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Transcript of interview with Linda Mottram: 702 ABC: 24 October 2012: Centrelink call waiting times; budget

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TRANSCRIPT SENATOR KIM CARR Minister for Human Services






LINDA MOTTRAM: Well, the answer is yes, we can, can we fix it, and it's yes, we can if you are, indeed, the Minister for Human Services. Kim Carr fixed a major problem, the phone queues for Centrelink.

They were 26 minutes long in July last - last July they were 26 minutes long so being on hold when you ring Centrelink for 26 minutes, now - then they went down to eight minutes and 15 seconds and now down to six minutes or so and this is all because of the intervention of the Minister.

Let's see how he did it. Senator Kim Car is on the line with us this morning. Senator, thanks for your time.

KIM CARR: Good morning.

MOTTRAM: There will be a touch of that cynic in all of us, won't there, the idea that a federal minister has been able to actually fix something at the coal face, so do forgive us. [Laughs]

CARR: I share your apprehension about such a matter. I've been in the job since February and when this matter was brought to my attention with the incoming minister's brief I realised we could do a lot more.

We were able to secure additional money in the last Budget, another $60 million which meant we could employ 600 people through - that were on short-term contracts, in fact - and we squeezed some other resources in the department so we extended the contracts for 740 people and we redeployed another 200 people because it was so important to actually get more people on the phones.

MOTTRAM: So, I mean, it sounds like it wasn't that difficult to do. Was it complicated?

CARR: It's always complicated when you're dealing with the complexities of human beings. You know, the fact remains, the reason people have to wait on the phone is because so many people are trying to get through and that varies from different times in the year. There is a seasonal factor here.

What we've been trying to do is to reduce the number of people who feel the need to ring by encouraging people to take up the home delivery service - the online service - to use technologies in different ways but that has meant that there are more people ringing up with more complicated problems so you have to spend more time trying to deal with it.

The reality is that just in the Centrelink line alone, because we've got Medicare lines, you've got Child Support lines but just in Centrelink, in July there were three and a half million people trying to get through and that's reduced to 2.9 million people in August and it's now down to 2.3 million people in September.

We've got more people answering the phone and less people trying to get through so you are able to get improvements.

We're also improving the technology that's available. We've got a new telephone contract with Telstra which is going to mean that we're able to provide better technological responses, move calls around the network. The network involves 38,000 people in the Department of Human Services so it's important to be able to ensure that we have - we're also providing new apps for people with smart phones so there's a whole lot of stuff we can do on technology but, above all else, it's about people.


CARR: We've got great people in the Department of Human Services that have thrown everything at this problem and, as a consequence, we've been able to see a dramatic improvement in the service and I'm very pleased and I congratulate the department for their rapid response to this issue.

MOTTRAM: Okay. Well, I mean, that's all good and of course you'll be looking at sort of aggregated figures but it's still not always smooth sailing.

Let me just put Peter on the line for you. Good morning, Peter.

CALLER: Yes, good morning. My son rang up yesterday for living away from home allowances and everything like that and the call waiting time was 90 minutes.

MOTTRAM: Oooh, okay.

CALLER: Ninety minutes. So, needless to say, he didn't hang on. He's going to try again today.

MOTTRAM: Okay, well good luck with that one. Minister?

CARR: We do have a call-back, we do have a call-back arrangement for people in that situation so you can actually get the Departmental officer to ring you.

MOTTRAM: Okay, so, Peter, you can get the Departmental officer to ring you but, Minister, the point is you're saying that the call times are substantially down. How do you explain Peter's son being on for only - being on for 90 minutes.

CARR: For a start, all the calls are averages and you will find there will be different experiences. In the youth - students, the average speed time has come down from 16 minutes to eight minutes. In the pensioner line it's come down from 22 minutes to eight minutes. In the families line it's come down from 26 minutes to eight minutes.

So it doesn't mean there won't - everyone will get through. Look, in the Howard government people actually had, in the Department, his predecessor Department, had a system whereby you actually had a do not disturb button, that is an engaged or continuous engaged signal running and it took the new Secretary of the Department, Kathryn Campbell, who took the view that that's just inappropriate but they were trying to bodgie up the figures by having a permanent engaged signal running so you could never get through…

MOTTRAM: Okay, so…

CARR: …just so you can keep your statistics in line.

MOTTRAM: Yes, so at least people are getting through now but the statistics are, I mean, it's all in the - the devil's in the detail, isn't it? Some people will…

CARR: Always. Always the case.

MOTTRAM: Some people will have that experience, like Peter's son did…

CARR: That's right.

MOTTRAM: …where it will still take a long time.

CARR: That's right and we're doing our best to provide an excellent service for every Australian.


CARR: And there were 55 million telephone calls to the Department of Human Services this year and so that's a lot of people. And we've got to try to make sure that every single one of them gets an excellent service.

MOTTRAM: Very difficult when the budget's so tight. Any disappointments for you in the Budget in that regard?

CARR: Well, these are tough times so we've got to make sure that we are able to get the Budget back into shape, at the same time protect the frontline services such as this department and I think the Government's doing a good job to secure that objective.

MOTTRAM: Okay, Kim Carr, thanks very much for talking to us.

CARR: All the best, goodbye.