ADJOURNMENT;Tasmania: Centrelink and Medicare – 23 Feb 2016

Before I begin my speech tonight I would like to add my support to the comments made by Senator Polley in regard to ovarian cancer, which obviously is a very serious issue.

Recently I delivered an adjournment speech about the campaign that the member for Franklin, Julie Collins, and I have been running to save the Centrelink and Medicare service centre in Kingston. It has been just over a month since the now former Minister for Human Services, Stuart Robert, announced that the service centre would close in March this year. Last Sunday Julie Collins and I hosted a public forum to let the community’s voice be heard on the future of the centre. It was attended by about 300 people and their message was loud and clear: they want local services in Kingston to improve, not to diminish.

The overwhelming support that we have received just goes to show how determined the local community is to have access to these vital public services. Already around 3000 Kingborough and Huon Valley residents have signed our petition calling for the centre not to be closed. This service centre currently provides the only face-to-face Centrelink services in Kingborough, a municipality of 35,000 people and the fastest growing population centre in Tasmania. It is also the only face-to-face Medicare service for 50,000 people south of Hobart, some of whom live up to 120 kilometres from the city. When the member for Franklin and I met with the former minister a few weeks ago, he argued that Kingston and the Hobart CBD were close. He did not seem to understand that the extra distance presents challenges for many Centrelink and Medicare customers.

At the Kingston service centre, it is easy to find a free and convenient car park right by the entrance. It is a struggle to access one of the metered parking spaces near the Hobart service centre entrance, and at most times of the day you would have little choice but to walk hundreds of metres from a car park, or from a bus stop should you opt to take public transport. Obviously this is inconvenient. For those on low incomes, having to fork out money for a bus fare or parking can be a significant impost—let alone the need to run in and out to pay for your parking meter, if you get one—but for the elderly or chronically ill it can be an absolute nightmare.

At the forum we heard stories of people with elderly relatives—including one who was over 90 years old with a walking frame—who visit the service centre in Kingston on a regular basis and only have to walk a few metres from a car space to the door. For them, the idea of trying to get around the Hobart CBD was terrifying. While there are phone and online services available—we have just heard from Senator Siewert how well that is working—a number of people at the forum explained that they rely on face-to-face services for in-depth advice. Many Centrelink customers are now frustrated and angry with the phone services, because they are facing astronomical wait times. During the 2013-14 financial year, Australians spent a combined total of 143 years on hold to Centrelink, and 57 million calls went unanswered. As CPSU state secretary Jess Munday told the forum, there are 5,000 fewer staff answering incoming calls at Centrelink across Australia than there were five years ago. With many people not feeling confident or safe using a computer, online services are not a viable alternative. Even for those who are happy to use a computer, it is worth noting that 40 per cent of phone calls to Centrelink result from failed attempts at using online or self-services. I should make it clear at this point that none of these criticisms are aimed at the hard-working staff at Centrelink, who do an excellent job under very difficult circumstances. In fact, I expect that those staff at the Kingston service centre are likely facing as much anxiety as the customers who are affected.

I am pleased that, only a few days ago, the new Minister for Human Services, Alan Tudge, finally backflipped on the government’s decision. No doubt the government has been dragged kicking and screaming to this decision because of the strong community backlash. The events of the past few weeks would make great material for an episode of Yes, Minister. The former minister was adamant, both in a meeting with me and Ms Collins and in a letter to the editor in the Kingborough Chronicle, that his mind was made up and could not be changed. Minister Robert was surprisingly confident about the closure for someone who had had no consultation with the people affected, but it was just a matter of days after his letter appeared in the local paper that he left his portfolio in shame and had his original decision overturned. The decision backfired on the former minister so badly he must have thought it was Guy Fawkes night. This is the kind of decision that Sir Humphrey Appleby would have described as ‘courageous’—and avid watchers of Yes, Minister will understand that this is not a compliment. Perhaps if Mr Robert had focused a little more of his attention on Kingston and a bit less on China he might have made a more informed decision. But, as the saying goes, success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.

In my last speech I noted the deafening silence on this issue from Liberals, including Senators Abetz and Bushby. Now that the service centre is being retained they are falling all over themselves to take credit for it. In fact, they were so keen to take credit that the decision was tweeted by Senator Bushby and announced in a media release by the Liberal candidate for Franklin on Friday, despite the minister’s media release being embargoed till 9 am the following Saturday. I think they got a bit excited. I am sure the 50,000 people in Kingborough and Huon Valley who rely on this service centre are very pleased that the Liberals worked so hard to save it from, well, themselves. The Liberals trying to take credit for this is like a mugger claiming to have saved you money because he decided not to take your wallet after all. It is refreshing to hear from the Liberal candidate for Franklin after her previous silence on the matter, but it is a bit rich for her to take credit when her entire efforts amounted to issuing a media release. Is she seriously trying to suggest that my and Julie Collins’s vocal and consistent lobbying efforts, and the 3,000 people who joined our campaign, had nothing to do with the decision? While I commend Ms Collins’s leadership in this campaign, credit must also go to the thousands of members of the community who spoke up for their local services. This win belongs to them, but the battle is not over yet. We are yet to see what form the Kingston service centre will take, with the service to be co-located with the Tasmanian government’s Service Tasmania.

It is worth pointing out that the decision to retain the service centre was announced before the public forum on Sunday, yet it did not dampen the enthusiasm of the 300 people who attended. We know that the community are not entirely satisfied with the announcement, and they want to hear more. The strong message that was sent by the residents who spoke at the forum was that they wish to have at least the same level of service maintained in Kingston, if not better. A couple of people who had experience with co-located federal and state government services in other parts of the state said that the resulting service had been less than ideal. The current Service Tasmania office in Channel Court Shopping Centre is a very small shopfront, and many local residents are concerned about whether it can accommodate the same level of service while also allowing for the necessary privacy of clients. The last thing they want is to go to Kingston for help, only to be told they have wasted their time and have to travel to Hobart or wait on a phone for a couple of hours to get their answer—if the phone gets answered. Today, Ms Collins has written to Minister Tudge seeking further detail about the form the service will take.

This government may think that contact services for government agencies are a soft target for budget cuts, but Australians—especially those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged—must be able to deal easily and conveniently with government agencies by the methods that suit them, whether it be online, by phone or, more importantly, face-to-face. The Kingston service centre may be saved, in some form, for now. But we are not kidded; this is a symptom of a much larger problem—that of the rapid deterioration in public services under this heartless Abbott-Turnbull government. Julie Collins, the federal member for Franklin, and I will continue fighting alongside the community not just to retain the current level of service in Kingston but to improve it. As I have said, Julie Collins has worked extremely hard to make sure that this disastrous decision by a disastrous minister is overturned. On one Facebook page it was said that that closing the Kingston service centre was a Labor decision, which we found extraordinarily funny. It was Julie Collins who in the beginning organised to have the centre put there in the first place, and it was Julie Collins who lobbied to make sure that the residents of Kingston and Huon Valley had the appropriate services. As I said, the previous minister, Mr Robert, was more concerned with what was happening in China than he was with what was happening in Kingston, and it was him and the previous government who made the decision to close the centre. Although we are pleased that the new minister, Mr Tudge, has backflipped on the decision, we are very concerned that the services are retained at least to the standard they have been of late, if not improved.