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Thursday, 25 March 1999
Page: 4512

Mr RUDD (12:02 PM) —I rise in the adjournment debate today to talk about problems experienced not just in my electorate of Griffith but in electorates right across the nation. These relate to one of the more distressing experiences that you can have as a federal member of parliament: dealing with the concerns and the complaints and the anxieties of individual citizens who have not been able to properly access their payments through Centrelink.

This problem is not peculiar to the suburbs of Brisbane. It is one which, based on the reflections of my colleagues, is experienced right across the country. When we talk about the clients and customers of Centrelink, we are talking about people who are in severe, substantial financial difficulty. Therefore, our responsibility as members to represent their interests is particularly acute, over and above most of the other things which the community expects of us, because the very ability of these people to survive week to week rests on their ability to receive payments and, if there is an interruption or difficulty in receiving those payments, our ability as members of parliament to discharge our responsibilities by intervening on their behalf as their court of last recourse.

I fear that what we are seeing across the country, in terms of the functions of Centrelink, is part and parcel of a broader scheme of withdrawal of government services. If we look specifically at the funding which has been directed to Centrelink, it is clear that in the period of this government we have seen, in effect, comparing like with like, a 10 per cent reduction in the funding allocated to Centrelink. We have seen a 21 per cent reduction in the funding to national office, a 13 per cent reduction of funding to area offices and a 12 per cent reduction of funding to the coalface, the people responsible for delivering Centrelink services to their clients and customers, people in need of income support. In terms of staff numbers, some 2,100 staff have been taken out of Centrelink nationally already, 2,700 are being removed in the course of 1998-99 and a further 2,300 are to be removed over the following two to three years. The problem, based on these facts alone, will only be exacerbated.

What of the impact on staff? Staff who are responsible for Centrelink offices across the country are dealing with customers in considerable distress. The level of customer aggression being faced by Centrelink staff has gone up manyfold. The most recent report on this matter indicates that there has been a 160 per cent increase in the last quarter in the number of incidents of customer aggression reported, up from 302 incidents in the previous quarter to 792 incidents in the most recently reported quarter.

It follows that, when individual clients of Centrelink cannot obtain the payments they need to feed the kids, they are going to become angry, aggressive and stroppy. I have complete sympathy for the staff of Centrelink offices who are required, with diminishing resources, to handle the human tragedy which confronts them across the desk, across the counter, each day.

I look at my own constituency of Griffith: we are serviced by three Centrelink offices—one at Wynnum-Manly, one at Mount Gravatt and another at Stones Corner. In those offices alone we have seen a reduction of 13 staff at Stones Corner, 17 at Mount Gravatt and five scheduled to go from the Centrelink office at Wynnum. In passing, I note that the Centrelink office at Stones Corner has, however, been able to manage to secure funding of $480,000 to refurbish its office. You do not have to be a mathematical genius to work out that for $480,000 you could actually be employing an additional 10 Centrelink staff on the average of about $50,000 per professional employee. Yet the priorities seem to have been taken in the completely wrong direction as far as that office is concerned.

So much for the staff. But the critical point which distresses me is the increasing number of calls to my electorate office by people in genuine distress, people who have committed no error but who cannot obtain payments or, worse, who have become victims of the overpayment scandal which this government has presided over in recent months. In January Centrelink nationally confessed to the fact that there had been 37,000 overpayments by accident. I had in my office yesterday a student who was in tears because she has to repay suddenly $600 which she had inadvertently been overpaid. I have also had a case of another constituent who has come to me because it has been quoted to her that there has been a `fat fingering processing error' in one of the offices, resulting in a huge overpayment. (Time expired)