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Thursday, 16 August 2012
Page: 5563


Senator FURNER (Queensland) (14:33): My question is to the Minister for Human Services, Senator Kim Carr. How does the minister account for the rising wait times across Centrelink call times?

Senator KIM CARR (VictoriaMinister for Human Services) (14:34): I thank Senator Furner for his question. This is one that rightly every senator and every member is entitled to ask. As we are obviously strongly focused on the issues of people waiting to get service it is a matter of considerable concern to this government. At the moment the Department of Human Services is taking 150,000 phone calls a day—this is Centrelink alone—and is making some 38 million phone calls in the space of a year.

Senator Joyce interjecting

Senator Conroy interjecting

Senator KIM CARR: So demand is extremely high and it is growing and, as a consequence, Senator Joyce, waiting times are in fact rising.

Senator Joyce interjecting

Senator Conroy interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Carr, resume your seat. Senator Joyce and Senator Conroy, I remind you that interjections across the chamber are disorderly. There have been repeated occasions where I have reminded you of this today. The minister is entitled to be heard in silence.

Senator KIM CARR: This is no reflection on the professional staff at call centres or those who support them in back offices; it is simply a reality of Public Service delivery today. We are dealing with the volatility of the global economy; we are dealing with some 150 changes in the social security system that have arisen from the improvements made by this government in the last budget; we are dealing with many more Australians who are on part pensions and have to report their income changes to the department; we are dealing with calls which are of a much higher level of complexity. We are also dealing with a situation where we have claims by the Liberal Party that they are going to take some 12,000 public servants out of the Commonwealth Public Service in the first two years of a Liberal government. Imagine what that is going to do to waiting times. Imagine what that is going to do to the capacity to respond to the legitimate needs of the Australian people during periods of considerable economic change. Average waiting times are about 12 minutes and we are concerned that that time is growing. But taking 12,000 people out won't improve it. (Time expired)

Senator FURNER (Queensland) (14:36): Mr President, I have a supplementary question. Can the minister inform the Senate what action the government is taking to reduce these waiting times?

Senator KIM CARR (VictoriaMinister for Human Services) (14:36): First and foremost we are investing in our staff, which is the most important asset the Commonwealth has in terms of human services delivery. We are putting more people on the phones. Since March this year the department has recruited 720 staff to deal with the surge in demand. The government has provided some $200 million to keep on 600 of those staff until February next year.

Second, we are redeploying staff to ensure that there are in fact more people available to deal with waiting times. The new arrangements with Telstra that we are developing will also provide more flexibility and provide us with further options in ensuring that we can be more effective in our response to demands from the public.

Third, we are working with staff so that we can provide a better service to the people seeking assistance from the Commonwealth. I have established a joint working group between DHS senior management and the Community and Public Sector Union to provide advice on better ways of operating. (Time expired)

Senator FURNER (Queensland) (14:37): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. What role does the minister see for new technologies in responding to the demand?

Senator KIM CARR (VictoriaMinister for Human Services) (14:38): We need, of course, to ensure that new technologies provide an important part of the new service delivery models. We are providing options in terms of call-back. We are providing new apps to provide direct access for students to ensure that we can provide a better home delivery service online as well as freeing up resources to deal with more complex problems.

Honourable senators interjecting

Senator KIM CARR: I am asked, 'What about the knuckle draggers?' Of course, the real problem here is that the knuckles are now being taken off the ground—and in science we can expect some evolution!—to an attack directly into the heads of public servants: 12,000 public servants. How will that help? How will that help to assist in ensuring that people can get the responses they need from the Commonwealth? A 12,000 cut to the Public Service will undermine the capacity of this or any part of this government to ensure that services are delivered to the Australian people. (Time expired)