13 October 2023


BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Good morning everybody, it’s great to be here at Services Australia Airport West. Although, the reason why we are initially here is a terrible reason. On the 23rd of May this year, senior much-loved team leader of the Airport West Services Australia office, Joeanne Cassar, was the victim of a brutal and unprovoked criminal assault and stabbing. I think it’s very brave of Jo to be with us here today for what we are about to announce and I thank her very much.

And I also acknowledge the work of her family who support her, her fantastic husband who is here but also all of her teammates who very much rallied around her at the time of the dreadful assault and the days and weeks after. I also acknowledge the senior leadership of Services Australia who have worked productively with myself and the workforce ahead of today’s announcement.

In light of the dreadful attack on Joeanne Cassar, the next day I visited the workers, that week I visited Joeanne in hospital. I promised the government would do better to lift security and safety for the thousands of people who work at Service Australia, and the millions of Australians who use Services Australia offices. I immediately asked former Victoria Police Commissioner, Graham Ashton, a distinguished police expert from the coalface for a report within 8 weeks. What can we do better to lift safety for the staff and people who use 318 Services Australia offices all around the nation? He’s come back with a report, 44 recommendations which we’re releasing today.

I’m pleased that we’re actually getting stuff done to help people. I’ve taken these reforms, the proposed recommendations, to the Cabinet and the Albanese Government, they have backed in significant new measures recommended by frontline police to make the staff and the people, the millions of people who use Services Australia, safer.

The reforms include, an extra 278 trained security staff at key offices, taking the total number for 513. The reforms propose stronger laws to protect our Commonwealth public servants. The recommendations uncovered some gaps. It is not appropriate, if you are a public servant, it doesn’t matter if you work at Services Australia, the electoral commission, the tax office, or at customs doing inspections, you’re doing your job to serve the public of Australia. You should not put up with abuse, assault, physical harm and worse. So we’ll be strengthening the penalties.

When the very small proportion of Australians who choose to assault and batter and attack Commonwealth public officers trying to help people, we will be increasing the penalties they get. In other words, public servants and the frontline staff at Services Australia will not be a soft touch for abhorrent ugly behaviour. We’re also going to make it easier to take Apprehended Violence Orders against perpetrators. A loophole in the law which I discovered is that, if Joeanne was feeling pressured or intimated as a result of an assault or particular perpetrator or an accused, she herself, the individual employee of the government, would have to take an individual action against a perpetrator.

The only reason these people are getting assaulted is because they work for the government and the people of Australia. So we’re going to change the protection orders so that the Commonwealth can take a protection order on behalf of one of its employees, rather than leaving an individual to be stranded to their own devices to stand up for themselves, when in fact all they’re doing is their job for the people of Australia. We’ll also be improving the physical layout of offices, for the better safety of staff.

Services Australia has a proud tradition of focusing on customers, but what we can’t do is sacrifice the personal safety of the people delivering the service, at any price. So we’re going to be physically revisiting layout design and the nature of offices. Furthermore and finally among the chief recommendations we’ll be implementing, is that we will start getting smarter about how we share information. If there’s a perpetrator in a carpark of one Services Australia, currently we don’t have the technology and the ability to alert neighbouring service officers of the particular risk. So we’re cutting through the computer red tape to make sure if there is an apprehension or a sense of threat, that we can actually share that information so that people are safer across the network of Services Australia offices.

I put a lot of these recommendations that we’re making today down to the courage and experience of Joeanne, in some ways these are Joeanne’s laws. We’ll be putting the new laws into the Autumn session of Parliament at the beginning of next year. I’m sure we’ll receive general support across the political spectrum.

Services Australia staff do remarkable work. There are 10 million visits to a Centrelink or a Medicare office each year in Australia. There are 318 offices, there’s about 5 and a half, 6 thousand who do the coalface work. There are only a small proportion of people who are perpetrating these events, but what we must do is make it very clear that public servants are not second class Australians. They deserve to be protected, they are at the coalface, they assist people in their most disadvantaged and vulnerable circumstances. The vast bulk of people who come here are fantastic, but just because you’re a public servant doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to go home safely from work.

These changes come too late to avoid the terrible experience that Joeanne has been through, and I acknowledge that. But what I also acknowledge is that for Joeanne and the grassroots of Services Australia talking to me, we’re getting stuff done. We can’t say that there’ll never be a risk, but what we’re doing today is saying today to over a 100,000 Commonwealth public servants is that the Albanese Government has your back, that you’re not just to be the battering ram of society’s frustrations or an individual’s problems. And we say to the millions of people who use government offices is that these laws will help to improve your safety, because violence is indiscriminate. And we just want to say to people, you’ve got a right to go home as safely as you came to work.