Jan 13, 2017

Do MPs really know what it is like to deal with Centrelink?

We asked all MPs and senators whether they had ever interacted with Centrelink. Many Labor and Greens members gave us interesting answers -- and we got bupkis from the Coalition.

Sally Whyte — Political reporter

Sally Whyte

Political reporter

“I know call wait times at Centrelink can be long at times, the average call wait time at present is about 12 minutes. Obviously that’s an average, it means sometimes it’s shorter, sometimes it’s longer. People can also go to a Centrelink office and typically they’ll be able to see a person in person in 10 minutes.” -- Minister Alan Tudge on RN Breakfast, January 11, 2017
You would be forgiven for choking on your Weetbix while listening to Human Services Minister Alan Tudge telling the ABC that waiting on hold to talk to someone at Centrelink can be long "at times" and that it is possible to see a Centrelink staff member within 10 minutes. Especially now it has been revealed that front-line Centrelink staff have been explicitly told not to deal with disputed debts from the government's automated data-matching system. Tudge's comments sounded like they came from someone who had not blocked out hours of his day to have a conversation that lasted 10 minutes, or to just hand in a form to go on file. Anecdotal reports show that people are calling Centrelink hundreds of times, getting cut off and spending hours on hold. Studies show that in the 2014-15 financial year more than 22 million calls went unanswered. Centrelink doesn't just deal with the unemployed; it helps students, people on age pensions, those receiving family tax benefits and carers' payments, and those using the government's maternity leave program, so it's likely that most people have dealt with the agency in their lives, or someone in their immediate family has. When I was a student, I received Youth Allowance and learned the trick with making a call to Centrelink was to get on the phone right on 8.30 in the morning as the lines opened -- but it would still involve waiting half an hour. The longest wait time I experienced was more than two and a half hours, when I called in the middle of the day. Does Tudge know what that's like? I wanted to know if he, or any MP had experienced what this was like, when they are making policies assuming letters from Centrelink are polite and not threatening, and that getting through to the right person to dispute your debt is possible within a 12-minute wait time. So we asked every single member and senator if they had experiences with Centrelink and received some interesting responses -- and a stone wall of silence from Coalition MPs. We called Tudge's office multiple times to get comment from the minister, but we received no comment. I asked MPs the following questions:
  • Have you ever claimed a Centrelink benefit?
  • If so, are you comfortable sharing any details about that?
  • If so, did you find dealing with Centrelink a simple and straightforward process?
  • Do you believe the widely reported difficulties with dealing with Centrelink are acceptable?
Some answered with general statements, some answered the questions as asked. Linda Burney, Labor MP and opposition human services spokesperson:
"The Minister’s claims do not  represent the experiences of those who contact our electorate offices every day, they are frustrated and sometimes distraught.”  Yesterday for example the phone line dedicated to Newstart Allowance recipients was unavailable when my office tested it. It is not uncommon for this to occur across the system and even when constituents are able to speak directly with someone at Centrelink the issue often cannot be resolved for a variety of reasons, including a lack of suitably qualified staff.”  There is no question that the Centrelink system can be difficult to access, particularly as the government continues to withdraw services from shopfronts and direct clients to an imperfect online system.”  Clearly Mr Tudge is totally out of touch with the realities of the system he is supposed to oversee.”
Greens Senator Janet Rice:
"I last personally dealt with Centrelink when the kids were at Childcare, so 20 or so years ago, when we received childcare rebates. Even then I was glad to see the back of them -- the system is set up to make it as difficult as possible and so to discourage people from receiving benefits.  I was on the dole for about 4 months in 1983. as to whether the situation is acceptable -- it's verging on illegal!"
Labor MP Terri Butler:
"I interacted with Centrelink as a student a hundred years ago, but that's not much use to you. My dad had a year off with cancer ten years ago. My parents had to refinance the house and dad didn't have an income the whole time. So mum and dad did a bit of interacting with Centrelink during that year. They didn't enjoy it. They were already stressed out as dad was on chemo the whole time and very sick."
Labor MP Anne Aly:
Have you ever claimed a Centrelink benefit? Yes. Single Parent Pension when my first marriage broke down. If so, are you comfortable sharing any details about that? Yes If so, did you find dealing with Centrelink a simple and straightforward process? No. Absolutely not. This was a long time ago and from what I am hearing now from people in the community, it is even worse now. It is a very difficult process to navigate and adds needless stress on people who are already doing it tough. Having been through the process myself, I know that most people are there because they have no other choice. They don’t want to take welfare but they find themselves in situations they have no control over and they need to access the system. That is what the system is there for. If I could not have accessed Centrelink payments when I left my husband with a toddler and a baby all those years ago, we would have been left homeless, hungry and destitute. I hadn’t planned on getting a divorce at the age of 25 with a three year old and one year old. I hadn’t planned on having to rely on welfare to feed my kids. I’m grateful that I was able to but I know that there are a lot of people who are not able to because the system is just too complicated. Do you believe the widely reported difficulties with dealing with Centrelink are acceptable? No. They are not acceptable. Centrelink is a service and Staff should be equipped with and provided with everything they need to be able to provide a first class service. This government has decimated Centrelink with cuts to staff. With so many cuts to services, it’s no wonder that Centrelink staff are falling behind in delivering services. It’s not the fault of the staff, it’s the fault of this Government that keeps slashing public services and then blaming Australians for being on welfare in the first place or simply dismissing reports about service difficulties. It’s not acceptable and frankly if the Government wants to call Australians who have fallen on hard times “leaners” and if they want to tell us all to “live within our means”, then they better be prepared to do the same and stop leaning on tax payers and claiming travel allowances so they can satisfy their “whim”.
Labor MP Julian Hill:
"In terms of my personal experience I did have some stuff maybe 7 years ago when my mum was dying. Had to deal with her things. They were very good back then -- human beings who called in reasonable times and could be found and fix things. I feel really sorry for the staff there who are decent values driven people generally working under appalling conditions. "The debt recovery debacle is appalling. I have constituents being sent to debt collectors who have done nothing wrong. They provide evidence to Centrelink which is not looked at as they are understaffed. And they are being pursued for money they don't owe or understand."
Labor MP Brian Mitchell:
Have you ever claimed a Centrelink benefit? Other than family benefit payments, no. (No newstart, pension, etc) If so, are you comfortable sharing any details about that? Not applicable If so, did you find dealing with Centrelink a simple and straightforward process? Not applicable Do you believe the widely reported difficulties with dealing with Centrelink are acceptable? No they are not acceptable.
Labor Senator Katy Gallacher:
"Short answer is yes -- when I was a single mother and yes I found them very professional to deal with."
Labor MP Justine Keay:
Have you ever claimed a Centrelink benefit? Yes If so, are you comfortable sharing any details about that? Baby bonus, Austudy, Newstart If so, did you find dealing with Centrelink a simple and straightforward process? Not all interactions were simple, and information not always simple to understand. Wait times on phone and at centre were long, frustrating. Do you believe the widely reported difficulties with dealing with Centrelink are acceptable? Absolutely not. Clearly Centrelink is under-resourced and puts far too much stress on current staff and the public
Labor MP Susan Lamb:
Have you ever claimed a Centrelink benefit? Yes. As the mother of four boys I was supported by Centrelink. As was my father through a pension. As was my sister who raised her children while working full-time.   If so, are you comfortable sharing any details about that? Limited.  If so, did you find dealing with Centrelink a simple and straightforward process? I believe that the staff at Centrelink do a good job navigating the complex Human Services systems. Do you believe the widely reported difficulties with dealing with Centrelink are acceptable? Absolutely not. I represent an electorate that has the 3rd highest suicide rate in the country. The unjust treatment of those who may already be vulnerable is not just unfair and unacceptable, it is downright dangerous.
Nick Xenophon Team MP Rebekha Sharkie:
Have you ever claimed a Centrelink benefit? Yes. I was a single parent for many years and while I worked full time for most of that period, I could not have afforded to support my then young children without the assistance of Family Tax parts A & B. If so, are you comfortable sharing any details about that? Sure. I was a single parent from 2008 to 2013, and had 3 children aged then between 9 and 4 (in 2008). If so, did you find dealing with Centrelink a simple and straightforward process? Even back then the wait times were so long and if you didn’t have a landline you could use up your credit very quickly. In those years there wasn’t the online access, however, I hear from many constituents that they have a number of difficulties connecting with the online portal, particularly if they do not have fast internet. Do you believe the widely reported difficulties with dealing with Centrelink are acceptable? No, I have been fairly vocal on twitter with this. We have spent the best part of three weeks dealing with a large volume of issues. When I heard that the next batch of letters will go out this week I groaned as I know that means more people in my electorate will be distressed.
Five MPs told us they had not dealt with Centrelink. Pat Dodson and Andrew Wilkie did not elaborate, but three other MPs made further statements. Labor MP Jim Chalmers:
"To not even acknowledge the difficulties people are facing with Centrelink, let alone actually fix them, is astonishing and really goes to show how out of touch the Turnbull Government is."
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon:
"Centrelink should consider putting the needs of the people they are assisting first rather than working as a debt collector for the government. The Turnbull government’s actions have the ring of mail fraud about it."
Labor MP Wayne Swan:
“I’ve dealt with Centrelink for many years in my capacity as a member of parliament and I’m acutely aware of the recent blowout in waiting times from my interactions with numerous constituents. The latest issue regarding debt letters is a total debacle and I have a number of cases locally that can disapprove the minister’s claims on radio yesterday morning.”

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12 thoughts on “Do MPs really know what it is like to deal with Centrelink?

  1. Graeski

    LNP politicians are, every single one of them, vassals of the world’s super-rich. They represent the best interests of the wealthy and theirs alone, above all others, even when the wealthy are citizens of foreign countries. It is to them that the current government owes its allegiance.

    The Centrelink debacle is a declaration of war against ordinary Australians, and especially against the poorest and most vulnerable.

  2. Pamela

    Spent 90 minutes on phone to Centrelink this am. Staff polite and helpful as they corrected problems generated by letters spat out of a computer data matching process without human oversight.
    Just retired aged 67 and applying for aged pension after no contact with centrelink since youngest in Childcare decades back.
    First letter told me that i left the country last year and did not return. This info from clever BorderForce data. UNTRUE
    Next letter cited bank accounts which had been closed 25 years ago.
    Today’s beauty tells me that I can apply for a pension in Holland and if I don’t that I may not receive my aged pension. Lucky for me an intelligent human examined the evidenbe and concluded that I did not qualify for a Dutch pension for obvious reasons. I was luckier than a friend who holidayed in Italy for a year at her own expense and then fought for a year to get her pension back becasue they kept insisting that she was eligible for an Italian pension.
    Computer data matching in the hands of the current crop of no hoper Ministers is a lethal weapon. We will need all our patience and politeness to deal with the Staff who have to deal with the consequences of our ignorant, ignoble. incompetent politicians. The sooner that humans get to oversee the computers the better.

  3. zut alors

    At least some MPs have a clue about what is happening with Centrelink’s incompetence.

    What’s the point of this bastardry of hounding the most vulnerable in our society for money many of them don’t owe & don’t have? If people are forced towards penury the crime rate may increase along with the number of homeless. Not to mention suicide rates. This will cost our society both financially & morally.

    Perhaps the Coalition has forgotten that a person without as much as a dollar in their pocket still gets a vote.

    1. MAC TEZ

      “Perhaps the Coalition has forgotten that a person without as much as a dollar in their pocket still gets a vote.”
      Give ’em time Zut, I’m sure those IPA-inspired ideologues are busy trying to bring an end to the plebs getting anywhere near a polling booth.

  4. klewso

    ……. Is this s trick question?

    1. klewso

      “… a trick …”

  5. AR

    Not a single tory/nat respondent – such stalwart, free standing, unsubsidised individualistic individuals.
    O r lying shites.

  6. Aussie4real

    I simply NEVER get on the ‘phone to Centrelink-the last time (2016) I ran out of my $20 credit and still didn’t get to talk to anyone. Fortunately I can drive my son or myself to one of their offices, which is ten minutes away. Heart wrenching to see the huge number of stressed and needy people waiting to talk to someone. The staff have almost always been very helpful and understanding, not like the private Job Search agencies that they have sent my son ( spinal injury two years ago) to-it took them twelve months to get around to looking at his file and sent him to jobs where there was no workers compensation insurance. Fortunately I was able to feel confident enough to challenge some of their decisions and the situation has improved, but what about those who feel so debased by the system that they don’t feel that they have any rights.

  7. Matt Hardin

    It seems cruel, inflexible and Kafkaesque processes are a feature and not a bug. The situation here in the U.K. with the department of work and pensions is similar although I have not heard yet of aggressive “debt recovery” actions yet. The idea seems to be to make availing yourself of any sort of taxpayer support so difficult as to not be worth it.

    I would love to get politicians and right wing columnists away from their office infrastructure and get them to try and navigate the system.

  8. Di Keller

    Next time anyone has a shot at single mums I will refer them to this 🙂

  9. Brian Abbey

    Brian: The power of this piece is in its authenticity, its focus and the near-complete lack of surprises. No surprise in seeing that people with direct knowledge of the subject under discussion very often tend to have different views from those whose comments are based on their sub-group’s prejudices. Some surprise though in seeing that Coalition MPs, for all their media coaching, don’t yet see that you can condemn yourself out of your own mouth by choosing not to say a word.
    Hats off to Sally for reminding us [and many other journos?] of the penetrative power of the simple common-sense question.

  10. Inscrutable

    I worry that scammers will see an opportunity to pose as Centrelink debt collectors. For the last 12 months, I and a number of people that I know get weekly calls from fraudulent ATO debt collectors trying to scam money.

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