Minister Shorten interview on ABC RN Breakfast with Patricia Karvelas


SUBJECTS: Security funding boost for Services Australia centres; rising aggression in society; university campus protests

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: If you've ever been to a Centrelink or Services Australia centre, you may know that feeling of general unease, and for good reason. There are about 9,000 incidents of aggression recorded at these centres across the country between 2022 and 2023. The worst of those incidents saw a 55-year-old Centrelink worker sustain severe injuries after she was stabbed in Melbourne's north last May. She was just doing her job and that's what happened to her, just doing her job. Today, the Minister for Government Services, Bill Shorten, has announced a major security funding boost. And Bill Shorten is our guest. Hi, welcome to the program, Minister.


KARVELAS: You're announcing more than $300 million in funding to boost safety. I mean, that's it's a big investment. Why do we need these measures?

SHORTEN: Well, 10 million Australians visit Centrelink and Services Australia offices all over Australia. There are 6200 people who work in them. And as you observe, last financial year, there were 9000 recorded aggression incidents. And indeed, in the first six months of this year, it's already at 6000 plus. So, we just need to make sure that it's a safe environment for both the users of the system and the people who work there.

KARVELAS: And the need for extra safety measures, the funding is going to cover, I think, up to 606 security guards across service centres across the country, there's 513 announced in the review. Will customers and clients feel safe when they go to Centrelink and Service Australia centres? Is that what this will guarantee?

SHORTEN: I've visited dozens of service centres since becoming the Minister. I've spoken to workers; I spoke to the people using the system. I do believe that with better security features in the service centres, a centralised security operations centre with live monitoring capabilities, better liaison with the local police, we're redesigning 35 service centres which have experienced a higher-than-average number of assaults and the extra security guards, I think they will. The other thing which we've done for which is long overdue, is that I wasn't aware until the assault last year of Joanne that if you assault a Centrelink staff member or indeed a lot of frontline public servants, the penalties were less than if you assault a police officer or a judge. And I think that merely because you don't wear a uniform, or are a judge, doesn't mean that you should have inferior rights. So, I - we won't get because of these measures to zero harm. But I'll tell you what, for the staff, at least they know that someone's looking out for them.

KARVELAS: So, is that a law that's going to be changed?

SHORTEN: Yes, it's in Parliament right now.

KARVELAS: Okay. That's pretty wild, isn't it?

SHORTEN: It is, just public frontline public servants, and this doesn't just extend to service Australia, but everyone from home affairs to the quarantine service to electorate officers, they deserve a right to be treated equally to other people. The other issue beyond that is that we've also invested in 3000 plus extra people to help reduce waiting times for calls and for payments, but the cohort of people who are committing the really aggressive acts are not the vast bulk of Centrelink users. There is a small number of people who I think do struggle, but whilst they might have good reasons for struggling, nothing excuses violence in any shape or form.

KARVELAS: Why is aggression rising? Have we worked that out?

SHORTEN: Well, people have got theories, but no, I don't think there is one explanation. I think there's an increase in violence, well, there seems to be, I shouldn't say there is. There seems to be an increase in violence across our community. And when you look at the number of stories that you've even covered on Radio National in recent weeks in one form or another, some people just don't seem to be able to cohabit and operate within the norms of acceptable behaviour in our community.

KARVELAS: Yeah. I have been covering a rise in violence, full stop, right? Obviously, we've been talking about male perpetrated violence against women, but more there's been violence that's increasing in our community more broadly. And it does make you wonder, where's all this aggression coming from? Do we need to kind of work that out?

SHORTEN: Yes, we do, but in the meantime, when I was confronted, I visited the Airport West office where Joanne was stabbed the day after it happened, and I visited with her. And I've kept in touch with her and her family, and I'm looking forward to seeing her and the staff at Airport West today when we formally launched this policy, we can sometimes say that the problems are so big in society, it almost gives people a leave pass to shrug their shoulders and say, what can be done? What we've done with Services Australia is I reached out to former police experts, former police chiefs, they're still experts, and said, I we know there's big problems in society, but in the meantime, what are practical measures that we can do straight away to improve the safety of people? So yes, you're right, there's the big general conversation, and that's everything from the internet to everything else that's going on. But in the meantime, I just want to make sure that public servants who go to work go home safely, and that people who use government services, that they're going to be safe.

KARVELAS: Mm, it's pretty basic, isn't it? I just want to take you to another story that's unfolding that, um, that's not in your portfolio, but, you know, you're a senior minister, so I'm going to ask you.


KARVELAS: We're seeing these protests, of course, across campuses in Australia now, too, these encampments that very much mirror what's happening in the United States, although we haven't seen the escalation in violence.


KARVELAS: Peter Dutton, the opposition leader, says the Palestinian camp outs are a repeat of the 1930s and anti-Semitism can't be accepted. Is he right?

SHORTEN: The idea that someone can protest and exercise their freedom of speech to protest is at the core of our democracy. But there is a line, and once the line is crossed, it ceases just to be freedom of speech and protest. I haven't independently verified, but I have had reports from parents in Melbourne, of kids, not just Jewish kids, but Jewish kids included, that in the classes at Melbourne Uni, in some classes, protesters have come in and demanded that people stand up and support the protests and photograph those who won't. That's not freedom of speech, that's just bullying and thuggery. So, people have a right to express their views. And the issues in the Middle East are incredibly tough and distressing, and people legitimately have strong views, but you don't have a right to translate those arguments in this country and make people, including Jewish kids and Jewish people, feel unsafe. I have some sympathy to the view that if it was another group of Aussies being targeted, that there would be perhaps a broader coalition of people condemning it. So, I do worry that the legitimate issues are being infected by anti-Semitic conduct, by the fringe elements.

KARVELAS: What other group of Aussies do you think would get more protection?

SHORTEN: Well, no, I just think that Jewish kids deserve to be stood up for like everyone else.

KARVELAS: And do you think we're not doing that as a country?

SHORTEN: Well, you're asking me about the university, and I gave you a specific instance.

KARVELAS: Okay. So, the universities, do you think they should take a tougher line on this?

SHORTEN: Well, no, I just think they need to investigate the reports and get to the bottom of it. I’m disturbed when parents are reaching out to me and saying, this is happening, and as I said at the outset of this chat, people have got a right to protest. Freedom of speech on universities is an important feature of universities. But University of Melbourne has protocols, and it says, you know, no bullying. And if people are going into classes and doing that, well, what's the point of that? Who does that persuade and how does that not just victimize kids?

KARVELAS: The shadow education minister has made some pretty serious allegations saying that for instance, at Sydney Uni, it's not safe for Jewish students. Is that a sentiment that you're also hearing?

SHORTEN: I haven't heard about Sydney University, but I've certainly had that relayed to me by parents from Melbourne University.

KARVELAS: So should our vice chancellors, our police, should they try and deal with the protests and try and disperse them, or should they let them continue?

SHORTEN: I'm not arguing that it has to be - no, I'm not saying that. What I am saying, though, is that if there are complaints being made that kids are being harassed in classes that should be checked out and stopped, shouldn't it?

KARVELAS: Yeah. No, that's -

SHORTEN: As for the broader issue about how American unions are handling it, and I'll leave that to other people to decide. But in my own town, kids should be able to go to university and study without feeling victimized. That is not an exceptional point of view. No doubt some people will complain about that and say, I don't understand what's happening. I just whatever people's views are about what's happening overseas, you should be able to feel safe in your own country.

KARVELAS: Bill Shorten, a real pleasure to speak to you. Thank you for coming on the show.

SHORTEN: Thanks, Patricia. Bye.