18 October 2023

On February 19, 1986, a young Melbourne woman called Joeanne Cassar had her first day on the job at Medibank, which soon after was renamed Medicare and then became Services Australia.

On May 23 this year, Joeanne was brutally attacked at the job she has loved going to for 37 years.

She was stabbed in the back by a customer and will never fully recover from her injuries.

Joeanne, a softly spoken woman, is a senior and much-loved team leader of a Services Australia service centre in Melbourne.

I visited Joeanne in hospital and have kept in touch since then. I have witnessed the toll this had on Joeanne and her family.

What happened to Joeanne also, understandably, has had a terrible impact on her colleagues and the customers.

The day after the stabbing, I visited the staff where Joeanne works in Airport West in Melbourne's north-west, and I promised them I would try to do what I could to get things moving to help them and the people who use their service to be safe.

I immediately asked the former chief commissioner of Victoria Police, Graham Ashton, to use an experienced police officer's eye to review the safety of Service Australia's staff and users.

Services Australia staff across the country, including at Airport West, were integral to the Ashton review.

To put some perspective into what I asked Mr Ashton to review: Services Australia has 318 service centres across Australia, with more than 6000 staff providing face-to-face support to Australians.

During 2022-23, Services Australia had 10 million face-to-face interactions in service centres. In the same period there were almost 9000 customer aggression incidents in the face-to-face category.

We know that it is a very small cohort of people who act aggressively or violently. They are in no way representative of the millions of Australians who come to Services Australia every year.

We also know that people can act out for particular reasons. Often people who act violently or aggressively are looking for instant access to an advance on their normal payments and are told no.

Mr Ashton did a great job in a very short amount of time. He didn't stuff around, giving me a report within eight weeks. He gave us 44 recommendations to improve safety.

I'm pleased to tell you that I took these recommendations to the Government, and the Albanese Government has endorsed taking action on all of them Last week, with Joeanne beside me, I announced new steps to help improve the safety of Services Australia staff when they come to work.

Joeanne, supported by her devoted husband, came back to the scene of her stabbing and bravely spoke about the difference the safety changes would make.

She did not want to focus on her own injuries. Joeanne wanted to speak on behalf of her friends and colleagues across Services Australia. It showed enormous courage and conviction.

Building on from Mr Ashton's recommendations, we will explore ways to further protect public servants who deliver services in Commonwealth agencies such as Services Australia, the NDIS, the ATO, agriculture inspectors and departments including Home Affairs. This includes examining laws that deter and punish violence and aggression against all Commonwealth public sector workers who deliver services to Australians including a Commonwealth Workplace Protection Order Scheme.

That means that if someone has felt threatened, they don't personally need to take an intervention order against the perpetrator who might be hanging around. The agency will have the power to do it on your behalf.

For Services Australia staff and customers, we are going to significantly boost security.

This includes 270 extra security guards, better IT systems, updating service centre design and giving advanced customer aggression training to 500 staff to deal with escalated incidents.

Following the release of the Ashton review, we're prioritising staff and customer safety in designs moving forward, with a new service centre in Butler to be physically designed to acknowledge important recommendations outlined in the review The new Butler service centre will open in early 2024 and will service one of Australia's fastest growing regions, Perth's northern corridor.

Federal Member for Pearce Tracey Roberts welcomed the announcement to provide better access to vital government services for northern residents.

The service centre will have 11 Services Australia staff members and customers will also be able to access the support for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

In other parts of Australia, five large service centres will also receive additional security features, such as enhanced lobby design with a customer self check-in kiosk. These features will also be implemented in future centre upgrades.

Like Joeanne, the committed people who work at Services Australia work with everyday Australians to help them access government services.

They are on the coalface when people need them most.

These are the people we need to look after so they can look after us. Just like our nurses, firefighters, teachers, no one should go to work and have to experience aggression and violence. So we need to make sure they staff and customers are safe when they visit a Commonwealth office.

We want hardworking, committed public servants, people like Joeanne, to return home safely from work every day.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 18 October 2023.