Minister Shorten interview on ABC Statewide Drive with Prue Bentley


Subjects: Introduction of passkeys to myGov; Optus Outage 

PRUE BENTLEY, HOST: Earlier this week the government revealed thousands of myGov accounts, the account that you use to interact with the ATO and Centrelink and Medicare, they've been suspended each month because they'd been breached by scammers. But some new security measures are on the way that aim to make your account more secure. Bill Shorten is the Government Services Minister and joins me now. Bill Shorten, good afternoon.


BENTLEY: Can we start by talking about the level of these scams? I mean, they do look quite legitimate. They've been dubbed scam in a box being sold on the dark web. Can you tell us more about it?

SHORTEN: There's been a massive increase even in this calendar year where it's not that the myGov accounts have been hacked, but it's called phishing, but that's spelled P-H-I-S-H-I-N-G. What it is is criminals, malicious actors are selling scam programmes for other criminals to purchase. Then the second bunch of crooks will send a pretty official looking myGov email or an ATO email asking you to put forward your financial details. We won't ever do that. So, if you get that, it's just bogus. What happens is if people inadvertently say, if they're rushed or whatever, all right, just put it in, they still can't automatically get through to myGov because we have what's called multifactor identification. In other words, one level isn't just enough to get through, but it's a serious attempt to impersonate someone. So, on any number of occasions there's been about 6000 times between January and October, separate individual matters where people have tried to get access to the myGov account. What happens is even if they can't get through, sometimes we will with the individual, just change their details so they go back to where they were beforehand but also the problem is that people will sometimes send their password on the link and it's a fake link. The problem is a lot of people use the same password for many different purposes so, the bad actors start using whatever information they can get to build an identity and to sell it on the dark web.

BENTLEY: So, what are you going to do to make it safer?

SHORTEN: Well, we're proposing that in the first six months of next year we introduce what are called pass keys to myGov. That's sort of a term of art, but what I mean is on your smartphone, if you have a smartphone, you can use a thumbprint or you can use facial ID and that unlocks your phone and gets you going. That's a good system of security because that can't be phished. So, we're looking to roll that out as an option for people for their myGov accounts that they can implement a pass key. If they've got an Android phone, they can put in a PIN number. So, it just builds up the level of security around your key sensitive information, which is good. When I say a biometric, that facial feature of your thumbprint, the government doesn't get it. So, just before we can kill off at least one conspiracy this year, that stays on the chip on your phone. We don't want it and we don't get it, what it does is provides… we're using the technology of people's phones to increase the protection of their government data.

BENTLEY: So, are you hoping that more people will have trust in the system to use online services and their phone services?

SHORTEN: Yeah, I do, actually, we do want that. I mean, already, I should say last year there was, last financial year there was, 1.1 billion transactions through myGov. So, there's a lot going on, $220,000,000,000 roughly was paid through Services Australia, and most of that through digital services. I mean, I do stress there'll be people perhaps of a particular generation or circumstance who will say I don't want to go online, I just want to go down to my local Services Australia office or I want to ring up. That's fine, you still can, but the reality is that the digital world does work and myGov has pretty good levels of authentication, much better than we're seeing in a lot of private companies which seem to get hacked quite often.

BENTLEY: Bill Shorten that said, I mean, you're talking about people using the phone. There have been some pretty unflattering statistics about call and payment wait times for Centrelink that have come to light recently. I'll give you a couple. So, July and August, 23% of calls for Centrelink were answered, that's down from 35% over the previous year. The average wait time has ballooned out to 32 minutes, It was 22 minutes the previous financial year. And in 2021, it was only four minutes. My producer actually tried to call Medicare today and was told they were too busy to take her call. So, what do you get in there?

SHORTEN: Well, first of all, I can answer it, but let's just go to those stats. I wouldn't quote the COVID waiting time because there were 6000 public servants were hired just to deal during COVID, what's been happening since 2020. So, that's an unusual period of time. And it was only in 2020 that the Coalition started counting calls that were congested. They didn't used to count the calls which couldn't get through, but from 2015, when the previous Liberal government introduced Robodebt, remember that was the unlawful scheme to go after welfare recipients.


SHORTEN: They reduced the number of public servants down 3800 people out of Centrelink and Medicare who used to work in 2015, ignoring the COVID blip. So, it is a real problem, but I just want to explain what and why. The other thing is that since the beginning of this financial year we've introduced new parental leave, it's more generous, more generous childcare support and we've expanded the Commonwealth Health Services card. So, there's a lot of demand, it's like the jaws of a snake. On one hand the demand is quite intense, especially in the July, August, September period, and secondly, the other thing is that there's far fewer public servants. Poor public servants have been the battering ram of a pretty conservative ideology that somehow the welfare system should be second tier. But the good news is, so, it is a real problem. I'm not going to tell anyone, it isn't very tough. There's a million calls a week being answered, but there's more calls not getting through. What we've announced actually on Monday of this week is, I was able to persuade my colleagues and the government's authorised the employment of 3000 people as to be employed directly in the public service, that's people to do payments, process payments, people to answer calls. We're starting the process of recruiting those people. They won't be going to labour hire companies, they'll be direct public servants on an ongoing basis.

BENTLEY: So 3000 people. Will some of those people be on the call centres?

SHORTEN: Yeah. And 20% of calls on average are people chasing payments, where's my money? So, I think it's important to blitz the payment waiting times because that's at the end of the traffic jam, if you like, and that's then causing everything else to bank up. Listen, the previous government invested in new technology. Some of it worked, but some of it turned out to be a complete proverbial cluster. So, we've had to write off some bad projects which in lieu of the public servants, the Coalition said we will just invest in new technology so we won't need the public servants. The problem is demand's gone up and some of the new digital projects just didn't work, didn't deliver. So, now I'm pleased that we are employing 3000 extra people.

BENTLEY: So Bill Shorten, when do you think we will start to see these wait times coming down?

SHORTEN: I think it'll take a little while, I'm not going to say it'll change tomorrow. Whereas people logically think, they say… I reckon the listeners will think, well, it's terrible to wait this long, but the government has announced employing 3000 people, it takes a little while and  think the human resource professionals call it onboarding, you've got to recruit people. It's a very unromantic term and the first 800 are being onboarded now, so I hope it makes a dent. We are going into natural disaster, period. We've also put on an extra 850 people in the May budget to get ready for the natural disaster claims which are going to come through too.

BENTLEY: Okay, thank you so much for answering those questions for us, Bill Shorten, can I just turn your mind very briefly to the Optus outage yesterday really shows some vulnerabilities in Australia's telecommunication system. Optus has said it won't be paying sort of blanket compensation, although just a couple of moments ago we were speaking with the CEO of Business Wodonga, he was calling on Optus to provide compensation for small businesses. In breaking news, Optus has announced it will provide eligible customers affected by yesterday's outage with 200GB of data as compensation. Is that good enough?

SHORTEN: Well, that'll be up to every individual who was affected by them, thankfully, I was with Telstra. I think it was a real disaster, we need to understand what happened. The Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland, fronted up to the media yesterday and she said, we want to find out what happened. The Department of Communications is holding inquiry to find out how this could happen, because if it can happen once, it can happen again. As you said, it's highlighted, I think, vulnerabilities in the system.

BENTLEY: But is 200GB of data going to return people who lost an entire day's business?

SHORTEN: Oh, of course not. And so the reality is, I think, that there'll be a whole lot of small businesses who will be thinking about if they don't get a decent offer of compensation from Optus, I reckon they'll go to see their lawyers. So, I don't think we've heard the end of it, I mean, 200GB might satisfy some people, but for others who are significantly inconvenienced, I suspect they will look at what they've lost and if they say it doesn't add up that 200GB doesn't add up to what they've lost, I think there'll be a long way to go in this yet.

BENTLEY: Bill Shorten, thank you very much for your time this afternoon.

SHORTEN: Thank you.

BENTLEY: Bill Shorten is the Government Services Minister.