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15 December 2021

On Sunday March 22, 2020, the second National Cabinet was held, with the nation gripped for the announcement that would follow. It was at that meeting Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the State and Territory leaders agreed the first stage of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions would come into effect.

Restaurants, cafes, pubs, casinos, clubs, gyms, cinemas, and religious gatherings would be restricted from midday the next day.

The closures plunged Australia into the reality of the pandemic that, so far, we had watched only in horror from overseas on TV in the safety of our homes. We never thought we would be facing the same pandemic pandemonium.

But as case numbers rose across the nation, workplaces shut down and genuine panic set in, strict social distancing measures were urgently needed. Hundreds of thousands of Australians were suddenly out of work and Services Australia's MyGov app had crashed under the enormous demand for urgent assistance.

These stage one restrictions were expected to be in place for six months. As we now know, this went for far, far longer.

The next day on March 23, Perth's temperature was pushing a hot and windy 33C.

Outside the Osborne Park Centrelink service centre, a queue of more than 100 people snaked 200m around the block.

Osborne Park was just one of the hundreds of Centrelink locations where people lined up to apply for Government assistance, many for the first time. Social distancing measures meant only 12 people were allowed inside the Osborne Park building at a time. Footage of the day shows people slathering themselves in sunscreen, with a few people donning masks and applying hand sanitiser.

People were understandably worried and scared. The world had changed overnight.

What the people lining up wanted was simple help. They couldn't get it online and for some it meant the difference of feeding themselves or their family or a roof over their heads.

By May 2020, more than one million Australians had lost their jobs in the pandemic and the Centrelink queues had become the norm. There was a stark irony that a neo-liberal conservative government that never rests from attacking the social security system came to rely on that very thing in the depths of the pandemic.

But the great Australian safety net came into its own as a major part of our pandemic response. The Morrison Government knew they had to use the very safety net that for years their ilk has sought to cut. What is more disappointing is that their old culture war business - that of cutting and slashing - should continue.

But that is what has happened. In fact it has ramped up. During this term of Government, one dominated by the pandemic, the Liberals are embarking on a stealthy program of closing Centrelink shopfronts around the nation.

At a time when Government assistance became critical to so many, it is beyond belief that the Morrison Government would commence the closures of Centrelink centres around Australia.

The Morrison Government is running a stealth campaign against the vulnerable, the poor and the needy of Australia.

They are quietly closing Centrelink shopfronts all around Australia. The undisclosed plan to remove face-to-face services began with the closure of at least 10 Centrelink "shopfronts" across the country during this term of government.

This Government has already, without notice, shuttered branches across Queensland, NSW, Victoria, the ACT and the Northern Territory in less than three years. Another six are believed to be slated for imminent closure. The Centrelink workforce now fear there is a "review of small sites" culminating in a secret plan to axe all Centrelinks that have a full-time staff of five or less across the nation and replacing it with the skeleton "agent" model.

It's not just Centrelink that could be impacted, but Medicare, too. These are vital community service locations that allow our society to function. Centrelink provides services which are fundamental to people's dignity and livelihoods, administering the pensions, making sure that people who are down on their luck can get a bit of support.

Digitisation of our government services, like digitisation in so much in society, has got some real positive benefits. Of course it has. But let's not kid ourselves, not everyone in Australia has a smartphone and not everything can be done via an app. There will always be problems that need to be sorted out face-to-face. Life's just more complicated than a digital form can sometimes capture.

The Morrison Government wants you to believe in a fairytale of the digital age. That miraculously everyone has a smartphone, that miraculously no one ever needs to see another human when you deal with Centrelink.

The advent of digitisation of services should not be an excuse to cut costs. It should not be an excuse to decrease the quality of service. It should not leave the elderly and the vulnerable out in the cold.

Sure, use the digital online system where you can, but there needs to be a back-up, a human face to it all.

I've seen what happens when we've just relied on digital services. It's called Robodebt, which was the Commonwealth illegally raising billions of dollars in debts from hundreds of thousands of Aussies.

The closure of Centrelink shopfronts is the slippery slide into Robodebt 2.0. The Government knows that if they close the Centrelink offices around Australia, what it will mean is that some people will just miss out.

This results in a digital poorhouse for Australians who need Centrelink.

Our treasured safety net will have bigger and bigger gaps and holes in it until it is no more. Surely the lesson of the pandemic is that it's a lifesaver and not one that should be slashed.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday, 15 December 2021.