Services Australia

 I rise today to speak on the Services Australia Governance Amendment Bill 2020. This bill sets out the proposed framework for the newly established executive agency, Services Australia, to replace the now abolished department of human services. I don't think anybody on this side of the House is surprised that this government is stripping humanity out of government services.

Labor supports modifications to public sector governance structures that lead to good outcomes for employees and the Australians who rely on those services. However, this bill fails to address the core issue at the centre of Services Australia's problems, and that is the arbitrary staffing cap imposed across the Australian Public Service by the Liberal government. The staffing cap is both nonsensical and counterproductive. Supposedly introduced to drive efficiencies on the delivery of services, it has instead resulted in a dramatic deterioration of service delivery and a massive cost blowout in the use of consultancies. Consultancies are scooping up hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money and creaming off their lucrative fees along the way as backdoor starting operations.

Services Australia staff help Australians in their moments of greatest need. These hardworking, and indeed overworked, staff provide financial relief to those unable to work, to older Australians, to carers and to people with disability. They assist people in finding counselling and social work services. They help jobseekers find meaningful occupations or prepare them to re-enter the workplace. More than 70,000 Tasmanians receive the age pension, 1,000 are carers and almost 4,000 students receive some form of income support. All require interaction with Services Australia to varying degrees, not to mention the tens of thousands receiving JobSeeker.

The important work done by Services Australia has never been more obvious than in the first six months of this year, with staff managing a remarkable workload from dealing with the bushfire response in January to managing the surge in new applicants for JobSeeker that arose in March as a result of COVID-19. From March to June, the staff at Services Australia processed around 800,000 new claims for JobSeeker. That's the number they would normally process in two years. It was an incredible feat. They went above and beyond to help their fellow Australians, and I never again want to hear derision from those opposite about the value and importance of public sector workers. These people turn up to work every day and slog their guts out to ensure their fellow Australians can receive the assistance they require in their hour of need.

Labor did welcome the government's announcement on 22 March to engage 5,000 additional new workers to help manage the extra demand. But 5,000 happens to coincide almost exactly with the number of people the Liberal government have cut from the front line since 2013. There are currently 1.45 million Australians on JobSeeker and another 160,000 are expected to join them by Christmas. The job for Services Australia is not getting easier any time soon.

The only way to ensure that Services Australia, and indeed the public sector as a whole, can meet the demands placed upon them is to remove the arbitrary staffing cap. Since coming to power, the Liberals have cut nearly 19,000 jobs from the Australian Public Service and capped staffing levels at around or below 2006-07 levels, but it's not like it has led to any savings. Government jobs have become outsourced agency jobs that cost taxpayers more but pay staff less. It's a false economy for everyone except the consultancies that are creaming off hundreds of millions of dollars in fees from the taxpayer. It is mind-bogglingly stupid from both a hard-headed economic point of view and a bleeding heart point of view.

In Tasmania, more than 600 federal Public Service jobs have been lost since 2013. In the 2018-19 financial year alone, Tasmania lost 158 Centrelink and Medicare jobs. The Department of Health workforce shrank by 30 per cent, the Department of Veterans' Affairs workforce by 23 per cent and the Bureau of Meteorology workforce by nine per cent. We've lost AFP officers and agents, and Tuesday's budget made it clear that there's no plan to bring them back. As an aside: if the Prime Minister is serious about creating jobs in the regions—and we've heard from the Deputy Prime Minister today about regions—then how about re-creating Australian Public Service agencies in regional cities and regional towns, reopening the offices and staffing the counters? How many older Australians who live in the regions have to go online and try to navigate nearly nonsensical websites? They just can't make sense of them, and, when they phone up trying to get advice, they're on hold for hours.

Imagine what it would be like in regional cities and regional towns if you could go into a Centrelink office, a Medicare office or a department of ageing office and actually have human beings at the counter who are trained and ready, willing and able to help people in regional cities and regional towns to get the services they deserve. Right there are some job ideas for the government. With these cuts that we've experienced in Tasmania, it's not as though demand for these services was dropping off. These were busy people. They had work to do. Now that they're gone, those who have been left behind have even more to do. Is it any wonder that it takes so much time for a call to be answered?

In August 2019 the Senate referred to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee an inquiry into the impact of changes to service delivery models on the administration and running of government programs. In its report the committee called for the average staffing level cap to be abolished, calling it an 'inflexible and arbitrary imposition' and noting that outsourcing government services is an activity 'fraught with risk'. The committee also argued that privatisation leads to 'a loss of capability in the Public Service, potentially throwing away decades of knowledge and expertise'. The report also reflected industry and union concerns about how outsourcing affects staff, as those working for private entities are often casualised or on contracts, are paid less and have worse conditions than permanent employees. I might also mention here that the committee recommended that the Morrison government scrap its plan to privatise Australia's visa system and instead look for an in-house solution within the Department of Home Affairs.

I support the calls from the Community and Public Sector Union to scrap the cap. Staffing cuts and caps mean that, regardless of how much work needs to be done, agencies have been forced to arbitrarily limit their permanent staff. They can either squeeze their remaining staff as hard as they can in order to drive productivity beyond human capability or they can find a backdoor way to put more people on. Most senior managers and executives try option A. They try to squeeze their staff before surrendering to the reality that staff can only do so much and that they need option B: more people. But the staffing caps mean they need to hire consultancies, who then provide the staff to do the same jobs that public sector staff used to do. The private staff are paid less. For instance, they get 9½ per cent superannuation, not the 15.4 per cent that Commonwealth public servants get. And the consultancy owners—and this is the real rub—become millionaires from the fees they earn, and that is no exaggeration.

So staff are paid less, the public gets a worse service, it's more expensive to the taxpayer and the consultancy owners are millionaires. It's no wonder that under this government labour hire and the contracting out of public sector work has ballooned. If it were less expensive and led to better service then you might think: 'Okay; what's wrong with that? Maybe they've got a good idea. Maybe we need to rethink the model.' But it's more expensive, and service is worse. Nobody wins except the consultants, who become millionaires.

New analysis by the Australian National Audit Office has found that the big four consultancy firms—Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PwC—now collectively reap $800 million a year in government contracts. Around $160 million of that is on genuine consultancy; the rest is simply on providing outsourced staff to do jobs. It would be cheaper to employ permanent staff in the APS, but that's against the government's staffing cap. It is a farcical way to run a government. A review by former Telstra CEO David Thodey recently found the use of external contractors and consultants to deliver work previously done in house was a key factor behind the decline in the capability of the APS. Well, blow me down with a feather!

Too many phone calls to Services Australia go unanswered every year, and Australians waste far too much time on hold trying to access Centrelink services, causing great unnecessary distress. In the fortnight from 23 March, for example, instead of speaking to a person who could help them, callers to Services Australia were met with 6.5 million busy signals, two million congestion messages and 1.5 million unanswered calls, with an average call wait time of more than 40 minutes. It's a disgrace. The CPSU tells us that 1.5 million calls unanswered is business as usual. This is not about the pandemic. This is not, 'Gee, we didn't see the pandemic coming; everything's gone to rubbish.' This is business as usual under this government. It is symptomatic of the Liberals' incompetence in government at every level. Far and away the majority of constituent inquiries to my electorate office are in regard to the delays in the processing of Centrelink claims, and I'm sure the same could be said for many of my colleagues. We are, in effect, an outsourced office of Centrelink. This government has denuded staffing at Centrelink to such an extent that people are coming to their federal MPs seeking assistance from us.

A few months ago I had a call from Jo, who lives in the town of Broadmarsh in my electorate. Jo had lodged a claim for JobSeeker in January. Illness had prevented her from working since the end of last year and she was fast using up her savings on day-to-day living expenses. Despite many calls and visits to the local Centrelink service centre, Jo's claim had not been processed by the time she contacted my office in May. Our wonderful Centrelink liaison contact was able to get Jo's claim processed within a day or two of us contacting them. But it should not take intervention from a federal MP for a claim to be seen to. Five months for a claim to be processed is just outrageous. This is a woman who was out of work, using up all her savings over five months. She was worried. How was she going to pay her bills? How was she going to put food on the table? Five months without income—it's an absolute disgrace. I know it's no fault of the staff within Centrelink. They are exhausted. They are working beyond human measure. Jo's story is by no means a one-off. It is commonplace for my office to assist constituents who are owed thousands of dollars in back pay because of the long delays in processing their claims.

Robodebt—I don't even know where to start. I've only got two minutes; I need another 20 minutes. This government and this minister wrongfully, illegally raised more than 470,000 debts against Australians, primarily against low-income earners. That's the legacy of this government—robodebt. I can't even begin to imagine a government wilfully, as the evidence is now emerging, and knowingly raising debts against Australians that the government knew they didn't owe. The government actually knew these people did not owe the government money and yet told them to pay up anyway. I know what that's called out in the real world. That's called theft; it's called stealing; it's called extortion. It's an absolute disgrace. Yet the minister behind it continues to sit on the front bench alongside his compatriot, Minister Tudge, who's been found by the Federal Court to have behaved criminally. How is the man still in cabinet?

The Federal Court has found a minister of the Crown to have acted criminally. You're looking at me quizzically, over there, barrister Deputy Speaker, but that's what the Federal Court said.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Wallace ): You're sailing very close to the wind—very close to the wind.

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: I'll conclude on that remark. But that's what the Federal Court found.

A government member interjecting

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: It's not an allegation. It's a finding by a Federal Court judge; it's not commentary. So robodebt under this minister—

A government member interjecting

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: Wouldn't be hard to find comments, mate.

A government member interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order!

A government member interjecting

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: You go and look at the court finding. Look at the court finding.

A government member interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order!

A government member interjecting

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: You go and look at the court finding: criminal.

A government member interjecting

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: So this Prime Minister—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The honourable member's time has expired, at the appropriate time. The question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.