Joel Fitzgobbon: Centrelink crisis a hearltess act.

Centrelink's inability to adequately service its clients has reached crisis point. You can only squeeze so much from the lemon and funding and resourcing cuts should have stopped long ago.

The people affected are the elderly, the sick, the unemployed, students, and family members with an elderly parent or disabled child in need of support. Imagine going in to Centrelink in terrible need of help or support, only to be sent to the corner to use a computer, or to phone the 1300 number. Typically, the latter option will result in an hour on the phone on hold, if you’re lucky!

The situation has been made worse thanks to the Turnbull Government's terrible debt recovery program. It's chewing up so many of Centrelink's limited resources and leaving people sick with worry over letters informing them that they owe large amounts of money. 

After highlighting these growing problems in the final months of last year, I said I would make it a priority in 2017.  Consequently, I marked the first day of Parliament for the year with a speech on the issue in the House of Representatives.  I was pleased to find I wasn’t alone.  Labor MPs from across the country lined-up to highlight the plights of local constituents.

Centrelink resources must be restored, and the debt recovery action must stop until the Government sorts out the failures in its systems. Constituents in my electorate are receiving letters from external debt collectors before being given any opportunity to respond, appeal or have the decision reviewed. Many of these debts actually do not exist and many of them go back so far—in some cases seven years — and people are not in a position to challenge the debt. They no longer have the pay slips and the records they need.

There is another group of victims; those who work in our Centrelink office.  Not surprisingly, they too often find themselves on the wrong end of frustrated and desperate clients.  They are doing their best, but they are not super-human.  Now they’re planning strike action and who can blame them?

No one would expect Centrelink clients to be offered a Rolls Royce service, nor would they expect it.  But they do deserve to be treated with dignity.  

I’ve had constituents visit my office in tears.  We are doing our best for them and we have more than a few wins. But the dysfunctional state of the system is making it harder and harder to assist.

Where has our compassion gone?  When will the Government wake up?