers, but they haven’t, and they don’t receive the respect and support they deserve from this coalition government.

There’s a phrase in the way the changes in this bill are described, which I want to draw attention to, and that’s the claim that these changes will be ‘a more efficient and effective way of delivering government services’. Of course, that begs the question what exactly is meant by ‘efficient’ and ‘effective’? I’m sure that at various times in the last few years, in the government’s mind, robodebt would have been considered the epitome of efficient and effective: a brutal, dehumanised, badly calibrated and ultimately faulty, illegal, computerised trawl through the circumstances of hundreds of thousands of Australians. The government defended it and has continued to defend it. They have argued in defence of its effectiveness and its efficiency. It was a frightening en masse assault that wrongly and illegally attributed debt to hundreds of thousands of Australians, and yet the Attorney-General, around that time, said:

At the moment those moneys have been refunded. There will be an argument as to whether or not we undertake to try and recoup any debts using other methodologies.

No doubt he meant other efficient and effective methodologies.

In truth, even the basic order of that phrase is wrong. We should be focused on making sure that policies and programs are effective and then consider how they can work in good time and be delivered at fair cost. In the areas of health, education, welfare support and environmental protection—all the key areas of Australia’s shared wellbeing—the starting point should always be the setting of high-quality standards of achievement. Set those standards and those outcomes as your lodestar and navigate towards them. That way the achievement of those standards becomes the definition of ‘effective’.

It’s not hard to imagine the kinds of standards or tests that we need to apply in this area. Are people who need help getting support? Are people who are facing disadvantage receiving appropriate care and assistance? Are they being enabled to participate in the social and economic life of this country to the greatest degree, to be included, to be valued and to contribute to Australian society? Is the support sufficient? What will be the reality for people on JobSeeker when it reverts to $40 a day, which is apparently what the government intend.

Over the last few months I, and all local members, have heard stories that are at the same time both positive and desperately sad. For example, single parents and pensioners who describe how the COVID-19 supplement has allowed them to purchase a heater or get their car fixed or afford a bike for their kid or pay for some dental work. It should never be the case that it takes a pandemic to lift support to a fair and reasonable level in Australia.

When we focus on an effective social safety net we should ask some questions. Can people who need it get access to advice and assistance in a way that is timely, straightforward, courteous and responsive? Can they trust the system will be fair? Can they have confidence they won’t be made to jump through ridiculous hoops that will be breached on a hair-trigger, pushing them into further crisis and often further financial trouble? Are the various parts of the social safety net properly linked up together? Does the income support and the employment service side of things and the question of housing and any issues related to disability support or specific veteran support work with as much harmony and coordination as possible? And are we valuing and supporting the public servants, the women and men, who deliver on these standards, always recognising and valuing that it is their skills, their commitment and their emotional resilience, above all, that holds up our social safety net?

It’s considering all these kinds of questions that the amendment moved by the member for Dobell and the work done by the member for Maribyrnong seek to help the government do a few things that are clearly needed and would make a substantial difference—things that would go a lot further and deliver a lot more than the technocratic bits and pieces contained in this bill. In truth, there isn’t any great mystery about the broader issues that need to be addressed within the scope of the renamed Services Australia in order to help guarantee that it meets the needs of our community and is in keeping with our values and our ethos.

We know that the people who work within this vital part of our Public Service have been squeezed and neglected. We know that the outsourcing and privatisation of aspects of our social safety net have achieved what privatisation in this area of service always brings—namely, a lower quality and more expensive service. We know that a system with arbitrary staffing caps and differential rates of pay and differential conditions for employees undertaking the same work through different arrangements is not only unfair; it is dysfunctional.

I want to point out that in Western Australia, my home state, the impact of staff cuts has been extreme. In 2013, when this government was elected, there were 7,500 Department of Human Services staff in WA. Last year, the staff number was down to 6,500. That’s a drop of 14 per cent—1,000 jobs; one in seven. Some of the cuts have been sharpest in rural and regional Western Australia. For example, in what’s termed the Outback South region—the offices in Leonora, Kalgoorlie and Meekatharra—there’s been a loss of 215 staff. In Outback North, which covers Port Hedland, Broome and Derby, I understand they’ve lost 46 staff. When you make those cuts, you’re not simply reducing services and support for a local community, for people in need and especially for those facing acute disadvantage; you’re weakening local economies and the vibrancy of rural and regional towns.

In the face of the many things that have gone wrong—the many things that are being done badly by this government—some of the solutions that should be under consideration are not really all that hard to arrive at. And this is precisely what the shadow minister has consistently pointed out. If you want to meet what should be the core responsibility of the Australian government and guarantee there’s a high-standard and high-quality social safety net for all Australians, as the foundation of our fair and egalitarian way of life, then you have to focus on what effective care and support actually means, and you need to make sure the people who deliver that care and support are valued. That’s not what is happening at the moment. That’s not the path this government has chosen. But it’s not really that hard. Unfortunately for this government, what we have seen is a tendency to squeeze and squeeze and squeeze again; to make the lives of people who need help most harder; to make the opportunities for people who already experience significant disadvantage fewer; to make efficiency, in the end, a euphemism for punching down, a euphemism for taking away from those who have least and for failing to support those who need help the most.

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