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Wednesday, 25 November 1998
Page: 685

Mrs IRWIN (7:56 PM) —I would like to add to the weight of concern being expressed about the cutbacks in Centrelink. As honourable members know, this organisation was created with the intention of concentrating the delivery of a number of human services provided by a number of Commonwealth departments into a single modern agency. It was planned to be a one-stop shop, a place where people could get advice on the range of Commonwealth and other entitlements, obtain an assessment for an allowance or a pension, be referred to another service provider, and to work in partnership with the community in fulfilling a critical role at a time of immense social change.

Most people working in Centrelink—and I speak to them because I like to know what life is like on both sides of the counter—saw it as a momentous change, liberating them from the constraints which hampered the business of providing a service to a public which many of us, especially on the other side of the chamber, have lost touch with. I am referring, of course, to the retired; to people with disabilities; to young people from less well-off families who are studying or looking for a job; mothers; people between casual jobs; the unemployed, whether they be mature age skilled workers or unskilled, young, professional, or `downsized', `outplaced', `redundant' or `excess' men and women; people from diverse cultural backgrounds who do not speak English; people with psychiatric problems; people in crisis; women escaping domestic violence; families at the end of their tether through no fault of their own; people whose capacity to pursue their rights is often considerably less than yours or mine or the average citizen's.

Centrelink was supposed to be a beacon. It was supposed to take the nonsense out of dealing with government, especially for those among the six or seven million Australians less able to deal with red tape. It was supposed to put humans back into the equation by providing a more personal service, a more dignified service, a public service with the focus on the individual for a change. It was supposed to be about quality and program delivery from both the taxpayers' and the clients' view. It was a change welcomed by the staff because—and it is true—many of the staff believe in the work they do. Many are involved in community welfare agencies out of work hours. They have chosen the field, a people-to-people, person-to-person field.

Now, suddenly, people do not matter in this new user-friendly customer driven organisation. Suddenly, information systems are going to fill a hole left by removing 5,000 Centrelink people from the people-to-people business. They are not going to be there. Some time in the future, though, there will be an information kiosk. Today the queue is out the door. Today there is an engaged signal because all the operators are busy or because they are short staffed just like yesterday and the day before and the day before that.

Mr Slipper —You don't believe that!

Mrs IRWIN —The honourable member should listen to what I am going to say next.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Fowler should address the Chair.

Mrs IRWIN —Sorry, Mr Speaker. In my electorate there is monumentally high unemployment. There are language barriers. There are large numbers of young people. Tell me that all their problems, all their service requirements, can be met without people: without the 11 people who have been shed from Liverpool Centrelink since August—not to be replaced; without the 10 people shed from Cabramatta—not to be replaced; without the people still lined up to make surplus to requirements over the coming months to meet the astonishing cutback of 5,000 jobs in the name of the 10 per cent efficiency dividend. How, when the technology is not yet there? How, when the existing mainframe operation used by Centrelink is creaking along with regular down time?

Mr Slipper interjecting

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Fowler may continue for 10 seconds to make up for the interjections of the member for Fisher.

Mrs IRWIN —Thank you, Mr Speaker. The weight of concern is strongest from the charitable organisations who will be picking up the pieces. They speak from experience and compassion. I call on the community and the board of Centrelink, in light of the expected hardship these cuts will bring, to make

compassion an issue for a government which shows so little.