LISA CHESTERS, MEMBER FOR BENDIGO: The staff here at Services Australia kept working throughout the entire pandemic. It stuck with me how dedicated they are, and so I thought it was really important to bring the Minister (Bill Shorten) here to not only thank them for what they do, but to learn from them on how we can improve Services Australia.
Services Australia touches almost every Australian in some way. We have to engage with them, whether it be a youth allowance payment, a pension payment, whether it be childcare, you name it. It's rare to find someone who hasn't had an interaction with Services Australia in the last decade or into the future.
I think that we can learn a lot from our frontline team on how we can do better, and that was the other key reason why I wanted to bring the Minister here today. So welcome back to Bendigo, a good friend of mine, Bill Shorten.
BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Thanks Lisa. And I congratulate Lisa Chesters on getting re-elected in Bendigo. She has turned this from a marginal seat into one which votes Labor quite significantly, and it's largely due to Lisa Chesters.
It's great to be here at Services Australia. Services Australia is an important employer in Bendigo, it delivers 230 plus jobs, and a lot of the people who work here have been working here for more than 10 years. So it's a good employer and it provides opportunities for local residents to have meaningful work and help deliver something back for the country and the region.
Services Australia Bendigo has supported the Bendigo community and well beyond over COVID and during the recent spate of natural disasters. I've got with me Susan and Trish who might say a few words about what they've been doing.
Susan worked on the COVID-19 JobKeeper payments and also Trish has just been working on the most recent shocking floods in New South Wales where people in Bendigo have been helping their fellow Australians in trouble.
I just want to conclude by saying Services Australia is a fundamental part of the Australian Government. It is important that we make sure that model jobs in government are in Canberra, and to me the smart centre, the payments and support that happens here, the office facing the public, is a big part of Labor's commitment to regional jobs in Australia and also having a generous well-funded safety net for people who are vulnerable.
I might just ask Susan if she wants to share a bit of her experience looking after people during COVID.
SUSAN, SERVICES AUSTRALIA EMPLOYEE: So I started with Services Australia March 2020 just as COVID was a thing, and we processed thousands of JobSeeker claims and low-income health care card claims. It was a privilege to be able to try and make things a little bit easier over a pretty rough period for a lot of Australians.
I was actually encouraged to start working here by my son who has been here for four years, and it's the best thing that I've ever done. It's an honour to be able to help people. It’s an absolute privilege.
REPORTER: What was it like, jumping in the deep end, so close to lockdowns?
SUSAN: It was good. We were doing evenings when I first started here. So we would start at five and work through until 10. We had an empty office so it was obviously a very safe environment with COVID. So yeah, it was great. It was really good.
REPORTER: Just how crazy was one of those busiest days processing all the COVID payments?
SUSAN: Every day was a busy day. We didn't have any day that was you know, particularly busier than any other day. Literally thousands of claims got done during those first few months. And even, you know, even now we're still working through claims to try and assist people which is good.
REPORTER: You sort of touched on it before, what’s it like doing a job where you're directly benefiting families that need to eat or have shelter?
SUSAN: That's just it. At that time, it was the difference between people being able to afford to feed their families, being able to afford to pay their bills, pay their mortgages, things like that. And we were able to support them through that. So yeah, it was really good and I guess we all felt like we were doing our bit to try and help people through it. It was pretty tough and it still is.
REPORTER: Working through that, did that bring you closer as a workforce?
SUSAN: Yeah I believe so. My team initially, was there was 30 of us that started. A large number of us stayed on, I now work for health services so I'm working in a different division now. But still part of Services Australia. But yeah, a lot of us were able to secure jobs and manage to stay on which was important as casuals. I'm still a casual but I’m not going anywhere, it’s a great place to work.
REPORTER: Is it still busy as ever?
SUSAN: Absolutely. We’re processing all different types of claims, your flood claims, still your COVID payments, lots of different types of claims are still coming in. People still in need of our support. So that's what we're here to do.
SHORTEN: Trish, do you want to talk to your recent experience with the floods?
TRISH, SERVICES AUSTRALIA EMPLOYEE: Yes, sure. In March 2022, earlier this year, I went to Southern Queensland and New South Wales as part of flood relief. We were going to the recovery centres with all the other services in New South Wales and Queensland so I was involved in the Gaven Recovery Centre for a week. That's in the Lockyer Valley.
Then we went to the Central Coast of New South Wales and we had two recovery centres there. There were three of us from Services Australia. We had a social worker, another staff member and myself. So we did two weeks in that area. We had to be really flexible and just, you know at the drop of the hat fly someone somewhere else or go to the Gold Coast.
REPORTER: So that work, is that work helping people get financial support for the floods?
TRISH: Yes. We're helping people get financial support. So we were delivering the disaster recovery payment of $1,000 for adults, $400 for children.
REPORTER: Being exposed to families, and I guess trauma and hardship every day, was that hard?
TRISH: It was. Everyone had their own story to tell. So we would just listen and like, it was really hard. Some people were devastated with the floods. So it was a pleasure to help to help them. The other thing that I found is that, they were just from all over the community, they weren't just on payments. It was everybody.
REPORTER: And I guess that’s part of the stigma isn’t it? Everyone has this idea of who is on Centrelink payments, your experience tells you that it can be anybody and everybody?
TRISH: Yeah that’s right. So it was a pleasure to sort of help the community, whoever needed the help. So I spent five weeks up there in total, and it was a good experience for me and met so many wonderful staff from all around Australia. It was great.
REPORTER: What’s it like now, looking at the recovery?
TRISH: It's still busy. We're still working on claims. And unfortunately, I just hope it doesn't happen again. But you just sort of think; ‘well it possibly could’ and that is really sad. And some people have got nowhere to live. Like that's the hardest part. I came back to a house but the farmlands in Lockyer Valley, that’s the food source for a lot of Australia and they were devastated. I saw a creek and there was a shipping container in it. Like it was just like a cyclone and gone through but it was a flood.
REPORTER: Minister, can we ask you a few questions?
REPORTER: Running off the back of what we’ve seen in Bendigo, is there maybe consideration that the Government might see more customer service call centres controlled by the Government rather than commercially?
SHORTEN: Labor has committed to where we can, to try and bring in outsourced jobs to within the public service. The previous government used to think the words public service were dirty words. We don't share that view.
These are trained Commonwealth public servants who are veterans, and are experienced in understanding the system, and also even more broadly, trained to deal with people who, for whatever set of circumstances in life, has led them walk through the office doors or to get online and need help. So I think there is value in a well-funded, well invested well-resourced Australian Public Service.
REPORTER: I wanted to ask you about the NDIS, what’s the Government doing to improve the Scheme?
SHORTEN: A lot, because there’s a lot of improvements that are necessary. I know that in elections, each side, they say tough things about each other. But not in my wildest dreams, could I imagine some of the problems from Opposition that I've now discovered as government in the NDIS.
It's a great scheme and just helping a lot of people. But the level of bureaucratic blockage, the inexplicable nature of some decisions, the fact that people are stuck in hospital beds but were eligible for the NDIS for hundreds of days, the fact that thousands of our fellow citizens have to take a government agency to court to reverse unfair cuts…
The aim of the system was not to re-traumatise people. And so whilst there's a lot of good news under the bonnet, there's some pretty disappointing dysfunction. So I intend to blitz the waiting list to court, and no amount of red tape or excuses from within the bureaucracy is going to stop me doing that. We're going to get people out of hospital with appropriate accommodation and these are just fundamental issues to address. More generally, we will review the system to make sure the planning process works better, that it's more seamless, it’s more transparent, take out a lot of red tape.
I also want to make sure that the people who are providing services are fair dinkum. There's a lot of great providers, but there are some scallywags and cheats and frauds overcharging and under servicing and I'm going to make clear to them that they have no welcome mat in the NDIS.
REPORTER: How are you going to do that? Are you going to ban unregistered providers from offering their services?
SHORTEN: I think it is a red line issue to make sure that people who are delivering care services, are registered in terms of the workforce, in terms of their training and in terms of their quality. I haven't formed a final view about how far registration should go, but I am concerned that for some of the unregistered providers, it's the Wild West and anything goes and that's got to stop.
Taxpayers generously fund the NDIS and it’s great they do. But they do it on the expectation the money is getting through to the people who the Scheme was aimed for. The Scheme was aimed for the profoundly and severely impaired. What makes my blood boil is when I find cases of overcharging, where I find cases of crooks or other people skimming, interfering, getting their snout into the Scheme before the money has got to the people it was meant to go to.
REPORTER: One issue we've heard of with the NDIS is home modifications. A lot of people can't get the money through the Scheme for home modifications that they need to make their home safe for them. Is this something that you're going to look at changing with the Scheme?
SHORTEN: Yeah I want to make it easier. I think that there's some complex problems. There are people were pretty complex needs but not everyone's needs are as complex as the red tape would seem to warrant. We’ve been modifying homes ever since servicemen came home from the First World War. We've been using assistive technology, really since the 19th century in Australia. The ordering of home mods or assistive technology shouldn't be as complicated as it is. You know, you can go on Amazon and get something from around the world in a matter of days. But if you want a home modification, a safer shower or ramp, in some cases the delay is just mind boggling. So that's certainly on my to do list is to speed up approval processes.