Over the past two years, unprecedented numbers of Australians have relied on workers at Services Australia for support during the pandemic, bushfires, floods, and cyclones.
Of course, at some stage in our lives all of us will rely on Services Australia, whether it be through Centrelink, Medicare, or Child Support workers.
The people working at Services Australia have done a stellar job throughout the pandemic, delivering support for our community, and making sure Centrelink offices remain open even as COVID surges. But the people I am proud to represent, CPSU members working at Services Australia, tell me Services Australia could do better.
That's why the CPSU has joined with other people and organisations like the Australian Council of Social Service, the St Vincent de Paul Society, Anglicare, Per Capita, Father Bob Maguire, Reverend Bill Crews, the Wayside Chapel, Fair Go for Pensioners, Homelessness NSW, People with Disability Australia, and the ACTU to call for a better Services Australia.
The joint statement released today lays out what must be done if we want a better Services Australia. If we want an agency that delivers a social security system all Australians can rely on, and that treats everyone with dignity, compassion, and respect.
Under the Morrison government, insecure work at Services Australia has increased every year, with now over 30 per cent of workers in some form of insecure employment. The fact is that privatised workers are often paid less than public servants, while the labour-hire firms that employ them cash in eye-watering contracts.
What the government's privatisation of Services Australia jobs means is less training and less security for workers, higher turnover, more errors, more time spent by permanent staff fixing those errors, and real delays for the community.
These mistakes have real-world consequences. Recently an inexperienced insecure worker with not enough training was unaware they had to access a second IT system to turn off an auto-generated letter that forced a frail aged pensioner in her 90s to unnecessarily attend a Centrelink office in person to prove her identity in the middle of the pandemic.
A secure, experienced, and well-trained workforce is key to a strong social security system and a highly effective Services Australia.
The way a government chooses to run agencies like Services Australia can save or ruin lives, just like we saw with the robodebt program, and the damage it inflicted on community members. When the scheme was first announced, CPSU members working in debt recovery questioned its legality, only to be told by senior management and the minister to "get back to work".
Australians expect better than what this government is doing to our social security system. We expect to be treated justly, and there is no reason we cannot have a just social security system.
The statement released today sets out a better way. It details commonsense changes to make our safety net fair and equitable. It calls on the Morrison government to redesign the debt recovery process, so that it is fair and allows trained and experienced staff to exercise discretion. It also calls for decisions to cut off benefits to be made by APS officers, not privatised employment services providers.
Throughout COVID, we've seen how critical it is for our social security system to have payments that mean everyone can afford the basics of life and live above the poverty line. That is why we are calling on the Morrison government to raise the rate.
We've seen how important it is to be able to access our social security system. That means having the resources for phone and face-to-face services that make access easier to genuinely support older Australians, and all those who struggle with online services.
We need to rebuild in-house capacity and the expertise of Services Australia by converting insecure workers to people in secure public service jobs, with proper training, so they can build up experience. And there must be enough social workers and Indigenous service workers to genuinely help the most vulnerable members of our community.
It's time to stop the privatisation of Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support, and ensure a strong and publicly funded social security system that is accessible to all.
- Alistair Waters is national president of the Community and Public Sector Union. Go to proudtobepublic.org.au to read the joint statement for a better Services Australia.