Services Australia needs to be improved, says disability advocates and unions

Posted 2 years ago by Anna Christian
The Federal Government has been gradually privatising and digitising Services Australia. [Source: Shutterstock]
The Federal Government has been gradually privatising and digitising Services Australia. [Source: Shutterstock]

A shared statement has been released by social services unions, not for profit organisations and disability advocates calling for changes to Services Australia to make sure all Australians have access to Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support.

The 13 organisations that released the statement are led by the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) and include People with Disability Australia (PWDA), St Vincent de Paul Society, Anglicare Australia and the Fair Go For Pensioners Coalition of Victoria.

The shared statement says even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic the Commonwealth Government has continued to privatise jobs and outsource services, with more than 30 percent of the Services Australia workforce now “outsourced or insecure”.

According to these organisations, this means less training for workers, more errors and more delays for the community, and for Services Australia to be properly resourced the workforce must be well trained, secure and experienced.

CPSU National President, Alistair Waters, says the statement outlines what must be done to ensure Services Australia is an agency that delivers a social security system that all Australians can rely on and which treats all with dignity, compassion, and respect.

“The way a Government runs agencies like Services Australia has the capacity to ruin lives, just like we saw from the Robodebt program and the deliberate damage inflicted on community members,” he says.

PWDA Senior Manager of Policy, Giancarlo de Vera, labelled the current situation at Services Australia as “death by a thousand cuts” as the Government gradually privatises and digitises the workforce.

Mx* de Vera says the reduction in face-to-face services is the biggest barrier to accessibility for people with disability.

“A lot of it concerns the digitisation of the human services of a lot of their programs and how people can engage. A lot of the time, for a whole range of accessibility reasons, that’s not a good way of doing things – people sometimes need to be able to go in and speak to someone,” they say.

“For something as simple as submitting a Medicare claim, if you go into a Services Australia office they’ll just tell you to go online and there are a range of issues for someone who can’t do that, let alone the fact that we see online services are incredibly difficult for those people because of the digital divide that exists for people with disability and their access to the internet.

“We also are concerned about the way this will look in the future, so for instance there will be a new national employment services model that will be deployed this year and all that’s digital offering.”

As the Federal election approaches in the coming months, Mx de Vera is calling on voters to hold their local candidates to a commitment to stop the cuts in funding and privatisation of Services Australia and to invest in making services accessible to all people with disability through humanising services.

“Sometimes we need to speak to people who can understand the human dimension of some of these issues, obviously you don’t get that in a digital environment,” Mx de Vera adds.

“We’re concerned that with the Government privatising all of the jobs – committing to less training, less security for their workers – that there’ll be less of that culture of wanting to support people with a human touch. A lot of the time that’s all it needs.

“Sometimes it’s just a conversation that needs to happen with somebody who can do something about it in ten minutes as opposed to going through the rigmarole of online services. That takes a lot longer and sometimes you might not know what to do next, and that’s what we’re really concerned about…what happens when the computer doesn’t tell you what to do next?

“Even if it does, it may not be an appropriate option depending on the person with disability.”

Joining with other organisations for the shared statement shows a concerted effort to raise awareness of the issues within Services Australia as a key election issue, Mx de Vera says.

“It’s about recognising that this is about the workers, investing in the workers to have these jobs in the first place, but also recognising that this cuts across the social services sector,” they say.

“The people that have signed this statement are pretty large providers and a lot of them deal with pointy end situations all the time, so they recognise that when you are in a pointy end situation that’s when the system fails and that’s when you need someone who’s human and is able to be invested in providing a solution to a problem that someone might have.”

The shared statement includes a number of other commitments that the organisations want candidates to make, including:

  • Developing a respectful and compassionate social security system, including by implementing the Australian Council of Social Services’ Raise the Rates recommendations so that everyone is able to afford the basics of life
  • Increasing resources for phone and face-to-face services
  • Removing breach powers from private JobActive providers and returning them to Services Australia
  • Redesigning the debt recovery process so that it is fair and humane, allowing trained and experienced staff to exercise discretion
  • Reinstating the statute of limitations for debt recovery
  • Respecting affected Australians by abolishing the cashless debit card and income quarantining methods
  • Increasing staffing numbers for the Indigenous Services business line
  • Hiring more social workers so they can fulfil their case management role supporting vulnerable members of the community, and not just process claims
  • Rebuilding in-house capacity and expertise of Services Australia by converting insecure workers to secure Australian Public Sector jobs, with proper training, where they can build up experience

The full shared statement can be read here.

*Mx is a gender-neutral title used by people who don’t identify as being of a particular gender or people who don’t want to be identified by gender. [Definition from Merriam-Webster online dictionary]