BILL SHORTEN MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR THE NATIONAL DISABILITY INSURANCE SCHEME
SHADOW MINISTER FOR GOVERNMENT SERVICES
MEMBER FOR MARIBYRNONG
ALICIA PAYNE MP
MEMBER FOR CANBERRA
THURSDAY, 21 OCTOBER 2021
SUBJECT: Morrison Government’s continued attacks on access to Centrelink services.
ALICIA PAYNE, MEMBER FOR CANBERRA: Good morning. I'm Alicia Payne, the Member for Canberra, and we're here today at Braddon Centrelink, and I'm thrilled to have Bill Shorten, our Shadow Minister for Government Services here today because like me and so many Canberrans, he is really concerned about the closure of this service. We've also got Judith, Rebecca and Lorenzo who use this service, who've come here today to talk about why it is so important. We only found out that the Government was considering closing this service from an ad for the office space that popped up on Facebook. There has been no consultation, and then this week the Government have confirmed that they will close this service in December, and they will not be replacing it with another one in central Canberra. This is the only Centrelink service shopfront in central Canberra. The inner north and the inner south will be without this service. This is just indicative of the Government's contempt for people who access Centrelink and our Social Security system more generally, and their contempt for Canberra. They don't feel that they need to deliver these services properly. Of course, more people are using online services, but not everyone can, and they know that. Also, Centrelink's own rules require many people to come into the shop front, in order to access their services. Last year, when the pandemic broke, we saw long lines down the street of people trying to access this Centrelink, and it is just unthinkable that the Government would close it while we are still in this pandemic. Many Canberrans access this service. Vulnerable Canberrans, homeless people, pensioners, jobseekers, students, and carers, and many of them have written to me to tell me just how important this service is. I've started a petition and already over 1300 Canberrans have signed this, and I would encourage more to go to my website and sign my petition so we can let the Government know just how much we need our Centrelink, and that we will not accept a Government that will not deliver the services that Canberrans need. And I'll hand over to Bill to talk further. Thank you.
BILL SHORTEN, MEMBER FOR MARIBYRNONG: Good morning everybody, and thank you, Alicia Payne. The Morrison Government is running a stealth campaign against the vulnerable, the poor and the needy of Australia. They are quietly closing Centrelink shopfronts all around Australia. We've seen the argument to try and keep the Mornington Centrelink open. We've seen the question mark over the future of the Abbotsford Centrelink. At Benalla, at Tweed Heads, at Newcastle, this Government is quietly closing down the outward facing Centrelink offices and now we see it Braddon in the centre of Canberra, that this shop where people, vulnerable people, need support will not be available. This Government wants you to believe in a fairy tale of the digital age. That miraculously everyone has a smartphone, that miraculously no one ever needs to see another human when you deal with Centrelink. This is the slippery slide into Robodebt 2.0. The Government knows that if they close the Centrelink offices around Australia, what it will mean is that some people will just miss out. That the safety net will have bigger and bigger gaps and holes in it. And that is why we say to the Government, Stop closing Centrelink, hands off Centrelink. When you combine the closure of Centrelink offices with the rampant outsourcing of jobs, the reliance upon boiler rooms of temporary labour hire workers unfamiliar with the Centrelink system, when we realise that they're not replacing jobs in Centrelink, this Government is planning to fund its debt crisis off the backs of fewer services to vulnerable Australians. Now we're going to hear from some of those Australians who rely upon Centrelink, and I will just get Alicia to introduce you to them.
PAYNE: Did you want to go first Judith? This is Judith, this service is really important to her, and she's come down today to talk about that. Thank you, Judith.
JUDITH, CONSTITUENT: Thanks so much, Alicia. I’m actually really distressed that this Centrelink is closing. I'm an old age pensioner, I rely on face-to-face contact with Centrelink to make sure that my payments, not much, but my payments to my Medicare are able to be paid because I've got a vision impairment, so I cannot - well, I'm not technologically challenged, but I am visually challenged. And I cannot negotiate or navigate my way through a complex database that has aspects to it, that if I just make one mistake, I've lost my pension. I haven't got my Medicare rebates and I absolutely rely on those; you know? I don't have private health care, so - I can't afford private healthcare. So, I rely on face-to-face contact, to make sure that I can just get through. And it’s just so distressing that this Centrelink is going to close. I’m going to have to go all the way to Gungahlin, take the whole day and get there and get back there. It's just unbelievable that the Government can tread on the people who really depend on these kinds of face-to-face services. And it doesn’t show any respect even, for the people who work, the kind of service, the fabulous that they give. I just find it very distressing.
PAYNE: Thanks very much, Judith. This is Lorenzo. He's a student at ANU, and he also uses this service.
LORENZO, CONSTITUENT: Well, I'm a student. I live in the inner north and there are many more like me. This service is clearly the most accessible for all of us who live in the inner north. My story, I think, tells the reason why we need to have some sort of shopfront open. I became ill a year ago and I couldn't continue my full-time study, and as a result of the complications that arose from that, I had to go into the Centrelink shopfront to get all the logistics sorted out for my illness. Without that shopfront, the process would have been infinitely more complicated. [illegible] of my claims, I got almost $1000 back pay after visiting the Centrelink shopfront in response to their inquiries. I couldn’t sort it over the phone, I couldn't sort it out via the online portal, it was just too complicated and too unique a circumstance. It's unbelievable that the Government Is going to leave central Canberra without Centrelink shopfront. They just don't care about us.
PAYNE: Thanks very much, Lorenzo. And this is Rebecca, who is a carer for her mother, and this office is really important to her as well.
REBECCA, CONSTITUENT: Hi, my name is Rebecca, I am currently a carer for my Mum, Charlotte, who has dementia. So, obviously my Mum, with dementia, can’t do any of the paperwork or any of the forms that are required by Centrelink, so I need to do that and fill in the paperwork, around working full time. At the moment, I can come into this office in my lunch break, which is convenient, sometimes quite a long wait, but possible. Once this centre closes, then I'll need to take time out of my working day to go and find an office at Woden or Gungahlin, which also means I need to drive into town to park and then be able to get out, so there's another hour or so of my day. The system is antiquated at best. It’s all paper-based forms, so there's really not an option, despite what they’re saying, to go through these forms online. And every time I have to do a paper form, not only do I have to go into a Centrelink, I also have to visit a GP, and pay for a visit, for her to read a form again, that my Mum has dementia. So, the forms need to be updated, it needs to be online, and it needs to be efficient – and still have a shopfront that people are able to access and seek the help they need. The other thing that's also problematic is every time I come in, my power of attorney form is off the system, so I have to always come back in with all my paperwork on hand, printed and ready to go so that I can prove that I can act on behalf of my Mum. I'm lucky, I've got the ability to do that. I'm tech savvy. I have access to the printers and not everyone else does. So, the shopfront needs to remain open so it can serve the people who need it most.
SHORTEN: Thanks very much. Happy to take any questions on this or any other matters.
JOURNALIST: Moving forward, you know, it's been going on for months now. No change from the Government, what do you think could possibly be the tipping point to save this shopfront?
SHORTEN: The only way to save Centrelink is to change the Government. This is a Government who has an insatiable appetite to keep cutting services. They've contracted out a lot of the full-time jobs. They're constantly in a tug of war with the community about closing shopfronts. This Government can't be trusted to administer the safety net of Australians. Centrelink provides services which are fundamental to people's dignity and livelihoods, administering the pensions, making sure that people who are down on their luck can get a bit of support. Not everything can be done online. Not everyone has access, equal access, to the digital world. Sometimes you just need a human contact to sort problems out. So, we want to put the human back into human services in Australia.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, part of the COP26 summit that is next week is going to be focusing on 2030 emissions reduction target, you took a 45 per cent target to the last election. Should that be revised, were you right to take such a hard target to the last election?
SHORTEN: Well, first of all, Mr Morrison, I think, needs to come clean on his plans. You can see the fingernail marks in the marble at the foyer of Parliament as the Government is dragged to admitting the climate change is a problem. I actually think it's not just about the last election, but for 10 years, everyday Australians have wanted to see action on climate and this Government has demonised action on climate change. Now it's got a problem. There's a proportion of the voters it so scared about climate change; it can't climb down from its own fear campaign. Labor will announce its 2030 targets well before the next election. The next move is squarely in the Government's court. What they need to do is to go to Glasgow and they need to spell out what they think Australia should be doing. The Government's been, you know, ducking and weaving this issue forever and a day. It's now time for them to make the next move and demonstrate leadership, rather than just trying to weaponize the politics of climate.
JOURNALIST: But should Labor be considering a 45 per cent target even given what other countries around the world are pushing for, 50% reductions? Should the 45% be back on the table?
SHORTEN: There's competing views. It would have been easier to take a mid-term target three years ago - a higher mid-term target, but we've now lost three years. Let's see what the Government says, and I can guarantee you Labor will put out its policies well before the next election due in May of next year.
JOURNALIST: Will it be higher than what the Government is proposing?
SHORTEN: Well, let's wait and see. I mean, this is a Government who is intrinsically lazy at their core. They just want to play political games on climate change. The truth of the matter is that there are jobs to be created by taking action on climate. If we can get lower cost energy into our system, it makes it cheaper to make things in Australia. It puts downward pressure on the consumer cost of living. Now, I think what we need to do is to reassure Australians living in the regions who are concerned about climate policy, that good climate policy is good jobs policy, is good cost of living policy, and it's good for the future.
JOURNALIST: So, was 45% the right target, but just at the wrong time?
SHORTEN: Well, we took our policy to the last election. Some people liked it, others didn't. I think what we have to do is move climate change from the weaponised political partisan area into agreement about the future of the nation. It's too important for the Government to keep playing games. I think it is interesting that since the last election, the Business Council has now moved. I think it is interesting that the government is now talking about climate change in a way that they haven't before. But it just makes me shake my head and realise that Australia's wasted 10 years and we're further behind the rest of the world and the investment benefits, the job benefits, of taking action on climate than if we had acted ten years ago.
JOURNALIST: That sounds like you’re saying you were right to have that target?
SHORTEN: Oh, it sounds like I'm saying that the ball's in the Government's court, over to you, Mr Morrison. That's what you're paid to do. That's why you get the big bucks, start leading son.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, the Greens are talking up the prospect of a hung parliament, potentially a coalition with Labor. They've named some aspects of their policies such as renegotiating the AUKUS deal, reducing defence spending, would you be happy to be in a coalition of that sort and what do you make of those policies?
SHORTEN: I’ve seen somewhere that the Greens are proposing to cut our defence budget in half. That's just bonkers. Australia spends about $44 billion on our defence budget. For the Greens to say, let's cut it in half, well, why don't the Greens tell China to cut their defence budget and half? China spends nearly $300 billion a year. What's the Greens policy on defence? One rifle for every two soldiers? That they can only take the ships out between nine and five? Like, no one wants a conflict in our region. But the fact that the Greens policy is buy a white bed sheet and wave it around and hope that the rest of the world will respect the Greens policy? No. And so therefore, you can be very clear, and Labor's been very clear. We're not interested in a coalition with the Greens. And mind you, you see the perils of a coalition watching the Liberals and Nationals right now, they're a mess. But no, the Greens are - they know that they'll never form a Government, so therefore they can come up with these fairies at the bottom of the garden policies on defence. And frankly, it's as dangerous as it is unlikely to ever take place.
JOURNALIST: You talk about the Liberals and National being a mess, IBAC is looking at the Victorian Labor Party so is it a mess?
SHORTEN: Well, the IBAC revelations are shocking and they're incredibly disappointing. But it seems to me that it underlines the need for an Anti-Corruption Commission. What I thought looked really messy, to be honest, was the antics in the parliament yesterday afternoon. You've got Christian Porter, who was the chief law officer of Australia, not able to say where a million dollars came from. You can't give a million dollars anonymously to a politician without people saying, Well, where did the money come from? All he had to do was disclose where it came from. So, I think we need an Anti-Corruption Commission. I spoke about it at the National Press Club in January of 2018. The Liberals have dragged their feet. They've come up with every excuse from the dog ate their homework, they've kicked it around, they never seem to have a good answer. And last night in Parliament, we saw the very unedifying spectacle where they're now running a protection racket for their own dodgy behaviour.
JOURNALIST: But on the other hand, you’ve got Anthony Byrne, a Federal Labor MP who has admitted to branch against party rules, and he’s still a member of the caucus.
SHORTEN: Well, he's no longer a member of the PJCIS, that's the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. I understand that he's also stepped down from the Privileges Committee. As Anthony Albanese has said, we'll see where the IBAC proceedings go.
JOURNALIST: Have you spoken to Anthony Byrne since the revelations?
SHORTEN: I've reached out to him. No, no, I've just reached out to him, that's all, but I don't speak to him about the evidence he's given.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, Fran Kelly is leaving RN Breakfast, she’s announced. Any word on that departure?
SHORTEN: Oh, I hadn't heard that Fran was going. Fran – well, I wish her well and I thank her. For a lot of Australians on Radio National, she's been the voice that people have woken up with to find out what's happening in the nation. Fran has never sought to cut the cloth of her opinion to suit the fashion of the day, and it just - I think she's been an ABC journalist in the finest tradition of our public broadcaster.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, Melbourne ends its lockdown tonight. It seems to have gone forever and a day for the people down there. But you have this strange situation where there will be a curfew in place until midnight. If you want to go to regional Victoria, you can, but if you go via Sydney. Have the rules gone a bit mad down there?
SHORTEN: I think the health rules around Australia have occasionally been incredibly clunky, haven't they? I mean, the fact that it's easier for a person from Melbourne or Sydney to go to Fiji than other parts of Australia, I think is ludicrous. Listen, Australians have had to try and deal with the fact that we're a Federation. We've had eight different sets of state and territory health rules. We've had the Federal Government with their dilettante attitude to vaccine rollout and everything in between. You know, moving around, I think that it's been clunky, the experience. It's been difficult, the experience. I'm just pleased that small businesses will be able to open up. I'm pleased that people will be able to have visitors over to their own home. I'm pleased that my daughter, for instance, can start school again tomorrow after a long absence. I don't think it's been perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but we're headed in the right direction. And I think that Melburnians, you know, we also have hook turns in Melbourne where you don't actually just turn from one lane into the other, you've got to go left to go right and all of this. So that's the great thing of federation, isn't it? We sometimes do things a bit differently.
JOURNALIST: So Victorian Health has been a bit like a hook turn then in some cases?
SHORTEN: I’ll take that as a comment.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, people and organisations everywhere during the pandemic have had to go online. Isn’t it natural that Centrelink will also follow that same pattern?
SHORTEN: Digitisation of our Government Services, like digitisation is so much in society, has got some real positive benefits. Of course, it has. But let's not kid ourselves. Not everyone in Australia has a smartphone. Sometimes there are problems which need to be sorted out face-to-face. The advent of digitisation of services should not be an excuse to cut costs. It should not be an excuse to decrease the quality of service. The fact of the matter is that sometimes there are problems where you need to deal with a person, not a portal. The fact of the matter is that sometimes there are complexities in the paperwork which mean that you can't just simply resolve it online. What we have to do is remember that services to consumers, public sector and private sector, should be layered. Sure, use the digital online system where you can, but there needs to be a back-up, a human face of it all. I mean, I've seen what's happened when we've just relied on digital services. It's called Robodebt. I say that the Morrison Government is creating a digital poorhouse for Australians who need Centrelink. They know that some people will simply miss out if we move to digital services and we take out the human element of Centrelink. Centrelink has a very proud tradition of really skilled, trained, professional, full time public servants delivering quality service, helping people with the rights they're entitled to as Australian citizens. This Government doesn't respect the people who use Centrelink. They think that everything is just an online transaction. They've taken the human out of Human Services, and I don't think the Government really cares if people give up or we're out or get frustrated or develop, you know, a whole lot of problems, because this is a Government who's out of touch with how people live their lives.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, would a Labor Government reopen this and any other Centrelink office that’s closed?
SHORTEN: Well, let's try and stop them getting closed. First of all, let's just stop them.
JOURNALIST: But would you reopen them?
SHORTEN: I think that we've got to make sure that we stop the pattern of closures. So, let's see how we go making sure that Braddon doesn't shut. But there's no doubt in my mind that a Labor Government will run a safety net for people, so that people get basic, decent, courteous treatment from the Government. Thanks. Are we nearly finished?
JOURNALIST: This shopfront is set to close in December. We might not have an election until May. It sounds like the fight’s over, that you guys won’t be able to save it?
SHORTEN: I'm going to get Alicia to add to this but let me let you into a little secret about the Morrison Government. When they're confronted with the will of the people, they turn to jelly. This is a Government who doesn't have the stomach for the fight when we catch them out. They said that we'd never win on Robodebt, and $2 billion later people have had their money restored, hundreds of thousands of people. I just say to Australians who feel that this Morrison Government is invincible, they're not. I actually think this Government is quite a cowardly Government. And when you have the outcry of ordinary people, this Government does back down. We've seen that most recently in the NDIS, where the Government was going to cut the benefits for hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities. People power forced the Government to do a U-turn. So, this fight is not over until it's over and we're going to keep going to keep Centrelink operating all around Australia. And as we get closer to an election, this Government will, in my opinion, turn to jelly and back down on some of their meaner cuts. But Alicia can talk a bit more.
PAYNE: Sorry, what was the question?
JOURNALIST: The question was this shopfront set to close in December, we might not have an election until May - but Mr Shorten says the best way to save Centrelink is through voting. Is there anything that's going to be done or any talks that we might see that would save it?
PAYNE: Yeah, so I started a petition. We've already had over 1300 Canberrans sign that, and I'd encourage more to sign that because we really need to give our voice to the Government to show them how important this service is for Canberrans in the inner north and inner south. I'd also encourage people to write to Zed Seselja. He did say he would look into this, either that hasn't worked, or he didn't do it, it’s important for people to write to him and directly to the Minister to remind them that people use this service. Actual people, who want to come in and have an actual face-to-face conversation with a person to sort out their payments, which in many cases are incredibly complex and need that to happen.
JOURNALIST: Aside from a petition though, is there anything that we might see done or any talks planned with Federal Ministers that might, you know, get the ball rolling.
PAYNE: Well, we have been talking, you know, I have been advocating for this site to remain open very strongly. I've written several times to Minister Reynolds about this and have obviously been talking to Bill about it. Bill's come here today because he cares about Centrelink providing the services that Australians need in a proper way. And as he said, a Labor government would deliver a safety net properly, because we value it. That's part of our values, that government has a role in delivering the services that people need. The current Government, the Liberal-Nationals, don't have those same values.
SHORTEN: All right, thanks everybody. Thanks very much, guys.
ANTONIA MAGEE (SHORTEN) 0409 339 989
MICHAEL INMAN (PAYNE) 0415 955 078