|Title||MATTERS OF URGENCY
Centrelink: Service Levels
|Speaker||Crowley, Sen Rosemary
|Stage||Centrelink: Service Levels
|Context||Matters of Urgency
Senator CROWLEY (4:25 PM) âI rise to speak to this matter of urgencyâthat is:
The failure of the Government to ensure Centrelink provides adequate levels of public service to the millions of Australians who rely on Commonwealth income support payments.
That is payments of whatever sort. It is certainly important that we have the opportunity to remind the Senate as well as the communityâwho have been telling us, actuallyâjust how important this matter is. Some of my Liberal colleagues across the chamber have been jeering that this is just a front for the unions who want us to come in here and say whatever the unions want us to say and that there really is not a major problem out there at all. It is not a Labor Party front, and it is not a union front. It is actually thousands of constituents who are regularly writing to us, and I have two letters here which I will quote from.
If the government has not got the message yet that Centrelink is in major trouble, then it is being as blind and obstructionist to this as it was to the Job Network. It took a new government and a new minister to finally admit how wrong you were on Job Network. When are you going to admit that a disaster is in the making with Centrelink? It is a disaster, because something like six million to seven million Australians are outraged at the way they are being treated through the insufficient funding and staffing of this program.
I have a letter here from a constituent in Hackham West in South Australia. I do not wish to give this person's name, but the letter states:
Dear Senator Crowley,
My wife is on the age pension . . . My concern arises from the situation where my wife has to inform Centrelink of her intention to travel overseas, even if, as in this case, only for four weeks holiday. You might rightly ask what is the problem? Well, when we tried to contact Centrelink by telephone, we were advised (by a machine) that there was up to a 20 minute wait! So we decided to visit the local offices, only to find that it was very busy with the unemployed, et cetera, so we left it and I decided to advise them by letter and await a certificate for travel.
His letter goes on, but that is not me or the PSU or any other stoolie for government making up this story. This is one of the hundreds of letters from constituents.
Here is another letter from a gentleman in Bowden in my own state again. His concern is how he can assist his elderly parents find nursing home accommodationânot an unusual situation for some families. His letter states:
The problem is it is almost impossible to get anyone at Centrelink on the telephone. No matter what time of the working day I have rung, I have always met with the engaged signal. I even once rang the Department of Aged Services in Canberra and spoke to someone there who was very helpful who offered to transfer me to Centrelink via their direct telephone so I could get the information I sought. A similar result. After over five minutes of the engaged tone, I admitted defeat and hung up.
In the next paragraph, he said that he never did bother to finalise it in terms of his father's arrangements because there was no absolute requirement. He was just defeated. But in the situation of his mother:
I was asked by the nursing home to check with Centrelink to find why they had not been notified as to what fees they could charge her. I tried five times that day, on the 11th February 1999, at various times to reach Centrelink, only to be met with an engaged tone each time.
He went on to say:
I am employed full time, which means waiting over five minutes is very inconvenient and extremely wasteful of my time. However, the nursing home was waiting for a reply. The relevant forms had been sent in some months before. On Friday 12th February 1999, I sat down and phoned, prepared to wait until I actually got to speak to someone. After over six minutes of the engaged signal, I joined part of the queue and listened to four tunes of music interspersed with recorded messages thanking me for my patience, which was wearing very thin. After over 20 minutes, I actually got to speak to an operator who answered my query promptly. The system at Centrelink was at fault, having recorded my mother's position wrongly.
He said he found the advice very helpful when he finally got to it. He continued:
When I asked though why it had taken so long to speak to anyone, I was told, `This is the norm due to lack of staff and to the increased demand.'
Why would you say there is no problem when letter after letter records the same problem? By way of defence, Senator Marise Payne said, `Let me tell you how many calls we take.' That is very good news, but it will not do at all if four times as many people are not getting their calls answered as those who are getting their calls answered. We do not really want to know the good news if it is not telling us the truthâthat is, the full truthâand that is the bad news as well.
When the Labor government was in office, we often had to listen to criticisms from the then coalition opposition about the problems with the telecall system in Social Securityâand there were some. It is better to admit to those problems and try to address them than to say, `Rubbish, go away, we are fine.' Everybody knows that there is a major problem out there with Centrelink. It is not going to be solved by significantly cutting the money to Centrelink and slashing the number of staff.
From 18 January to 5 February in 1998, Centrelink failed to answerâpeople received an engaged signalâ81.5 per cent of calls. It was not a one-off, caused by early year peak loads. We know that the system is gridlocked. The government is planning to cut $154 million from it and to take a further 5,000 staff out of the system. It is a disaster that the government refuses to acknowledge. We have a minister saying anything you likeâfrom, `We are answering more calls than ever before,' through to, `It is just the Labor Party telling bad news stories.' That is not the case. There is an urgent need out there for something to be done to address the difficulties confronting Centrelink. The problem will not be solved by cutting staff numbers and by cutting the money.
Senator Payne said that there will soon be one person designated to look after a particular clientâindeed, a lot of clients would like thatâbut she also points out that it will not be operative until 2000. One worries about how it will be operative, given that we are supposed to have a system that is operating now and it is not. It is a major concern, an urgent matter, particularly as colleagues opposite want to say how important it is that we meet the needs of people, that we try to assist those who are struggling to get a modest income that is right and on time.
People are ringing up because we have encouraged them to do that. We have encouraged them to make sure that they have it right. We have said, `If you have any difficulties, please ring.' It is an absolute insultâto say nothing of it being a great unkindness and inhospitableâto say to people, `Please ring but there won't be a telephone able to be answered.' People are being driven to absolute frustration about these waiting times. It is a matter of considerable urgency.
I am terribly interested in why the government are so defensive about this matter. It reminds me, as I said before, of their approach to Job Network. The more they insisted there was no problem, the more the community laughed at them. The community is laughingâexcept that it may be crying right now because it knows.
Often colleagues opposite use the line, `How long is it since you have rung?' Like everybody in this place, I can say that I have rung Centrelink. I have to report that my shortest wait was a mere 20 minutes, which I think is the sort of time that most citizens report. For many peopleâlike those whose letters I have readâit is not a reasonable expectation for people in the work force to have to wait that long to get through. It is a system that is completely ruined, it is not operating, and it is not good enough.
I cannot understand why Senator Knowles keeps insisting that it is okay. The problem is that the government seems to be unaware that it matters a whole lot, because the citizens know. I have people in the community ringing up or writing to me saying that they have these massive waits. I do not have to convince the community, but I do need to remind the community that the problem belongs to this government. It belongs to this minister, Senator Newman, and it belongs to this Prime Minister, Mr Howard. They are the ones who say one thing out of one side of their mouths and who reduce the services out of the otherâthey prefer to cut the staff, to cut the money and to cut the services. Why is that? So that out of that budget surplus they can give tax cuts to the top end of town. (Time expired)