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Monday, 29 February 2016
Page: 1393


Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (22:10): I rise tonight to again speak about people's lived experiences when dealing with Centrelink and the Department of Human Services. This is something I have spoken about previously in this place, and I will continue to talk about this issue until it is resolved. There are still so many people who are having problems contacting and relating to Centrelink and DHS. Of course this then makes it difficult for them to access in some cases their income support, family tax benefit payments or a range of other payments that people have to interact with Centrelink to receive.

I asked people to tell me their lived experience of dealing with Centrelink and it is fair to say that I was flooded with responses to that simple question. We heard of quite terrible experiences. People had waited on the phone for literally hours and hours. People had been bounced back and forwards between different parts of Centrelink, waiting for months. People had lost their disability support pension. People had gone through the appeals process. People described to us that they were forced, because of problems with this system, to live on emergency food parcels and support. I will read and relate people's lived experiences. Kerri said:

Going into Centrelink tomorrow with the husband. I can't get online. Phone's no good as I'm deaf. But I get told to make an appointment and come back another day. We live over 80 kilometres away round trip.

Natalia said:

The automated system can never get me to a simple customer service representative. I go around in circles with the automated system and I try many different phrases ... It's difficult if you are sick and have to cancel an appointment or need to find out information quickly.

Monique said:

I used up all my call value on my phone because I spent several hours on hold to Centrelink. So I couldn't AFFORD to call them.

Carla said:

I waited over an hour on the phone, only to be disconnected when they answered the phone. I have called at 8am (not a minute later) and still have to wait 25 minutes to speak to someone.

Rebekah said:

Whenever I ring Centrelink it takes 1-2 hours to get onto them, and often someone accidentally hangs up on me … and I have to ring back and do it all again. It's quicker to drive the two hours it takes to get to my local Centrelink.

Katrina said:

I am trying to get through to them now and it keeps returning an engaged signal. 2 weeks ago I sat on hold for 50 minutes (to the correct department) only to be told that my call had to be directed to a colleague who had proper security access to process my request. I then sat on hold for a further 50 minutes until I hung up in complete frustration.

Another Rebecca—different spelling, I might add—said:

It took 220 phone calls to even get in the queue that was over an hour long wait for something I 'should' have been able to do online but it would not allow me to update my son's school status.

This, for example, is not rocket science. It should be fairly simple to be able to do this. Sue said:

I was on Voluntary Income Management until recently. I got tired of Centrelink's website not working when I needed to access my Income Management account, to either transfer credit to my BasicsCard, or to check the balance. If a bank was as unreliable as their website was, it wouldn't take me long to change banks.

Monica said:

My mother needed to change her address. She visited the Centrelink/Medicare office and had a 45 minute wait to change her address with Medicare. Rather than let her take a number to start waiting for Centrelink, she wasn't allowed to take a number for Centrelink until she had finished with Medicare. Then had to wait another 45 minutes. All to do the same task.

We were supposed to be joining their system so that people did not have to do that. Jodie said:

Centrelink recently made an error on my account. I waited in line for 1.5 hours to have it corrected.

Amy said:

68 minutes on hold—to be told that they couldn't do anything on the phone and I had to go into a branch to lodge paperwork for sickness benefit.

David said:

The app … consistently tells me I am to report my income 6 days prior to when I am actually required to. Not to mention the fact that it frequently does not work. Being assigned an employment network provider not in my city even though the same provider has an office in my city, and when I went to fix this had to wait to see someone …

Krista said:

Just before Christmas I was required to attend an in-person meeting to discuss my job requirements for receiving parenting payment now that my youngest child is six. I took the day off work to attend the appointment. Waited an hour and a half past my scheduled appointment.

We also have people that have been applying for the disability support pension. Scarlett explained her problems:

It took three attempts before I was awarded the DSP. (The whole process took 18 months and was extremely stressful.) My pension will be reviewed after just two years, and I am honestly terrified I might be stuck in limbo without financial security while they decide my fate.

This is happening right now in Australia. Every day, people are struggling to get in contact with Centrelink for income support payments, for disability payments, for people who are sick and for people trying to access their FTB. People are bounced between the online service and the telephone service—when it does or does not work, and in my last contribution on this matter I related how the number of phone calls that went unanswered in this country exceeded those that were answered by a person. That is not the way you treat people who are trying to access a service that is supposed to be providing the safety net on which many vulnerable people depend.

The government say that they are trying to fix the system and they are trying to direct people online or onto the phone and not have them come into the Centrelink office. But, when they get on the phone, they literally wait for hours. When they get online, the computer system does not work. We know that the computer system does not work. We know that the government is starting to budget in a lot of money to fix that system. But, in the meantime, we are deliberately steering people to have to go online in order to interact with Centrelink.

Then sometimes they are told that they cannot access a particular level because they do not have the right ID, so they go into a Centrelink office. They wait for a long time in the Centrelink office, to sometimes have their ID verified and sometimes not. When they have that ID verified—or sometimes not—they are not allowed to complete their transaction in the office; they have to go back online. I have had people recount to me how they have been told to go and use the computers in the Centrelink office, only to find that they are broken. Again, they are not able to adequately access Centrelink and the services that Centrelink provides.

Part of delivering a safety net in this country is making sure people can access it, not making it hard for people to be able to access it. Some people have told me that they think the government is deliberately trying to make it harder and harder for people to be able to access Centrelink. I do not think, given the failures in the system, that the government, even if it were doing it deliberately, could manage any better than the system is managing to frustrate and alienate people who are trying to use it.

People express their extreme frustration about being able to access Centrelink, not to mention—and I will address this in my next contribution in an adjournment debate—how people are being kicked off disability support pension and expected to find or maintain work without adequate support when they are living with a disability. Those issues are extremely concerning as well. That goes to the nature of who is able to access income support and the various payments. What I am recounting at the moment is when people are actually able to access it. Next time I will recount the troubles that people have in actually being able to engage, apply and become eligible for income support payments.