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Tuesday, 19 February 2019
Page: 14028

Ms RYAN (LalorOpposition Whip) (19:10): Centrelink is in crisis under this Morrison government. Those opposite have gutted the Department of Human Services to the point that it is understaffed and under-resourced. Worse, they have outsourced good jobs, jobs on which people could build a life, into the hands of the transient world of call centres and labour hire. And the horror stories that I've heard from residents in my community are evidence that this is a very, very bad idea. It is absolutely no coincidence that the government's cuts and outsourcing of over 2,700 staff from the Department of Human Services and Centrelink has led to an increase in Centrelink phone waiting times, blowouts in processing times and many income support recipients being pushed to the edge of poverty, waiting months for their payments to be received.

Last year, my staff and I assisted over 7,000 local residents with Commonwealth issues. A significant proportion of this work involved assisting with Centrelink matters. We heard horror story after horror story of people who were forced to wait months for their age pension to be processed or who were forced to wait on hold for hours for their phone call to be answered. It's just not good enough. And the horror stories that were heard were a direct result of the government's cuts to staff.

In the federal electorate of Lalor, we have nearly 13,000 age pensioners. We also have over 6,000 people who are recipients of the carer allowance—good people caring for others in their life. We have nearly 5,000 recipients of a disability support pension—people on the margins of our society, the disabled, doing it tough. We have nearly 18,000 recipients of family tax benefits, not surprising given that we have 60,000 families in the electorate, and these are mostly single-income, hardworking families. And we have over 2,000 young people on youth allowance, who are studying or undertaking an apprenticeship—a point of celebration it should be, but not under this government.

I often say that we are judged as a society by how we treat our seniors, particularly our pensioners. So I am deeply concerned that I've heard stories from local residents who have advised me and my staff that they've been forced to wait months for their age pension to be processed. And I know this is happening across the country. Last year, I spoke in this place of Duncan, a Wyndham local who was forced to wait 161 days from the date he applied before his age pension was processed. Even more concerning than this outrageous delay is that Duncan is not alone. In fact, nationwide nearly 10,000 age pension applications took over 26 weeks to process. This is outrageous. These people are eligible and entitled to their pension, and delays should not be occurring. I'm horrified to think what would have happened if Duncan hadn't come to my office to seek assistance with his application. How much longer would he have been forced to wait for support without the intervention from the local member's office? The thought is truly horrifying.

Our seniors, after working hard their entire lives and contributing to our community, deserve to have access to their age pension in a timely manner. They shouldn't be forced to live on the edge of their bank accounts while Centrelink processes their age pension applications. I've heard stories of applicants being asked how much money they had in the bank, and being told that if it exceeded $800 they could wait. Our seniors are being punished by this government's cruel decision to slash staffing allocations at the Department of Human Services.

In the electorate of Lalor, as I said, there are over 2,000 young people who are in receipt of youth allowance. These young people are either studying or undertaking an apprenticeship. As a former teacher and principal, I've seen firsthand the challenges and obstacles that young people in my community face in accessing further education. I want our young people to be going to university, going to TAFE and completing apprenticeships, but I know that it's not just as simple as showing up for class. When our young people who qualify for support in the form of youth allowance payments are entitled to it, they should receive it in a reasonable time. Not months later. Not at the end of the first semester of their university study. Not when they're living in a low-income household for whom they are now a burden when they should be off studying with support from the government.

When they call Centrelink, they should get a response in a reasonable time. It is extremely concerning that in 2016-17 there were 55 million unanswered calls to Centrelink—more than double the 22 million in 2014-15. Australia-wide, nearly 90,000 youth allowance claims have taken more than 29 days to process. Again, it is no coincidence that increased phone wait times have coincided with the government's cuts to Centrelink staff, and that processing times are blowing out as a result as well. Now, not only has this government slashed funding for tertiary and vocational training but those opposite are causing significant and unnecessary stress to students and their families by failing to process their youth allowance in a reasonable time.

In stark contrast to this government, a Shorten Labor government will invest 1,200 permanent full-time jobs in the Department of Human Services nationwide. We will have them properly trained to assist people with income support. Income support is complex, and that is why it is important that there are properly trained and permanent staff who are familiar with the personal circumstances facing income support recipients. This is not a job to be done in a call centre; it needs to be done face to face. These people are making applications. They need support. These jobs will improve access to Medicare and Centrelink, and will reduce wait times and processing times for older Australians and particularly for younger Australians and the 60,000 families in my electorate who may need to interact with Centrelink. These are important services which have been left to deteriorate under this Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government.

On a different tack: I lost my dad when I was 11. At a young age, I learnt that life wasn't always fair. The dairy market crashed, we lost our dad and life changed irrevocably. I learnt it again at 23, when I lost a cousin to mental health issues, and again at 28, when I lost a brother driving his truck on a stretch of road in north Queensland. As a result, I committed my life to the service of evening the odds—to educating young people to ensure that they could take their place and argue their case. And after years of teaching, when I looked around the school I was in and I could see the classroom-to-classroom difference, I looked up and sought leadership in education to change those odds in favour of more students rather than fewer.

It's an important week this week for the Labor Party, because this week we say goodbye to two extraordinary Labor greats, in Wayne Swan, the member for Lilley; and Jenny Macklin, the member for Jagajaga: two people who made a commitment in this place to evening the odds and to making life a little bit fairer for everybody in this country. They've spent their lives in this place working to even the odds in favour of working families, to ensure that the hurdles that families hit don't leave them wrecked and to ensure that people got that even break when they needed it. They leave us this week—as we saw today with Wayne Swan's speech and are looking forward to tomorrow with the speech from Jenny Macklin, the member for Jagajaga—with a fire in our souls to continue the Labor legacy, to even the odds, to build an economy and a society that are fair.