SUBJECTS: Coronavirus; MyGov website crash; Centrelink staffing capacity; Employment opportunities for seniors; School closures


PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: The MyGov website has crashed because of an unprecedented spike in demand in welfare support, in your view should they have been better prepared?

SHORTEN: Yeah absolutely. What happened you’ve got the minister in charge, Scott Morrison’s friend Stuart Robert said just after 1pm today that the reason why no one can get through the Centrelink website MyGov is because there has been a denial in service, he was clearly implying that there was some nefarious actors trying to sabotage the government getting money to the people. But by a quarter to three in question time, this same minister said no there was no denial of service, so at 1:15pm you’ve got the government, you’ve got the minister covering his back side, and by 2:45 it turns out this is a government who was just was stunned by the fact people who had been laid off were going to Centrelink looking for support that the government was promising was there. I mean it shouldn’t be the people of Australia in the Centrelink queue, it should be Stuart Robert in the Centrelink queue. These guys are no matter how well intentioned, can’t be trusted to run this Centrelink system at the moment. It’s just a debacle.

KARVELAS: But Bill Shorten have you established why the minister initially said that it could be a cyber-attack? Was he given advice to suggest it?

SHORTEN: No doubt this Minister will come up with an excuse, but the point about it is there were 96 thousand people, apparently, who went on to the MyGov web site this morning because the Government said go there and it crashed, and instead of him just fronting up and taking his medicine, he wanted to get us believing in conspiracies. You know, that old saying, you know when you're offered a choice of an explanation between a conspiracy and a cock up always back the cock up. Well, this Minister went for the conspiracy, and now he's had to say, no, there was no denial of service attack. How this affects people in the street, though, leave aside me thinking the government's incompetent on this matter, what this means is we saw queues at the front of the Centrelink office that haven't been seen since the depression. We've got people who were told to trust the government's information technology system and it is failing. Now, it's a question of this government, they sort of act surprised, but they say that they've been preparing for these matters for weeks in parliament. Yet when it comes to just paying people some modest income, all of a sudden you think this task is Herculean. So it's really frustrating. I just I just feel for the people who are just being stuffed around.

KARVELAS: Oh, there's no doubt that it's terribly frustrating for people trying to access government payments when they've just lost their jobs in unprecedented times. We know more than 55,000 Australians who are trying to access the site. What should the capacity be? Because clearly Centrelink has operated for a long time in a very different economic setting. What kind of scaling up should happen now? 55,000 people at once. How many should it be able to handle?

SHORTEN: Well, first of all, before we get to the number of how many people it should handle, we should start telling the people the truth. What I'm objecting to isn't that Centrelink is struggling, although we should have seen that coming, It's that when confronted with what's happened, the government's immediately chosen to resort to a fairytale rather than just be up front with people. The only way we're going to get through this is if the government acts in a trustworthy manner. So, in terms of the numbers, I think the numbers have to be much higher than fifty-five thousand. I think Australians get that this is unfolding rapidly. But what we don't get is why is the government just making stuff up? That's what really, I think, annoys people.

KARVELAS: Centrelink is hiring an extra 5000 workers. The Treasury is estimated at up to a million Australians could lose their jobs, is 5000 workers going to cut it?

SHORTEN: It sounds like a good start, but it does make me think that when the government didn't have this crisis, why did they cut so many jobs? I think one of the places where they're going to have to look for additional workers is there's a lot of very trained people who've retired, taken packages. They've been made redundant by the public service. I think the government needs to start looking at having like an army reserve of civilians to fill civilian positions. So, get back some of the grey brigade back into helping in Centrelink. It's the same goes for the surge in workforce for disability carers, for example, in the health sector, so I think that five thousand is a good start. But my problem is that every time this government says they're going to do something; they bungle their way through the implementation. Now, some people think that's a bit harsh - ‘oh give the government a go’ - alright if you want to give the government a go, they've got to start by giving the people a go and telling them the truth. This wasn't foreign actors. It wasn't the Chinese or the Russians, it was just the system crashed, and make up stuff when you don't have to?

KARVELAS: Let's just explore this idea, you say, for an Army Reserve, where do you want them to work? You say the grey brigade ...

SHORTEN: Well I didn’t mean to pick hair colour I’m sorry, they could be the bald, or the hair colour brigade ...

KARVELAS: But people who are older, people who have retired are probably not you would think based on the health advice, the people you want in frontline roles dealing with people given the Covid-19 threat?

SHORTEN: Let’s be clear here, Centrelink, is not just frontline, and we've got an I.T. system which is barely struggling. What people are not getting is accurate information. All people want to know is the answer, they want to know if they go online can they get their customer registration number so they can register for Newstart? There's a lot of tasks which can be performed in people's homes. My point is that there's a lot of Australians who've got some skills who we could call towards, of course, we're going to make sure that there's infection control and that's done safely. But my theory doesn't just go for Centrelink, my theory also goes into disability services. What happens if you've got a disability service in a regional town and a key worker gets sick, then the whole service has got to shut down? What we've got to do is start training up other people to be the surge workforce, as more and more of our online work, you know, frontline workforces may have to go into isolation or may not be available for work because there's a whole lot of disabled people in this country who need to know that they're not going to get stranded if they're full time or pre-paid carer can't turn up. So these are the things - we should use people, to mobilise, we've got to think in different ways, we've got to mobilise people to look after each other.

KARVELAS: Given how unprecedented what we're saying is, you say we haven't seen lines like these outside of Centrelink since the Great Depression. Could Labor really have anticipated that kind of surge either? It seems that nobody saw this coming and clearly our system isn't built for this kind of mass unemployment.

SHORTEN: Well, to be fair to the government, you're right, a lot of this is completely new territory, but for several weeks we've seen this coming. So why is it when it's happened? We've all sort of got this stunned headless chook attitude of, gee, that's surprising. And secondly, if the reason why the Centrelink system broke down was because there's just a lot of unexpected demand, don’t be embarrassed by that and make up false boogey men to blame for the collapse of the Centrelink MyGov portal - just own it. What Australians want in times of difficulty is they just want to hear the truth. If we don't have enough masks, tell us. If we don't know if the online portals are not going to work, just tell us. I think the other thing you're saying is, well, the government's doing the best it can. One: tell the truth, and two: perhaps now we're seeing some of the chickens come home to roost where we've seen the cutback of government services. And now when we actually need them, we’ve found that we've perhaps cut too hard in the past.

KARVELAS: How about a culture shift inside of Centrelink or any of these welfare services? For a long time Bill Shorten it's been the role of people on the frontline of delivering welfare to try and make welfare hard to get. All of a sudden they have to make welfare easy to get. It's a completely different way of running the show. Are you concerned that this is a big culture shift that also has to be embraced?

SHORTEN: Well, I want to distinguish between people on the frontline and the very senior echelons of government. It's a culture shift for a conservative government and the senior echelons of government not to look at welfare as the blame game and think everyone who is on welfare is trying to diddle the system. For the people on the frontline, the social workers, the counter staff, the phone staff, the people who've been working very hard, I think they've always tried to help everyone who comes in, but if their hands are tied behind their back because you've got government policy, well then hopefully a change in government policy will free up these empathetic people and professionals on the frontline to be respected. I mean give people the tools to do their job and they'll go and do them. But if you tell people going to view every welfare person as a potential cheat, well that makes it hard for the frontline, doesn't it? So I agree, it's time for change, but it's got to be at the top and we're seeing some of that. But it's you know, we've got to just tell people the truth on all occasions.

KARVELAS: Just want to talk about school closures with you for a moment. In Victoria holidays are starting early they start tomorrow and we don't really have a clear indication about whether schools will come back. New South Wales is telling parents, if they can to keep their children home. If they can, schools will continue to run. Should we have a clear and consistent national message on this?

SHORTEN: Yeah, you'd hope so, but we clearly don't. As Labor's been saying on a range of issues, we just need a clear message. I mean, on one hand, we're told that we shouldn't have people going into social gatherings, yet on the other hand the same young people should go to school. It's not clear messaging. It seems to me that everyone’s got a medical expert to justify their opinion. Now the government's made its decision, it's got the advice from the chief medical officer. Other governments are now winding back from that position. I just feel for teachers, parents and kids. People just want a clear message. Now where you can, many parents, where they've been able to have one of the parents, you know, work part time or look after the kids, they've taken them out of school. Others don't have that choice. I think what we have to do is make sure that the government's just as clear as it can be. And I think we're heading in that direction that schools will be in some fashion, you know, whether or not they are technically open. But there's no one there. I don't know. One group I just want to give a shout out to who'd been particularly the victims of mixed messages, are the teachers and parents and staff at special schools. It's very hard at a special school if you got a kid with special needs to easily maintain that social distancing. So, I've been getting a lot of e-mails from teachers and parents who are completely confused about what it all means for their kids.

KARVELAS: Bill Shorten you decided to keep your children home and we don't know if schools will go back in Victoria and that's, of course, where your children learn. Will you be sending them back if schools do go back?

SHORTEN: We'll wait and see. At this stage, Chloe and I made a decision that we're in a fortunate position and sure our kids haven't been in school last week. Now, I think the Victorian school system's catching up. I think about 30 per cent of parents had already voted with their feet on this. Your question about schools goes to a deeper issue, it's about mixed messages. You know, on one hand, we're saying to people that, you know, we've got it all under control. On another hand, we're telling people it's unprecedented. I think that the more that you can get transparent information out there, that's what we need. That's what Labor's been asking for. I certainly would say this, wherever we think we're going to arrive at a policy position, if we know we're going to get there, then why not get there quicker? This is a public health emergency. It's got terrible consequences for the economy, but first and foremost, it's a public health emergency that should govern our decisions. So if we know that there's a public health solution that we're going to move to, I guess the sooner we get there, the better we can get on and deal with the economic emergency and everything else after that.

KARVELAS: Bill Shorten, thank you so much for joining us this afternoon.

SHORTEN: Thanks, P.K.

KARVELAS: That's the Shadow Minister for Government Services and the NDIS, Bill Shorten.