How Centrelink really works

My local Centrelink office is a huge soviet grey concrete building with opaque windows and occupies the cube block between Barry and High Streets in the inner Melbourne suburb of Prahran.

George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four could well be set in this modern, ultra-impersonal space.

I am visiting at 10.30am on a Friday to check what I believe is an underpayment on a Medicare claim. I’m not here for a Centrelink service as such, just a quick answer on my concern and to file another claim if I am correct. I did try to go online, but my MyGov account seems to be blocked and I’m not prepared to hand over any more data, as I’m not convinced the Federal Government is any good at protecting my privacy. At least the jury is still out on that account.

Anyhow, I join the queue of five or six people to speak to the (one) staff member already dreading inquiries. It takes five to 10 minutes to get to the front of the queue and share my request, at which point he delivers the same sombre message as all those ahead of me have received: “You can see someone, but there’s a long wait. It’ll take between an hour and a half and two hours.”

Seriously?

I turn my head to where he’s gesturing and do a quick head count – about 30 people are seated, in various stages of boredom, agitation, somnolence, anger and agitation. Far out!

I then do another head count of the actual Centrelink staff. On this sunny Friday, there are about nine staff members present to handle the 30 plus 10 (now behind me in the queue) citizens who need help. There are about 40 desks with computers, but only nine staff.

I mention that I have an appointment elsewhere in an hour and he suggests I come back, maybe at 8.30am another day. The fact that I work Monday to Thursday makes little impression on him. So, I ask Bob (he looks like a Bob) if he thinks they are understaffed and he says: “Yeah, probably.” So, I fill in my second claim, rejoin the (now) 12-person queue and hand it over before making a hasty retreat.

I can only assure this shambolic situation is playing out around the country and I find this thought deeply troubling. Yes, I realise the push is to move to online, and for all transactions to be done via the website or app, but when it comes to such things as the Age Pension, it’s not necessarily that simple. The rules are complex. They have changed a lot, as have entitlements. The pension is highly targeted, there are few general rules or general circumstances that apply.  So sorry for using the vernacular, but it’s f***ing hard to have all your questions answered online. And, if you are one of the 15 per cent of Age Pensioner who rent, typically you will need all your dollars per annum, including rental supplement, to forge an existence.

So, when you visit a Centrelink office, you are unlikely to be filled with the milk of human kindness, after enjoying a smashed avo breakfast and good coffee on the side. No, you are probably already feeling up against it. So, to be asked to sit and wait 1.5 to 2 hours for one to two questions particular to your circumstances to be answered is probably adding insult to injury. Yes, you could get on the phone and be one of the 43 million calls annually.

If you are on a full Age Pension, it’s unlikely you will have a landline as they are ridiculously expensive. So you would have to call on a mobile, so it won’t be a free call.

You could try the online digital assistant. For the purposes of this article, I went online and tried asking ‘Sam’ some questions, but his repertoire limited his answers even more, so I quickly shut him down. For the record, the Commonwealth Services Delivery was established in 1997. Its motto is ‘Giving you options’.

It seems ‘giving you’ options means:

  1. not answering the phone
  2. meaningless robot answers
  3. a 1.5–2 hour wait in one of the 911 service centres around the country.

I am sure the management of the people who work for the (former) Department of Human Services (now ‘Services Australia’) are well intentioned. But, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and pay in this concrete bunker on the corner of Barry Street must surely feel like the road to hell for my 30 buddies this morning.

Surely, we can do better for those in need.

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Written by Kaye Fallick

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