Properly fund public services: speech in the second reading debate of the Services Australia governance bill

By Terri Butler MP

08 October 2020

That was a masterclass in buffoonery from someone who clearly doesn't understand the connection between the importance of staffing these services properly and the effect that the services have on the lives of our constituents—that is, the people who we not only claim to represent but do represent. So let me, for his information, explain some of the experiences that people in my electorate have had when they have had to rely on public services during the coronavirus pandemic and recession.

I've got a quote here from someone who contacted me, absolutely distraught. She said: 'I know they're overwhelmed, but I just keep going in circles. I waited for someone to contact me, like the instructions said, and they finally did. They took my details and created a linking code to link my CRN to myGov, but the names don't match. She said this was supposed to fix this, but it didn't, so she put me through to tech support to fix it, but when I got through to someone it was something to do with education, so the guy transferred me again. I waited for two hours to get through but then received a message that they were too busy to take my call and to call back later, and the call was ended. I kept trying all day, to no avail, until I finally got through just before 10 pm on Monday night. The lady tried to help me but said the area I needed was closed and she would email them. I waited but heard nothing, so I called again at 8 am this morning and was told again that I needed the help desk. This lady offered to go through for me, rather than transferring me. However, when she got through, she was told the team I need isn't available and she had to log a call back. No time frame was given, and I assume everything is closed for the next four days. I cannot even claim JobSeeker until this gets sorted. I've given my ID three times now over the phone. I don't have any income. I had to submit a humiliating application to my real estate agent this morning, as with every bill I pay, to justify why I need relief with my rent. The truth is I need relief with everything because I have no income coming in until the JobSeeker goes through.' This was the experience of one of my constituents who tried to use public services and was incredibly distressed and distraught, like so many people across my electorate and across all of the electorates that are represented in this chamber.

I had another woman come through. She said: 'I would like to advise you that, as we speak, I've been on the phone for hours with Centrelink for a CRN. I don't even know if I'll get one today. I have rent to pay this week, with no money to pay it with. Will my family become homeless?' This was a question from another constituent of mine who was going through this situation. So to the member for Mackellar: yes, we do care about staffing for public services. It's not because of 'vested interest', as he said; it's because these public services are the public services that people need when they are at their lowest point—when they have nowhere to turn. They rely on the support.

Labor will—and everyone should—support modifications to public sector governance structures that lead to good outcomes for employees and the Australians who rely on those services. But this bill fails to address the biggest core issue at the centre of Services Australia—that the arbitrary staffing cap imposed across the public sector has led to an overreliance on labour hire to keep up with demand as well as exorbitant overspend on outsourcing and on consultants.

Staff at Services Australia have over recent times—and of course I'm talking about the recession, the pandemic and the national bushfire crisis that preceded them—had to manage a remarkable workload, whether they were dealing with people who had lost their homes in the bushfire, people who had lost their jobs because of the recession, people who were trying to negotiate on real estate, people who were working out how to pay their bills and people who were working out how they were going to be able to focus on getting things done for their kids and their families when they were under so much stress and pressure because of a loss of income. So many people have needed help, and the Services Australia staff are there for these people. As I have read out to you, they are people who are just trying to help, but they're understaffed and overworked. So when people are calling in their moments of greatest need and despair, the Services Australia frontline staff are working very hard to try to support them. They in turn deserve support from their government and from the people in this place.

I do want to give specific thanks to all of the people who live or work in my electorate. We've got some great public services and we've got some great Centrelink offices that have had very stressful times and that have had incredible demands on them—not just the workload demand but the human and emotional demands that are carried by those people, who, on behalf of the people of Australia, are at the front lines trying to help those most in need. People who work at Centrelink and people who work at Services Australia are people who are doing their absolute best to try to help, so I want to thank them.

As I said, I've got some great Centrelink offices in my electorate. I've got a number of people who live in my electorate who work in public services, and there are more who don't live in my electorate but come and work in my electorate. To all of them: thank you for everything you have done during these extraordinary months that has led up to today. Thank you so much for the work that you have put in. We know your jobs are rewarding, but we know that they're tough, and we are very grateful to you.

We were very happy back in March when the government announced that they were going to engage 5,000 additional new workers to help move through the demand on Services Australia, but it also bore stating at the time and bears repeating now that this is almost exactly the number that this government—the Morrison government and the Liberal-National government—over its time in office had cut from frontline services over the previous six years prior to that date. We're now in our third term of a Liberal-National government in this country. This is a government that has consistently cut public sector staff, and we see the consequences of that when the rubber really hits the road. We've seen the consequences of it this year. In my portfolio of environment, we've seen the consequences of the cuts to public sector staffing through the massive delays, noncompliance and errors that the Audit Office found in the environment department in relation to decision-making under environmental laws—a 510 per cent increase in approval delays, 79 per cent of decisions affected by error or otherwise non-compliant and 95 per cent of key decisions being made outside the statutory time frames in the 2018-19 fiscal year. So we see the consequences of public sector job cuts.

We as a nation are now reaping what the Liberal-National government has sown over now more than seven years in office. And given the series of crises that we've faced in the past 12 months alone—I've talked about the bushfires, I've talked about the pandemic and I've talked about the recession, but of course there's more: there was the drought, and in some parts of the country there were floods—I hope that the government, in reflecting on the way those crises have been managed, will reflect on the value of employed public sector workers who can do a lot to relieve the suffering, the stress and the problems faced by Australians. And I hope they will reflect on the impact their cuts over many years have had.

One thing that should be considered and that clearly needs to be addressed is the situation that has arisen because of the arbitrary staffing cap placed on Services Australia, along with the rest of the Public Service. It is really important that this government faces up to the difficulties that have been caused by their smaller-government agenda, as they have previously called it. What they really mean when they say that—it's just code for cutting jobs and cutting services. Australians are sick of it. They've seen the consequences of it and they don't want to see it anymore. And, as I said, I certainly hope this government will reflect on the consequences of their actions for Australians, both in my electorate and across the country.

I'd like to see the government really reflecting on the consequences of outsourcing, where you have a worker next to another worker or two workers potentially doing the same job for different pay and conditions, and the impact on workloads of artificially low and constrained numbers of workers in these services. I'd like the government to consider all those impacts and, more broadly, I'd like them to consider the stories I have read out here in my contribution—the stories that were provided to me, unsolicited, by people in my electorate who were terrified and distressed, who needed help and didn't know where else to turn.

I'd like the government to think about those stories being replicated suburb by suburb, electorate by electorate, across this entire country—the distress that people have felt. I'd like them to think about that now in the context of the fact that we have nearly a million Australians unemployed, with the government expecting more than 160,000 more before Christmas. They need to reflect on the quality of public services and the importance of proper funding in this country. So, while I support the bill, it is important that we do make those comments in respect of the public service provision and the people on the front line who are responsible for it.