Minister Shorten doorstop at Services Australia Airport West


BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS, AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Good morning, everybody, and welcome to the Maribyrnong electorate. But today I'm here speaking in my capacity as Minister for Government Services. With me today we've got Andrew and Joeanne Cassar. Joeanne  is the team leader who much of what I'm announcing today can be put down to her strength of character.

Today, I'm pleased to announce the Albanese government will be investing $314 million across the next two years to make sure that the 10 million people who visit a Services Australia annually, and the 6,200 staff who work frontline services, are safer. Services Australia does an amazing job. Millions of Australians come here to sort out their pension payments, their Medicare payments, just about everything. But what happened on May the 23rd last year was a terrible crime. Joeanne  Cassar, who will speak to you in a moment, doing her job, was attacked. Stabbed by an offender, and we're very lucky that she's here with us today. And I just I feel so much for Joeanne  and Andrew and all of the staff who were here that day.

But there's actually been unacceptable levels of aggression at Centrelink offices, at Services Australia offices. In the financial year 20 2223 there were over 9000 recorded acts of aggression. In the first six months of this financial year, from July the 1st to December 31st, over 6000 acts of recorded aggression. Hundreds of them very serious. So, I'm pleased that our following upon the dreadful assault and attack on Joeanne , I immediately asked former Police Commissioner Graham Ashton to tell me what we can do to make these officers safer, that is for the staff and for the millions of people who use it.

All 44 recommendations that he made we are enacting. Some of the specific features of our announcement to make people safer at these offices is that there will be 606 security guards, which is a significant increase on what there were. We'll make sure that the central security operations of this big organization can, in real time, be able to see what's going on at the 318 centres. We're also changing the layout of 35 of the most challenging centres to make them safer for staff and consumers. Also, we're changing the law to upgrade the penalties for assaulting frontline public servants. This affects not just the 30,000 plus people who work at Service Australia, but the thousands of other Commonwealth public servants.

I discovered in the process of remedying what happened to Joeanne , that if you're a judge or a police officer working for the Commonwealth, penalties can be up to 13 years or 9 years, depending on the assault or the crime. But for other public servants, it was a lesser penalty. We're not going to have a two-class public service. If you're a frontline public servant and you get assaulted, the person who does it will - the assault against you will be treated as it was an assault against a High Court judge or a federal court judge, and that's the way it should be.

We can't guarantee that that everything will just be perfect from here on in. But what I say to all the millions of Australians who use Services Australia, you're important to us. You have a right to be able to transact your business with the government in a safe manner. We say to the staff that we are dreadfully sorry for what has happened in the past, but we think that these measures, based on the best advice possible, will at least decrease the stress and the tension and anxiety that our front-line staff feel. If our staff feel safe, then they're going to be a better service all round. If the people using these centres feel safe, that's a better outcome for everyday Australians. What I'd like to do now is ask Joeanne  if she'd say a few words. It was her story which particularly inspired me to move as quickly as we have. I wish, though, that what happened had never happened. All of this I would change if we could turn back the clock and stop what happened to her. We can't, but Joeanne 's story and the thousands of front-line Commonwealth public servants who've spoken to me since, has motivated the government to make this really step change in improving the safety of civilians and staff who just use Australia's important social safety net. I might hand over to Joeanne  now if she wants to say a few words.

JOEANNE  CASSAR, SERVICES AUSTRALIA TEAM LEADER: I just want to say thank to Bill. Bill honestly listened to me, probably in the darkest time in my life. He heard everything I said, all my colleagues. It didn't just affect me. It affected everyone who works for Services Australia, the general public – people still come in today to find out how I am. We make a difference to everyone's life. Services Australia employees work hard. We make a difference. And out of such a tragic, horrible - out of such a tragic, horrible incident, I prefer not to focus on the negatives. Instead, I want to look around and look at what a wonderful workplace that my colleagues have to work in now, and it's not just only here. It’s everywhere. It's not just for staff. It's for the public as well. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] – a number of questions. Before the incident last year, did you ever feel unsafe when you came to work?

CASSAR: Oh, there are a number of times. There's always – there’s incidents everywhere. And you can't stop that. But I'd like to be able to stop it. I'd like to be able to just come into work and do my job and walk away. I come in and do my job and know I've accomplished something most days, right? I’ll still help you. If you’re angry or upset, we will still help you. We'll try our hardest to help you. You just don't need to be aggressive. No one needs to deal with aggression. Teachers. Retail workers. Public servants. Nurses. Doctors and those who [inaudible].

JOURNALIST: What do you feel when you walk back in here. What are your feelings?

CASSAR: Bittersweet, honestly. The fact that the incident happened, and this has changed is a win. That's a win. But, you know, like Bill said, if we could turn back the clock we would, but we can't. So, we just have to move forwards and do the best we can. I mean, I look at this place and I think if it was like this on the 23rd of May. I might not be like this today, but in reality, that would never have happened because it took what happened to me to make this happen.

JOURNALIST: Can you explain what the lingering effects are of what happened to you?

CASSAR: Besides the mental anguish, I have my nerves severed in my lower back, the L3 nerve. Which means that a nerve that functions on your left-hand side of the leg doesn't work properly. I have constant pain in my lower left leg, pain that will never go away. Well, it hasn't gone away so far, and we're nearly 12 months on. I can't bend down. I can't play on the floor with my grandchildren. It is a huge aspect of my life that's missing, that's changed. I could stand here all day and tell you what I can't do, but I'm not going to do that. I'd rather focus on the things that I can do. And in all honesty. Myself, along with Bill and my wonderful husband and family, look what we have done. We've changed the legislation. We've got the funding to change all these offices. This office in particular has changed dramatically. That's a win. I don't want to focus on the negative. I want to focus on what I can do and honestly look, look what we did. I mean honestly, without this man beside me. I think I'd be still struggling. Just, I'd just rather focus on, look what happened.

JOURNALIST: Would you like, do you think you'll be able to work again, and would you like to?

CASSAR: I love my job. I absolutely love my job. I love motivating the staff. I'd love to be able to come back to work. At this stage of my life, it's a little bit too early. I want to try and get back to the best version of myself that I can possibly get to. How long that's going to take, I don't know, I have an army of medical doctors that are helping me, and they've all been wonderful. Right now, I need to focus on us, on me, and getting back to where I can get claiming back what I can.

JOURNALIST: This has been, you've worked here for a long time, haven't you?

CASSAR: For this particular office I've worked at for about 12 years. I’ve worked for the agency for 38 years. I love my job.

JOURNALIST: What do your colleagues tell you about what these changes are going to do for them and how they feel about going to work?

CASSAR: Oh, they feel much more secure. Nothing's perfect. I'm not going to say this fit out perfect, but it's definitely come a long way from where it was, 100%. It's come a long way. All things - you know, this is the Version 1. 1.1 or 2.1 might change things up a bit, but they all do feel a lot more secure and hopefully the people that come in and out of services Australia will feel a lot more secure as well. It's given people a lot more privacy as well, from out the front to out the back, it's a lot more privacy. So, it is definitely a much more secure environment.

JOURNALIST: Would you ever advocate for this not to be a face-to-face service. You know, if you put it online, there's no risk of the aggression.

CASSAR: I don't think so. No, there's lots of vulnerable people out there. Lots of people don't use the internet. That's one of Services Australia's fundamental things, you know, to help those most vulnerable. And if you take that away. You know, cash is gonna disappear. That's gonna hurt a lot of people, too. So, we can only change so much. And I don't think going online would do that.

JOURNALIST: Was face to face - up until May the 23rd, was face to face contact was one of the things you enjoyed about the job, being able to interact?

CASSAR: Absolutely, absolutely. I’ve worked in a number of different roles, and face to face is where I belong. I've made a difference in numerous people’s lives, not just the people who come in here, but the staff. Staff tell me they miss me. I miss them.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned before that there were instances, often with customers, people being aggressive. Do you know if it was like an even split, or was it more males being aggressive and more females, or?

CASSAR: More males being aggressive, absolutely. More males thinking that they can be domineering over you whether you're male or female, as a staff member. Most people who come in are genuine. Most people who come in are lovely and they only want your help and your support.

JOURNALIST: So, in terms of the security guards coming on board. Was there any existing Security in place or is this all new?

SHORTEN: There has been some security in place, but we've significantly increased it, almost doubled it. I should just also give a shout out to Andrew, her husband. He came into this office and saw her on the ground. So, the toll of public servants pay in terms of stress it's one carried not just by them but their families. And it's quite emotional for the staff here, even myself, seeing the changes that have been made. And it shouldn't have taken what happened to Joeanne  to finally push change. But it has. So, there's a number of security staffs are practically being doubled.

JOURNALIST: And those, just for context, are security officers armed in any way?

SHORTEN: No, they're not. But we're also looking at how we upgrade their training. The security staff do what they can. It's not a reflection on security staff, the increase. And I should just say to Australians saying, what's going on here? The number of actual offenders is very small. They're from a small cohort. And we accept that people come here who've had a lot of troubles in their lives. That's understandable. But there's never any excuse for violence and aggression.

JOURNALIST: There's a real scale here, isn't there, between the absolute worst and the You know, shouting perhaps, or having a tone. Towards the workers. And none of it's acceptable, obviously. But are you seeing an increase in perhaps even that lower end of the scale, with the cost of living being such a pressure, more people having to turn to this kind of support?

SHORTEN: We're certainly seeing an increase from last year to this year. But what I would also say is the vast bulk of the people who do the wrong thing come from a small cohort. So, I think they've always been with us, and what we need to do is just make sure that they understand that that conduct is not going to be acceptable. So, if you think that you can - so from amongst the small cohort, you're going to pay a bigger penalty, bigger price. We're changing the layout of a lot of the high traffic offices to make people safer. And this is not just about the staff, it's about the public. And always remember it's a golden rule of health and safety. If the workforce feels safe, then the public will be safer. The two are just twins.

JOURNALIST: You've released some video today, and obviously there's a lot you can't do. Were you shocked when you see some of those incidents that are on that video?

SHORTEN: Some of the video was released today is at the lower end of what is reported, and that is shocking. Some of the footage that we haven't released is even more hair raising. Now, I must stress to say the vast bulk of transactions are done without any aggro or any problems. But you make a decision that you either accept a standard of abuse or you don't. And we don't accept that standard of abuse. There's no acceptable aggression. So, the footage is shocking, and we just want to put on notice that small cohort of people who think they've got a right to bully, threaten and intimidate, assault or worse, other people. You're going to get caught. You are not welcome. The nation has a responsibility to look after people. But people also have a responsibility to treat each other with a proper level of behaviour and decorum and appropriate respect.

JOURNALIST: And is it a crime if you're, um, aggressive or physically aggressive. Towards the frontline staff.

SHORTEN: Let's be clear, Centrelink staff, Commonwealth public servants are not the punching bags if you are having a bad day, you just learn to control your own attitudes and behaviours and you don't have a right and it is a crime to assault a Commonwealth public servant. And I know sometimes it's fashionable to say, oh, the public service this or that, it's an easy job. You just saw a remarkable public servant, Joeanne  Cassar, of 38 years. These are ordinary people doing quite remarkable work, and she is representative of the best traditions of this agency. And they don't deserve anyone's aggro. They're just there to help you when you're in trouble.

JOURNALIST: How quickly will this money roll out, and when will those guards be in place?

SHORTEN: It's already started to roll out.

JOURNALIST: What about the law.

SHORTEN: The changes are in Parliament now. We hope that all parties will vote for them in the next few weeks.

JOURNALIST: And how long will the sentence be?

SHORTEN: Oh, the maximum, we're increasing the maximums. The maximums used to be 11 years for very serious offences. Now it's going up to 13. And the same for less serious but still are serious matters, go from 7 to 9 years. I have one rule. If it's good enough for judges and our police, it's good enough for everyone else. And that means that if you want to abuse or you want to put your hands on a public servant working here just trying to help you, you are in deep trouble.

JOURNALIST: So, 314 million sorry, over the space of two years. And just to clarify the so it's judges and police have -

SHORTEN: The standard I ask the policymakers is, is there should be one standard if you're going to attack a public servant. So, we've looked at what are the upper penalties for attacking professions, which, by the way, you should be penalized for, our judges and our police should not put up with this stuff. But nor should the people handling your child support payments or your unemployment payments or your pensions. It's just one rule for everyone.

JOURNALIST: And can you explain also the Canberra Control Centre? What will that look like?

SHORTEN: Yeah. What I also found as I started to scratch the surface of this issue, is that a lot of the IT or the information tech just wasn't talking to each other. You might have someone causing menacing behaviour in one centre in a district, but there wasn't the ability to transmit that information to neighbouring centres to say, watch out, person X or person B is being a nuisance or worse. And also, we want to have a real time surveillance so that if something goes down, we can contact the local police lightning quick. And that did happen here, by the way. The police were here very quickly. But we want to make sure that that standard is all the time in all situations. And we need our own people to know if anyone is in trouble.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned there was 319 Services Australia centres around the country and 606 security guards. So, is that basically like a security guard for each centre?

SHORTEN: Yeah, won't be quite as sort of, it's not quite as arithmetic as that. There are some centres which are high traffic and pretty busy. And, you know, we've got records about which centres experience the worst problems. Not every centre is big or experiencing the same problems as every other centre. So, the risk assessment is done by the security advisers at Services Australia. The point is, there'll be more security guards. One of the great shames for me of what happened here on the day is there was only one guard present. Eventually that person has to have a toilet break. And it was Joeanne  who stepped in to fill the breach. And of course, we know what happened next.

JOURNALIST: Will there be a guard at every centre?

SHORTEN: It's not quite as simple as that. Some places just don't have the problems. But absolutely the security, we've now got more resources to cover more places and we will look at the history of where the aggro has been, and that's where we're going to concentrate the bulk of our resources.

JOURNALIST: Are you able to go into what some of the more challenging centres are?

SHORTEN: I don't want to necessarily label suburbs right now here. But you'll see by the changes in the presentation of the security and the layout, we want people in here. We want people to come here. We're improving also our technology for people to make appointments so that people aren't queuing.

JOURNALIST: Joeanne  was standing where the security guard would have otherwise been. Can you just - I suppose that really drives home why they're needed doesn't it?

SHORTEN: Yeah, we need more security guards and that's what we've got. And hats off to my colleagues. I said, listen, this is a real problem. I presented the evidence prepared by Graham Ashton based upon the experience of this and other officers. And the government recognises we want the public to be safe and we want our staff to be safe.

JOURNALIST: And so, it's 606 security guards. What was it previously?

SHORTEN: It was about 280.

JOURNALIST: Can we just also quickly ask you on domestic violence? Police ministers meeting was today. There has been some criticism of the measures that they don't kick in quickly.

SHORTEN: There are existing measures which are already being invested in. You could say that these measures should have been in place 20 years ago, and that would be right. Paid domestic violence leave, we put in place last year. I'm not going to sugarcoat the problem. We need to do more and more quickly. But the meeting of the Premiers and the Prime minister was successful, and there was progress. The big issue with domestic violence, and there's plenty of contributors, is that predominantly men, some men, feel they should control their current partners or their ex-partners. So, we've got to give women the financial independence to be able to leave a coercive relationship. We've got to – blokes, some men have got to get the message that women are neither inferior nor their chattels. And if they, if the relationship is not working, men don't own women. So, I fundamentally think that the changes are all headed in the right direction. But there's no doubt that, you know, I thought the community was getting better. And I think large parts of it are, we no longer pull down the blinds and turn up the TV if you think something's happening next door. But clearly there are some men who haven't got the message, and we've got to give women the power and the freedom to just get out with their kids.

JOURNALIST: A lot of advocates are saying that this is so fantastic that it's in the spotlight, that the government is investing, but there's a lot of onus on the women fleeing, which is obviously really important to escape a dangerous situation, but there's not really any measures announced to actually help men change behaviours. Would you like to see a bit more? Would that fall under social services?

SHORTEN: Your questions right, men have, some men, have got to change their behaviour. But also, we've got to give women the ability to pull the proverbial ripcord of the parachute and get out of their - it’s both.

JOURNALIST: But that man will just go on and just date another woman and do the same thing over and over again. And there's no change. There's no breaking the cycle.

SHORTEN: Again, this is a personal opinion, but I don't see why bail laws shouldn't have a presumption against an offender. It can't be neutral in these matters. If you’ve got a lot on your copy book, you shouldn't just automatically get the same onus that other people have maybe, when they're seeking bail. If you've done the wrong thing, if it's a sexual offense, if it's a, you know, domestic violence, you know, I think the onus has got to be on you. It should be a higher standard of proof. Anyway, ail laws are a state issue. That's a personal opinion. There’s no silver bullet, but I think everything's got to be thrown at this issue.

And also, another group who haven't been mentioned much, kids. You know, when you've got a man being violent to a woman and she's a mum, these kids carry the trauma. So, the ricochets and repercussions of domestic violence carry well beyond the immediate incident. You know, the number of kids who will go to sleep tonight hearing dad yelling at mum, you might say that's just the way things are. That's not the way things are. Men should not be yelling at women. They should not be treating, just because someone is in a relationship with someone doesn't give you ownership rights. These are independent people and if you can't sort your own act out, the kid shouldn't pay for it. Nor should your girlfriend or wife.

JOURNALIST: Minister, Peter Ryan from the ABC. Just a question about the NDIS. The OECD had its global outlook out this morning and it's singled out the NDIS, noting the need for tangible measures to slow growth in the cost of the NDIS scheme. And I wanted to get just a comment from you or a reaction just on that now that we see who's made those comments.

SHORTEN: Labor's committed to the NDIS. It's here to stay. We want to make sure that every dollar gets through to the participants for whom it was designed. We think it is probably growing too quickly, but we still want it to grow. We've got reforms in place. We are the best country in the world. Now, that doesn't mean we're getting it all right about disability, but we're the best country in the world in terms of having a program like the NDIS. I respect the OECD, but maybe some of these OECD, you know, economists need to come and visit families whose lives are being changed by the NDIS. You know, so the OECD has got a very important role. But I do get frustrated sometimes when self-appointed foreign experts want to talk about whether or not a child with down syndrome should be getting the package of support they're getting. So, you've got to be careful in this debate. Labor will reform the NDIS in the best interests of participants. We are making decisions to make it more sustainable. But when self-appointed foreign experts just want to say, look at this program in particular, how about the OECD studies every other country who doesn't have an NDIS? Why doesn't the OECD start demanding a better deal for disabled people in the rest of the world, and just focusing on the deal we get in this country.