Minister Shorten doorstop interview at Services Australia Centre in Butler, WA


SUBJECTS: Centrelink and Medicare claims and call wait times slashed; Government Services’ Budget investment; States and territories on NDIS reform legislation; Indian University student in Hobart; Social media and child safety reforms;

BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS, AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Good morning everybody. It's fantastic to be here in Butler. We're opening all the offices open. We're here to recognize the opening of a new Services Australia office in the fast growing northern corridors of Perth. Millions of Australians deal with Services Australia. They do 1.1 billion transactions online. They take over 60 million phone calls a year. There are over 10 million individual visits to Services Australia offices. We have 318 Services Australia offices where people do a fantastic job. Coming to use these offices doesn't make you a second class Australian. This is part of your rights as an Australian citizen, and I'm very pleased to see us investing one of the most significant investments in our social services safety net the nation's ever seen. In last Tuesday night's budget, we saw the biggest new investment in our social services safety net that we've ever seen in this country. And we see the results. We see our happy, productive workforce feeling valued. And we also see the millions of people visiting Centrelink or Service Australia and Medicare offices, and they feel that they're getting this sort of attention they deserve. I'm pleased to advise today that for the first time, the backlog of payments, which have been up above 1.3 million payments, is now down to 660,000, which is fantastic.

SHORTEN: We're not there yet, but it reflects the extra 3,000 people that we put on just to prioritise the needs of everyday Australians. Sometimes the coalition talk about faceless public servants as being a bad thing. That's until you need your Medicare paid. That's until you're a domestic violence survivor and you need to sort out payments. That's until you know someone with a disability seeking the pension, or you're someone who's turned, , turned to the aged care to aged care pension system. The people here are worth their weight in gold. The Australians have come in here, have paid taxes their whole lives in many cases, and it's appropriate that we treat them in a first class manner. , seeking the support of government services doesn't make you a lesser Australian. It's part of our birthright. So it's fantastic news. Calls-call waiting times are down. The amount of outstanding payments is down. We've still got a way to go. And I look forward to further good news in this area. Happy to take any questions.

JOURNALIST: Minister, you did focus there when you were speaking to the workers about, increased penalties for people who might be targeting kind of people that work here. Are they sort of being categorised as basically a public officer under the law.

SHORTEN: Yeah. Good point. There's so much going on. , thank you for reminding me of that. There are 100,000 Australians who are what we would term frontline public servants. There's thousands here in services Australia, but it's electorate staff. It's people who are the tax office, people who do the quarantine. It's people who work at the Electoral Commission. No Australian should go to work and be subjected to abuse. , because because someone at the other side of the desk is frustrated. , so what we've done is following a shocking and senseless attack on a Services Australia worker last May. We immediately commissioned a review into the safety of all Services Australia staff. We've got a former senior policeman, Commissioner Graham Ashton and he took a policeman's eye to what needed to be done. And he gave us some really practical recommendations, which we've implemented in full, 44 of them. But one of the things which emerged is that there's some loopholes in the law where frontline staff are not afforded the same protection as other Australian workers. Two in particular found that if you were sold a police officer or a federal judge, you could pay penalty, you could get penalties up to 13 years in jail. But if you assault a public servant or someone working at the Service Australia office, the maxim penalty was ten years. We don't want to have two classes of people in Australia. If you're doing a job for the taxpayer of Australia, you should get the same rights as everyone else. So we're lifting the penalties that's currently in the parliament. But something else we've discovered periodically, and it's only a very small cohort of people who use services Australia have got such challenging behaviours, and managed support plans. But periodically it is the case that our Service Australia workers, but other public servants as well, could be the victims of stalking. That is where someone is a fixated person and starts to put particular pressure on an individual. Up to now, in order for this, for the worker to get this person off their back, they would themselves would have to take an apprehended violence or an AVO. We've said that's not good enough. The people working here are getting picked on because they work here. They're doing a job for all of us. So we're looking at changing the law so that the employer can take the AVO application out on behalf of the the stalked victim. Rather than just leaving it to the individual to have to defend themselves. So we're doing a range of new measures, which again, 99% of people who come in here are just great people, and the people here love looking after them or working with them. But periodically you've got someone whose life has led them to a point where they're either violent, aggressive or they've got very challenging behaviours. That's unfortunate, but it shouldn't be. That is not an excuse for our acts of violence or aggression towards our staff.

JOURNALIST: And just on the NDIS, Minister, the States and territories say the changes to the NDIS risk worse outcomes for people with disability. What reassurance can you provide that that might be?

SHORTEN: Ah they're wrong. It's as simple as this. People with disability don't have time to wait. I get that the States are important players, and it's important to consider their ideas. And some of the things that they've said we'll certainly be listening to, and I'm grateful for that. But the presumption that somehow people with disability have got years to wait until some levels of government want to engage in their needs is wrong. We've had a Disability Royal Commission, which has gone for five years for the whole of 2023. We had a root and branch review as we promised at the last election into the NDIS. I have literally met with tens of thousands of people with disability, their advocates, their intermediaries and their families. People with disability are impatient for us to take Australia to the next step. The NDIS is changing lives. It's a great investment. Best Scheme of its sort in the world, bar none. But it can do better. At the moment the Scheme is growing too fast and people with disability will be the first to agree with that. There are some service providers again, a small number having just a lend of it and charging too much or under servicing. We want to get outcomes for people with disability. But a Scheme can't keep growing at 20% per year. One of the solutions that have been put to us by people with disability is that we need to build services outside the NDIS. The NDIS can't be the only lifeboat in the ocean which makes everyone just need to swim to that to get services.

SHORTEN: So there's a challenge not just for the States, but for other federal departments, for local government and the community at large. The NDIS, if you like, is a chapter in the story of the lives of Australians with disability. But it's not the whole book. What we need to do is reinvest in services for people with disability outside the Scheme, so not all of them need to use the NDIS or get nothing. Some States are doing a great job already. In fact, all of the States in their various ways are doing some things, but they're nervous because they feel somehow that this is some massive cost to them. I would just ask the States to reconsider how they frame this debate. The question I ask myself every day I'm in this job is what's in the best interest of people with disability. The best interests of people with disability is an equitable, transparent, fraud free, constructive NDIS. But I'll tell you what else is in their best interest. Schools where parents of disabled kids are not made to feel like isolated bullies are hospitals which don't treat people with disability as someone just to get away from and put onto the NDIS. We need houses which are fit for purpose for people with disability planning regulations. We need to make sure that the health system, the housing system, the justice system, the education system is serving the needs of people with disability. If you are an Australian with a disability, you are not a citizen of the world of NDIS.

SHORTEN: You are a citizen of Australia or a citizen of Victoria, or a citizen of New South Wales, a citizen of Western Australia. Disability is not someone else's responsibility. Disability could be any of us. From birth to the blink of an eye. On a country road to just the particular DNA lottery you've got. It's a job for all of us. We'll work with the States and we'll work with them. And we don't expect them to do all the heavy lifting. I mean, they're not now, but what we shouldn't do is have the tyranny of low expectations for Australians with disability. The NDIS is marvellous, but it's not the whole story. People with disability want to see all of us step up in jobs and schools, in hospitals, in doctors surgeries, in buses, in trains and in houses and indeed our justice system. That's what all of us to do. So I say to the premiers, we'll work together, but please don't sell people with disabilities short by saying everything's too hard and that we've got to wait to some magical unicorn day in the future when everyone's got the answer to everything before we can do anything. Do not make the perfect the enemy of the good. We've got some good ideas. We will modify what we're doing with good contributions to people with disability, but we're not going to stop looking after people with disability because some people haven't turned their mind fully to the exercise.

JOURNALIST: The States are seeking more detail on which people will need to access support through the States, instead of the NDIS. Are there any categories there? What examples.

SHORTEN: Are? It's one of the great bureaucratic games of fetch, isn't it, where you bring detail to people and then they throw the detail ball away and you've got to run away. I'll get more detail and more detail and more detail. The States know who people with disability. We are because they live in this state. They pay their taxes, they're going to their schools. They're going they're catching their buses. They're living in their houses. We'll work it through with the States. But let's not use people with disability as a political football to justify doing not enough. We're not. Every day since I've been elected minister the most I've worked on disability. I think there are some in the States who are a bit surprised that we actually mean what we say.

JOURNALIST: And what will happen to the NDIS if.

SHORTEN: Well, at the moment the Scheme is growing at 20%. It's $42 billion this year. If we're able to do our reforms, it'll be about $211 billion of investment over the next four years. If we don't do our reforms, it'll be more like $230 billion over the next four years. Why on earth would we, , expend $19 billion of taxpayer money when we could reinvest some of that in our schools and our hospitals, working with the States? There'll be more people on the Scheme tomorrow than today. Under our reforms, there'll be more invested in people with disability under our reforms tomorrow than there is today. But people with disability are owed the best, most diligent stewardship of the Scheme in co-design with them. And UN and the States just need to. They need to stop whingeing about the fact that we're getting on with our day job and join us.

JOURNALIST: A couple of questions from Hobart, an Indian student who's been left paralysed and brain damaged after an alleged assault in Hobart last year, and under his student visa conditions, he can't get access to NDIS or Centrelink. Is there anything the Federal Government can do to support him?

SHORTEN: Well, the laws vary. First of all, I think his name Dev. It's shocking what's happened to him and his family, and I saw some of this. I saw some of his story over the last few days. So it is shocking what's happened to him. Our system of the NDIS and Services Australia are for Australian citizens and people who are currently eligible. That's the law. I've asked my department to see if there's anything that can be done to assist him or his family, but we're not about to open up the NDIS to every visitor who comes to Australia. We can't. , that would be a promise. Which was we could take. But it's still tragic what's happened to him. And so certainly he shouldn't be ignored or forgotten. But the idea that we could open up our Scheme to anyone who hopped on a plane and came to Australia. We can't promise that. And I don't think anyone seriously thinks we should.

JOURNALIST: His plight's been highlighted in the Indian media, are you concerned about the impact it could have on Tasmania or Australia's reputation for international students?

SHORTEN: Oh, I'm concerned about him first and foremost. For me, Australian Indian relations are very important. But for me, it's about what happens to the human involved here. But the idea that we could just simply open up our system of benefits, supported by Australian taxpayers to anyone who came here as a visitor, that's a big call. It's not one I'm going to make.

JOURNALIST: And a more general question, do you have any views on what should be done to protect teens or young people on social media?

SHORTEN: Well, I know that the government's working on this. The reality is that I think when social media started, we all thought, this is a great way to keep in touch. And our young people certainly are more networked with each other than ever before in their lives, so that's good. But to some extent, I feel that social media, we wouldn't allow 12 and 13 year olds to bring a gun home, but through their smartphone and some of the platforms, it's effectively brought a gun into the house. So I do think it needs regulation. I think parents are struggling. The fact that one of the most commonly sold items at Bunnings is a safe is a real concern. The reason why the Bunnings safe is one of the most commonly the common purpose of buying it is for parents to lock kids phones up overnight, so this is a real issue. I think that age verification is a worthwhile area to investigate. I don't think it's right, though, that we put everything back on parents to look after their kids. Parents who do that- no parent in Australia needs a lecture from anyone else to say mind your kids better. But the big social media platforms need to get their act together. They say that they're this sort of neutral platform and whatever goes on, it's not their business. Well that's garbage. The reality is, if there's violence, if there's pornography, if it's used to bully people, that is an issue for the social media platforms. It's not the parents or kids getting rich out of social media. It's the giant multinational social media platforms. And yeah, I do think that we need to do whatever is technologically available to be able to put the pressure back on the design. The idea you can ask a kid not to use a smartphone is a little unrealistic, but the idea that you can ask the people who are the social media platforms to have better design features, that's not unrealistic.

JOURNALIST: So back to the centre. And you said it was your 40th one you visited in Australia. Can you tell us anything about what makes this one particular special, whether it's the services it offers or location or staffing?

Well. All Service Centres start with the secret spices and the secret spices at Services Australia are the staff. That's what actually makes a difference. It's the direct relationships people have. A Services Australia worker is not paid a princely sum of money, although they do get a pay rise under this government, which is good. But they're not. They're just what the what the teams who work here do is they look after each other, they keep an eye on each other, and they're incredibly interested in everyone who comes in through the door. So the first thing which makes this centre special is its staff. But also what we've got here is we've got- this doesn't make you feel like you're visiting a prison cell. You know, sometimes when our Social Security support was dolled out in the past. You were made to feel like you're a second rate Australian for coming in here. This is warm, it's friendly. The design is done in a way where people feel that they're going to get, you know, a professional level of support. So the physical layout is good. But I also Tracey's got a finger on the pulse. She also made a really great point. There is a no paid parking requirement here. So you don't you're not going to get a ticket when you come here. So that's a bonus too.

JOURNALIST: Sure and you were talking about how the wait times, for processing claims and all those different things are decreasing. This centre in particular. Has it decreased any wait times?

SHORTEN: In terms of call waiting times? We don't break it down by physical postcode because lots of calls, they go they can be shuttled anywhere around Australia and payment processing is the same. But there's no doubt that the staff here and the National Disability Insurance Agencies co-located here, there's no doubt that, the people who are using this centre, they're happy that it's it's where they live. A lot of the workforce live in this area. , in terms of those national metrics I was using their National for a reason because our resources pool nationally, when we answer the phone, we'll sort out people's payments.

JOURNALIST: Sure and that co-location of services is that, a new thing that's being rolled out?

SHORTEN: It's starting to be with the NDIA and Service Australia. One happy day you perhaps have all your government services in the same building State, Federal and even Council. But it's only been 120 years of federation, so let's not get ahead of ourselves.

JOURNALIST: So yeah, you were talking about the budget and the investment from Services Australia in this budget in terms of staffing and things like that. But in terms of the actual payments, was there anything maybe done there or people would have liked to see more benefits for child care subsidies and other things?

SHORTEN: Your question reminds me that you're only as good as your next win, but let's not gloss over the past wins too quickly. The reality is that in two budgets, we've increased the Commonwealth rent assistance. We now pay superannuation on family leave. We've also improved childcare benefits and rebates. So we have actually been significantly investing in a range of our payments that we have here for Australians. Thank you. Thanks, everybody.