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17 March 2022


SUBJECT: Closure of the Benalla Centrelink shopfront, Morrison Government’s failure on government services in regional Australia

Hey, everyone. It's lovely to be here. I might, before we go to Centrelink, just acknowledge, first of all, all of you for being here. This is super. It's good of you to make the effort to show the community is concerned. I also want to acknowledge Nadia. I'm conscious that you have an independent member of Parliament. I'm conscious that the Labor effort always requires extra effort in places where our vote isn't as high. So that's why I think it's really good that Nadia is our candidate. I mean, you know her story. But some of it's worth repeating, she's a small businesswoman, runs an excellent bookshop, but also has a small horse stud. Raising a family with a partner. Her oldest boy, Ben, he's got some developmental challenges. So, she sees the system and society as a carer is a loving parent, as an engaged businessperson and of course an advocate for social justice. So, I think she is actually a very strong and qualified candidate to represent Labor and put herself forward. And she was very keen to have me here and she certainly has raised it any number of times. I think I first started coming to Benalla when I think the Ironworkers Union looking after people at ADI and that's some time ago. And Maribyrnong is only just down the road, 200 kilometres. That’s good. So, it's lovely to be here with you and I'm looking forward to the next couple of days. In terms of this Government and the way it treats people, I think there's a term which has come in to use in the English language in recent years, it’s the term gaslighting, where you’re sort of, you're told, the jury anxieties or concerns or fears aren't real. And I think the Benalla community has been gaslighted by the Morrison Government over the closure of this Centrelink office. Take nothing away from the people who run an agency service. That's good. But when did smaller communities become viewed as disposable or commodified or not quite good enough to deserve actual Commonwealth public service? And so, I think the closure of the Benalla Centrelink reflects the gaslighting by the Morrison Government, which is a trademark. They gaslight us on climate change, they gaslight us on cost of living, they gaslight us on housing, they gaslight us on any range of issues. And of course, Government services is at the forefront. Your experience in Benalla is not unique. In the last four years, the Government has quietly closed 28 shopfront services around Australia. They never announced it. If they are opening one they’d announce it, but if they're closing one, you've got to go searching through the yearly budgets, the accounts to see what's happened. But that really isn't good enough is it? Centrelink, as we've seen during COVID, it demonstrates what we set up for Centrelink to be. We cannot have a safety net in this country which is just for blue sky days. We need a safety net which is there, which can respond in depth and in quality when people are doing it hard. And I think COVID’s demonstrated the sterile nature of successive Coalition governments have wound back the safety net and for a lot of people, they discovered during COVID they need a Centrelink. People who've never been there before. But what we know is that when you need a centre like you don't just need a portal or a contracted telephone centre in another town and Wangaratta is not as far away as Albury. But the point about it is, 39 kilometres. It's a round trip. If you don't have a lot of money. Every dollar counts. If you don't have a lot of money and you've got an inadequate public transport system, it becomes difficult. By the time you need Centrelink, you're not necessarily sailing on top of the world as it is. So, to be made to feel second class, to be gaslighted, to my way of thinking. It's a deliberate strategy of the Government to go after the poor, to go after the vulnerable, to go after those who can't necessarily fight back. From veterans to older age pensioners to people on Newstart to people who need government services, they shouldn't be treated as second class. This system in our country is that whilst we're the country of great opportunity, we are the country also of a deep and generous safety net. And you never know when you're going to need it. And that's why it should be there. And we should stop treating Centrelink and the people who work for it and the people who use it as second-class Australians. And that's what we're seeing. Now we look back in the history books at the poorhouses of the 19th century and we say, how could that have ever been? Well, what we're doing by taking all our Centrelink online, by the terrible Robodebt programs and the right [inaudible] we had to organise a class action to force the Government in court to give back $2 billion to half a million Australians that illegally took from them, we're seeing the digital version of the 19th century workhouse where you are made to justify the bare minimum that you receive and that is unacceptable. So, if we get elected and we should by no means take that for granted or a certainty, but you know, I think people are waking up to Scott Morrison and the fickle, transactional nature of his superficial personality and policies. There's no doubt that we have to stop the closures. We have to start extending services back to the communities who have been treated unfairly and merely because Benalla is not in the middle of the city, merely because it's not in a Coalition seat doesn't mean that it deserves second class treatment. It's not fair. It treats people poorly, it underestimates the character of the Australian soul, in my opinion. And we want to change the way things are. I just want every Australian to get a fair go. It shouldn't depend upon who you vote for, how much money you have in the bank, who you know. Getting a fair go should be based about the fact that you're an Australian and you have legitimate need. Anyway, thank you. It's great Nadia, to have us here and I’m looking forward to it.

NADIA DAVID, LABOR CANDIDATE FOR INDI: So following on from what Bill said, I think the last point to make is that living in regional Australia is already quite difficult and it's been made more and more difficult under this Government. So, we've seen a wind back of services generally. This isn't about - so, you know, the fact is if we need to go to an urgent care hospital, we have to pay a medical gap out of our own pocket. That is not required in the city. We have to pay for that. So, if you can't afford to pay for that Medicare gap, you may not want to go to hospital for urgent care. And I certainly know people that have driven themselves to Wodonga or we've broken ankles because they knew they'd be able to get bulk billed in Wodonga and they can't get bulk billed here. So the other issue is, in terms of having face to face government services, this idea that we should rely on online and internet services is such a furphy during these times of incredible climate change-induced weather. So ,we've got floods in Queensland and New South Wales where people have no Internet, they have no telephone. How are they supposed to get on to Centrelink, when there's no Centrelink in their flooded town? We had massive bushfires come through here a couple of years ago where internet and phone were cut off, power was cut off, everything. People in Corryong had nothing. If there's no Centrelink on the ground, how are they supposed to get the payments that they're entitled to? How do you get help? So, if all you've got is a dumb terminal inside and a couple of people who are desperately trying to help you but aren't trained to do so and are not public servants, how do you get the help you need that you're actually entitled to? So that's what we're fighting for in regional Australia. It's happening all over the country but here as much as anywhere, we are being treated as second class citizens by a Government that essentially does not care and by a Government that is in coalition with a National Party that is supposed to be the party of the country. So we need to vote them out. We need to get a Labor government in so we can start fixing the mess.

QUESTION: [inaudible].

SHORTEN: The question is, I don’t know if you all heard it, in the early 2000’s Leigh-Anne is saying Veterans Affairs Children’s Services was pushed into Centrelink, and Leigh-Anne’s putting a pitch that it should go back, that all veterans matters should be dealt with by Veterans Affairs. Because when it moved across to Centrelink there was not the savvy or the know how of the particular client group.

[inaudible conversation]

SHORTEN: Leigh-Anne’s raised this really good point. I'll take it up with our Veterans Affairs spokesperson. Either way, there's no excuse for poor service. But I'll take that up, okay? So, I don't have an answer off the top of my head, but I will take it up and I can see some logic to what you're saying. It's a bit like why we have a separate NDIS because you've got to build knowledge and capacity. One of the problems more generally that Centrelink has had is that thousands of people have been taken out of the system who work there. And you know, when you work at a job, you learn things. It's a combination of experience and practice. You just learn. So, you know, when you've got someone who's trained to dealing with your issues, they can sort of spot the problem and they become good at triaging quickly. But when you take out all of that Commonwealth public service knowledge and you either use short term labour hire, people are just not familiar, not bad people, just not familiar, you just don't have enough face to face and instead you're relying on computers. Then the frustration levels rise, the angst levels rise. So, there's been a general devaluation of the public service, which is undesirable, on top of your point. But I'll take it up and let Nadia know. 

QUESTION: [inaudible]

SHORTEN: Okay, well, we'll raise that again with the Health spokesperson. You're quite right. And that point that Nadia also made quite eloquently, I thought about cost of living. And, you know, there's the additional cost which are not accounted for in payments. And clearly you need some bulk billing and you've got to you can't afford those gaps. 

[inaudible conversation]

SHORTEN: Yeah no, it's good for me to hear. And, you know, there are Labor voters everywhere and the Labor Party has got to reach out everywhere. That's why I'm here, too. And we've got to hear the truth. Because the truth is what helps you. 

QUESTIONER: Not propaganda, mate. 

SHORTEN: I get that. Good on you. 

QUESTION: [inaudible] 

SHORTEN: Oh, the wait times? Yes, Centrelink’s had the guts kicked out of it by the Government and public sector cuts, let's be brutally honest. And it's also relying on boiler room call centres. And I just - every budget the Government says we'll ever crack down on welfare fraud. You know, they make it sound like people on Centrelink are dodgy. So, it's been the demonisation of staff and public servants, the demonisation of those on the Government safety net. Let's be very clear. Labor believes in a fair safety net. And that's - because you never know who's going to need it. And that's just part of the contract of the nation that when you're in trouble, you're kind. What did Adam Lindsey Gordon say about kindness in another's troubles and courage in your own? And, you know, that's where Centrelink comes in. It's that expression of national kindness, but not charity, just a minimum right we extend to everyone and everybody. Anyway, keep strong. It's all we can do. Get up every day and fight on.

JOURNALIST: Obviously there is only so much you can do in opposition. If elected, are you willing to make a commitment that you'll bring Centrelink back to Benalla? 

SHORTEN: I've got to find out what’s - we're going to look under the bonnet of Centrelink. I think there is a case for Government Services to be administered here. What form that takes, I’m going to have to look under the bonnet of Centrelink and see. But I know that we've got to have more public servants working at Centrelink. We've got to be less reliant on labour hire and we've got to be able to can't ask people to be travelling big distances to get minimum answers. So, I can't give a final answer. But what I can say is we respect Centrelink and even more importantly we respect the people who use it and that's what will guide us in terms of resource allocation. So, we'll look under the bonnet and have a red hot go.