Minister Shorten address at Parliament House


SUBJECTS: The Ashton Review

BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR GOVERNMENT SERVICES: I rise to update the House on the Security Risk Management Review into staff safety at Services Australia. This review was in response to a serious physical attack on a staff member at Services Australia's Airport West Service Centre, in the north-western part of Melbourne. I announced the review on the 24th of May this year. This was the immediate day after Mrs. Joeanne Cassar was brutally attacked at the job she had loved going to for 37 years. Joeanne is a senior and much-loved team member at Airport West. She was stabbed in the back by a customer as she was filling in for a security guard at the lunch break so he could have his lunch.

Joeanne will live with a permanent injury forever. She has made a recovery but nonetheless has sustained permanent impairment. The toll that this terrible event has taken on Joeanne, her family, her colleagues, and the customers who witnessed the attack is immeasurable. When I visited the staff at Airport West the day after the assault, I listened to them and I promised that I would do whatever I could to help them, and indeed all of the people who work in Services Australia, and indeed all of the people who use their services to be safe. That day, I immediately asked the former Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Mr. Graham Ashton, to use an experienced police officers’ eye to review the adequacy of Safety of Services Australia staff and users.

To put some perspective into Mr. Ashton's task, Services Australia has 318 service centres across Australia. There's approximately 6000 staff providing face to face support to Australians. During the financial year 2022-2023, Service Australia had 10 million face to face interactions at their service centres. But in the same period, there were almost 9000 face to face customer aggression incidents.

Mr. Ashton visited service centres across New South Wales and Victoria, including Airport West and engaged directly with hundreds of staff in developing his findings. I asked Mr. Ashton to make sure the voices of the frontline Services Australia workers were heard, and that the level of staff engagement undertaken was an integral feature of the review. Services Australia staff do all they can to support Australians in their time of need, and they rightly deserve respect in return, not only in the day-to-day business of overseeing payments for Centrelink, but through emergencies like fire and floods in the pandemic, Services Australia staff have been there.

What we do know is that a very small cohort of people who act aggressively and violently are in no way representative of the millions of Australians who come to Services Australia every year. Services Australia has a range of ways it provides additional support to people in need. The agency has more than 650 highly skilled social workers who provide support and connect people to additional services in their local area. These social workers also play an important role in reducing customer aggression by providing tailored support to the most vulnerable customers.

The agency also has a number of Community Partnership Specialist Officers, who connect people with payments and services in a place that they already go to support, at frontline homeless organisations. The CPSO co-located service is preventing the need for vulnerable customers to attend service centres, and I think it also has a benefit in reducing incidents of customer aggression.

Mr. Ashton has noted that our social workers and CSOs play a valued and important role in providing a wraparound service for vulnerable customers. I thank Graeme Ashton for carrying out his task with professionalism and compassion, and at a pace that reflected the urgency of this matter. I thank every Services Australia staff member who contributed their insights into the review.

Last Friday on the 13th of October, I returned to Services Australia's Airport West Service Office to announce the Albanese Government's response to the Ashton Review. I'm pleased to advise that the Albanese Government will act on all 44 of Mr. Ashton's recommendations and has committed more than $40 million as a result to strengthening security at the service centres in the agency. Importantly, the Government will also prioritise stronger legislation to combat violence and aggression against public sector workers who deliver services to Australians. So, the changes that we proposed and introduce into the Parliament in the autumn session will extend to public servants who deliver services in Commonwealth agencies, not just limited to Services Australia, but such as the National Disability Insurance Agency, the ATO, agriculture inspectors and departments like Home Affairs.

What happened at Airport West and has been an issue at other service centres around the country, was that on this day there was only one security guard on duty. At some point that one guard would need to take a break. Joeanne was attacked exactly under these circumstances when she was triaging customers as they entered the service centre. So, the reforms will include an extra 278 trained security staff at key offices, taking the total number to 513.

Further, we will examine laws that deter and punish violence and aggression against all Commonwealth public sector workers who deliver services to Australians, and this will include a Commonwealth Workplace Protection Order Scheme. There is currently a loophole whereby in most jurisdictions, an individual who works at Services Australia who is the victim of aggression or violence, has to take out an apprehended violence order against the perpetrator in their own name. The individual worker has to pursue the application. This is obviously a re-traumatising experience for the victim, not to mention the unfair administrative burden it places on them. This work would scope reforms which would allow the agency to take out the intervention order in relation to the workplace. It means that individual workers should not need to seek an order, and the whole workplace is protected from further violence.

It means that if someone has felt threatened personally, they don't personally need to take the intervention order against the perpetrator who might be hanging around in the car park or providing provocative behaviour. Now the agency, the employer, will have the power to represent the worker who is essentially only being under threat because of the job they do.

Frontline staff will receive additional training and there will be upgrades to customer systems, including kiosks and appointments. We will enhance the design of service centres to improve staff safety whilst maintaining the welcoming customer environment.

I acknowledge the agency has been working hard over the past year to modernise face to face services with these contemporary designs. I acknowledge that more than 100 of the service centres have already been transformed, and that program will also continue, enhanced by Mr. Ashton's recommendations.

The people who work at Services Australia, in my experience are fundamentally committed to working with everyday Australians to help them access government services.

The people who work at the coalface are there when Australians need them. These are the people we need to look after so they can look after us.

Just like nurses and firefighters and teachers and retail workers, no one should go to work and have to experience aggression and violence. The Albanese government is putting our words of support for the Commonwealth public service into action, and I appreciate the support of the opposition.