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Tuesday, 22 October 2002
Page: 5587

Senator KNOWLES (2:54 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Family and Community Services, Senator Vanstone. Could the minister inform the Senate of the measures that Centrelink is taking to better serve its 6.4 million customers?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —I thank Senator Knowles for her question. She has a longstanding interest in the delivery of welfare and other benefits to Australian citizens. It is true, Mr President, that the government is immensely proud of Centrelink, the government services delivery agency. Frankly, it took the good sense of two women to set it up in 1997; namely, I and Senator Newman. Prior to that, the boys had an arrangement whereby you would not put an office more than 15 minutes away from another one so that customers did not take too long to walk between the two, which was pretty stupid. Now it has been put together, because we recognise we have to serve Australian citizens.

Centrelink officers deserve congratulations because they are on the front line every day dealing with customers who contact either a customer service centre or a call centre because they are in need of help. They do an excellent job. They have a customer satisfaction level of 85 per cent—far higher than Labor got in Cunningham, I notice, and I am happy to say in a bipartisan way that their customer service satisfaction rating is higher than we get in any of our seats as well. But it is quite a bit higher than Labor got in Cunningham. In any event it is a great achievement, given the scale of the organisation, to get that level of customer satisfaction, and that is citizenship satisfaction. They have got over 24,000 staff in 430 customer service centres. They distribute over $51 billion in payments to nearly 6½ million customers. They administer 140 different products and services for 20 different agencies.

The model is so successful that I understand the United Kingdom are very close to following it. I recently saw Andrew Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and they are looking at merging the UK Benefits Agency and the Employment Service to create a national network of one-stop shops for unemployed and other claimants. They are also looking at a `revolutionary change'—as they describe it—to focus on services for different client groups, which of course Centrelink started doing some time ago. China is also looking at modelling a government services delivery agency along the lines of ours.

Last year, Centrelink received over 250 international delegations. That is an indication of the level of interest shown internationally in the reform of the welfare sector implemented by this government. Centrelink is truly a revolutionary achievement for Australia, not simply because of the design put on it by this government but also because of the work done in it by the people who really are Centrelink. They do not rest on their laurels; they are committed to continuous improvement in their performance.

I am pleased to advise the Senate that only recently one of the Centrelink call centres won the Teleservices Centre of the Year award in the 50 staff or more category at the 2002 national awards dinner on Friday night. The Liverpool call centre was named as the joint winner of this prestigious national award. It has an exceptional multilingual service, regular services in 22 languages and a callback service for many other languages. It is a unique commitment to multicultural Australia. Teleservicing is an increasingly competitive industry and we are very proud that Centrelink could compete with the private sector and win this award. We have the largest single-purpose call centre network in Australia, receiving over 23 million phone calls each year in 27 award winning call centres around the nation. Two-thirds of those are in regional Australia. The banks might be moving out of the bush but Centrelink is moving in, with 127 access points, 320 Centrelink agents and 140 visiting services to smaller communities. We have over 2,000 interpreters assisting Indigenous Australians. (Time expired)