Minister Shorten interview on ABC Perth with Nadia Mitsopoulos


SUBJECTS: New Services Australia recruits; claims backlog; Centrelink; Disability Support Pension; NDIS

MITSOPOULOS: For the last couple of weeks, we've been talking a lot about how long it's taking for pension applications to be processed. Now some of you have told me how you've been waiting up to nine months and it's putting a huge financial and emotional strain on you. Now the Government hopes recruiting more staff will get through the backlog but are they deeper problems? I've got Bill Shorten in the studio. He's the Government Services Minister. He's also responsible for the NDIS. I want you to have a listen to what he has to say this morning. And then you can get in touch on 1300 222 720. Minister, good morning and thank you for coming in.

SHORTEN: Good morning, Nadia.

MITSOPOULOS: This issue, these backlogs within Centrelink, they didn't happen overnight when were you first made aware of them?

SHORTEN: I think the problem has been getting progressively worse for years. First of all, I should just say to people experiencing delays, I'm sympathetic and we will come to some of the solutions that we've got. But it's a real problem. No sugarcoating at all it's a real problem and it's a problem affecting people.

MITSOPOULOS: So, when were you first aware of the scale of this issue?

SHORTEN: Really, the last six months it's really been hitting. So, in the course of last year, towards the end of last year, it's a real problem. But when you actually scratch the surface, back in 2012, there were about 37,000 people work in Department of Human Services and the population of Australia was 22 million, our population now is north of 26 million. But before this latest decision last October of increasing staff, we were down to 30,000 people. What I think previous government had hoped and you know, the previous government did do Robodebt, so I don't think they necessarily fully appreciate that access in welfare is a human right, is that there were decisions made to replace humans with better software. Now the problem is, some of the software that the previous Government invested in has worked, but some of it hasn't. We had to scrap $200 million worth of investment because it just didn't work.

But the problem is we've also had a reduction in staff at the same time as we've had a reliance that new IT would fix the problems. So, we get to the middle of last year, I was able to convince my colleagues and the Prime Minister that there's no substitute in human services for humans. So, we put on an extra - we made a decision in the last quarter of last year to employ 3000 extra people. We started recruiting them in November, December. By mid-January, the beginning of February, we've now hired 3000 people –

MITSOPOULOS: That’s still short of the 30,000 that used to have and is that on top of the attrition rate?

SHORTEN: No, that's on top of the attrition rate, there is an attrition rate, but we've been replacing those people as well. So, we're back up to about 33,000 people. But the short answer for people waiting is that our priority is to blitz the payment backlog. I mean, I think everyone thought during COVID, that was the peak of the demands that will be made on services. But it hasn't really - it's decreased a bit, but it hasn't really decreased that much.

We now have natural disasters, we’ve put on an extra 850 people just to deal with natural disaster payments, but also what we're seeing in particular, but not just for the Disability Support Pension, that in the financial year, you know, 22-23 we were able to do 3.6 million Centrelink claims, including 93,000 claims to the Disability Support Pension.

Up to the first half of this year, we've done 48,000 but there's still a big backlog. We are seeing also with the Disability Support Pension, it's a serious matter and sometimes you just got to be assessed, we've got to get supporting information and we're now seeing I think some post COVID claims of mental illness as well. Sometimes conditions haven't stabilized. But the short answer is we need more people, we’ve hired more people, and we just want to get through that backlog.

MITSOPOULOS: I just want to pick up on the Disability Support Pension because I talked a bit about that last week and I was talking to support advocates, disability advocates, who were quite critical of the process being far too complex, far too convoluted. This is Margaret Healy now she spoke to me last week. She's a disability advocate.

MARGARET HEALY: What I have a difficulty with is that when I know that we have provided the information that Centrelink requires, they keep coming back and they keep coming back and I keep asking for more complicated, more detailed information that we've given them when it is very clear that these clients are unemployable. All of my clients are living in poverty, they're living at very best hand to mouth. There is definitely an understanding in a bureaucracy that this process must be as difficult as possible so that the fewest possible clients actually obtain the DSP. I am absolutely confident about that.

MITSOPOULOS: Do you think that's fair?

SHORTEN: Well not from me, no, I don't..

MITSOPOULOS: Is her assessment fair?

SHORTEN: If you're asking me is that her truth? I'm sure it is. If you're asking me, when you say is it fair, is that the instruction from the Government or the Ministers? Absolutely a million percent not.

MITSOPOULOS: She makes the point it's a cultural issue within the Department.

SHORTEN: That I don't know. So, what I do is encourage that advocate to give us a couple of case studies, a couple of the people, and we'll chase it through and see what the truth of the matter is.

MITSOPOULOS: Is there an argument though, a lot of people have said this as well that it is very convoluted, it's very complex, and that maybe there's a way of simplifying and making it a little easier to understand.

SHORTEN: As a general rule, processes should be simpler. In terms of proving permanent disability, sometimes conditions haven't stabilized. Again, I'd rather deal with particular fact cases and get to the bottom of it. Every person who makes an application is an individual, so they deserve to be treated as individual. And again, my short-term solution is, let's just get some people in to process the claims. The longer-term issue is that with this Government and myself as Minister, we don't have the view that people seeking these pensions are second class. They're entitled to it, it's a human right. So, we just want to make sure their experiences is better. It's a very difficult time for them.

MITSOPOULOS: You have a short-term approach, but surely in the longer term, if there is a lot of criticism about the processes, that surely that needs to be looked at, because wouldn't that contribute to the backlog as well?

SHORTEN: Sorry, I thought in an earlier answer I gave you, I'm happy to look at the individual examples to see -

MITSOPOULOS: But from a broader view, I mean, do you need to -

SHORTEN: I’ll build up my evidence from the individual cases. There's 59 advocacy groups who we fund, I've also created in Centrelink, since becoming the Minister, an advocate’s hotline, so they can get to the bottom of matters more quickly. But I've got no doubt that it's a difficult process. And I want to work through and see where there is stupidity getting in the way of justice.

MITSOPOULOS: It is 18 minutes to 9. Bill Shorten, the Government Services and NDIS Minister is with me in the studio, and I'll get to your calls once I've spoken with the Minister. What are the wait times now? As I look at the data submitted to Senate, the average delays for Age Pension, and this is as of I think 31st of December, was 78 days, 82 days for disability pensioners. Yet parenting payments are less than 14 days and JobSeeker 27 So has there been any improvement on that? And why such a difference between the two benefits?

SHORTEN: I can’t tell you if there's been improvement from December 31st, they’ll be our latest numbers. I am more than optimistic that as these extra people come online as we teach them about the Social Security Act, as we create more resources, those waiting times for those pensions will decrease. We've seen some early green shoots in the last few weeks and sort of try and monitor as best I can, of waiting times on the phones has decreased from the average of 40 minutes to under 30 for some days in the week. Still, we want to get it down.

MITSOPOULOS: Is that still too long?

SHORTEN: Of course, it is.

MITSOPOULOS: And would the ideal wait time for claims being processed be, is the target 28 days?

SHORTEN: I'd have to look back and refresh my memory on specific dates, but I know that the current wait times are not satisfactory. We've got to - in this country, it's been popular in parts of the media and conservative ranks to say we have too many public servants. People might nod their heads and say oh, there's too many public servants until you need something processed and there's not enough of them. Our public servants are very good. They've been underfunded and under resourced. And if you don't put resources into human services, you see the sort of outcomes we're seeing now. As you said earlier in your interview, this hasn't happened in a day and I won't be fixed in a day, but one irrefutable fact is that we now have 3000 more people working on it this month than we had two and a half months ago, but it takes a little while to get up to speed.

MITSOPOULOS: You talk about human services needing human faces, the Government's move to force people to apply online and obviously for you know a lot of age pensioners, they do feel a little limited intimidated by that. There are cases where family members or friends, you know, fake a senior’s identity just to get the claims and documents lodged. I just wonder what you say to people who say this is a government-inspired future pathway to elder abuse. And that's some of the quotes I've heard where people could potentially steal pension payments.

SHORTEN: I get that it's incredibly difficult, but I'm not going to buy the leap to elder abuse. If I wasn't getting my pension, you might feel that way, so I'm not saying people don't feel really legitimately frustrated. But at the moment we get over a million calls a week at Centrelink. We get 10 million visits to our Centrelink offices a year. We have 1.1 billion transactions online. Yes, it'd be good if people could use the digital services, but we're not just saying everyone has to use digital. There are people who might not have reliable internet or who might just not be familiar with it, you know, as you say, there might be some people in some age groups who prefer not to use the online ways. So, in fact, under this Government, we've now embedded 27 key Centrelink staff with frontline homelessness organizations because there's some people who can't even come into an office or make a phone call.

MITSOPOULOS: Dedicated senior services centres, would it be worth bringing those back?

SHORTEN: I don't know about that. What I'm saying is if I just finish, the homelessness stuff, there's thousands of people are just off the grid altogether, not through their own fault. And so now we've got people working, including in Perth, where they go out and sign people up to the system so they can get their entitlements. So, we are completely agnostic. I don't mind how you contact Medicare or Centrelink or child support it can be in person, by phone, online. But what I do think is that we need more people to process it. I mean, roughly 20% of the phone calls are people saying where's my payment? So, if we can reduce the backlog of payments -

MITSOPOULOS: Because they’ve been waiting, you know 3,4,5,6 months, and these are people that don't have an income, right?

SHORTEN: It's a real issue. But again, I wish that this discussion had happened right throughout the previous Coalition government’s life so I could walk into a smooth-running machine where we had the right number of people, where we didn't have Robodebt, where we didn't have to have a class action. But that isn't the case. But what I say to people is we're putting on new bodies and the people to help you. But I can understand why you're frustrated in the meantime.

MITSOPOULOS: Bill Shorten, the Federal Minister for Government Services and the NDIS is my guest this morning. Just on the NDIS, the number of people with autism and other developmental delays on the NDIS has grown by 11% more than you predicted. Why is that? Are people rushing on before your reforms come in?

SHORTEN: There could be unmet need in the past. I mean the Scheme has more people on it that I think the original designers of the Scheme predicted there would be, but that isn't necessarily a conspiracy. It just means there was a lot of unmet need out in communities.

And the other thing I think, which contributes to the growth in the Scheme faster than perhaps experts predicted, is that the NDIS can't be the only lifeboat in the ocean. And part of the dilemma is that once the NDIS was formed, it became a bit of an excuse for other agencies to say “Oh, well, that's an NDIS matter”. The NDIS was designed for the most severely and permanently, Australians with the most severe and permanent disabilities, not for every Australian with disability. Today we're launching with the Telethon Institute and Minister for Health Amber Jade Sanderson world leading pilot program called Inklings, which will help families where their children are having a nonstandard developmental journey from six months, to work through what that means. And what we have to do is realize the NDIS is great, and it's here to stay and it's going to keep growing and that's a good thing and it's changing lives. We just want to make sure we kick out the sharks out of the Scheme, and I'm not targeting participants, but there are some service providers who really are just in it for a quick buck. But also, what we need to do is grow a system of an inclusive Australia outside the Scheme, so that we can give the right support to people when they need it. Not just all or nothing.

MITSOPOULOS: So does that mean the states need to step up and provide more support because ultimately…

SHORTEN: So, I think Don Punch and Roger Cook are doing a very good job in the west and I've worked very closely with them. But I think it's a general statement, and the Premiers agreed with our Prime Minister last December, that the Commonwealth and the States together, need to work up support for people with disabilities who don't need the NDIS but still need some support.

MITSOPOULOS: Does it then mean that some of these people on the NDIS under your reforms will be removed from the NDIS?

SHORTEN: No, I wouldn't put it as harshly as that. First of all, our reforms are scheduled to take three to five years to implement. We'll do everything with people with disability. No, every year we've projecting even with our improvements to participant experience, there'll be more people on the Scheme. But a little child who might have a developmental delay was never intended to be on the Scheme for life and they don't need to be. So, I think the pioneering agreement between the Federal Government and the State Government on education is one opportunity where if we can provide more support for kids with learning needs in schools, that's good. People don't want they don't come out of the womb and say, “I want to be on NDIS for life”. Now, some people will be. But if we can make interventions early enough in people's journeys, that they need less support in life going forward, well, that's a good thing.

MITSOPOULOS: Okay. I'll leave it there because you do need to go and launch the Inklings project. I should let people know keep listening because I've actually spoken to Professor Andrew Whitehouse who is leading this about that program, and it sounds pretty good. So, we'll give you more detail a little later in the show. Minister, thank you for coming in.

SHORTEN: Yeah, great. Thanks for your interest in the pension stuff. It is an important issue.

MITSOPOULOS: And I’ll make the point that your office is saying that no one has ever been forced online. I guess people feel that way though.

SHORTEN: They might feel that way.

MITSOPOULOS: But what you're saying is there will always be someone where they can talk to face to face or on the phone.

SHORTEN: The Government's commitment, our government, is that we have 318 Services Australia offices, we’re keeping 318 Services Australia offices, and we'll have more people working in them.

MITSOPOULOS: I'll leave it there. Thank you for coming in.

SHORTEN: Thank you.