HomeCentrelink – Services AustraliaCentrelink under fire over wait times, payment delays and debt tallies

Centrelink under fire over wait times, payment delays and debt tallies

Services Australia is facing challenges and criticism from multiple sides. The Robodebt disaster was followed by severe staffing issues and payment delays during COVID. More recently, striking staff created processing issues and call wait times have been blasted.

Now, Services Australia has paused Centrelink debt repayments for 86,000 people over concerns those welfare debts may be unlawful.

The Guardian reports that “in August the commonwealth ombudsman revealed that up to 100,000 debts or potential debts were incorrectly calculated over two decades by ‘unlawfully apportioning’ welfare recipients’ income.”

It said Services Australia then paused the process of raising new welfare debts for affected income earned before December 2020. In recent days though, it has paused more repayments.

Services Australia says this is different to Robodebt.

It said on Monday it had “paused debt repayments and internal reviews that may involve income apportionment in response to concerns about the way it was used in the past” – before 7 December 2020.

“We’re working closely with the Department of Social Services to get a clear position,” it said on its website. “The pause will stay in place until we have advice on the next steps.

“This doesn’t mean your debt has been waived.

“While these debts are paused, they might not appear in the ‘Money you owe’ service in your Centrelink online account. However, they will appear in your debt statement.”

Services Australia says this issue is different to the Robodebt scheme, where debts were calculated by averaging annual employment income over 26 fortnights. A royal commission, later found that process to be unlawful.

Services Australia says it is “writing to people whose debts have been paused”, first by SMS then by a letter “with more detail on the specific debts that are paused”.

“If you get a payment from us, we’ll stop deducting repayments for the debt that has been paused,” it said. “If you have a direct debit arrangement set up with us, we’ll stop the arrangement while your debt is paused.

“If you have other debts that aren’t impacted by the pause, recovery action will continue for those debts.”

Blowout in wait times

Centrelink is under fire on another front – wait times.

Documents tabled in Senate estimates last week showed that payment processing times in the past 18 months had fallen below the agency’s ‘timeliness standard’ – targets set by Services Australia and its partner agencies.

Since mid-last year, 27 out of 32 payment types including JobSeeker had experienced a sharp increase in processing time.

It was also revealed that only 23 per cent of calls to Centrelink were answered in July and August this year, compared with 35 per cent over the 2022-23 financial year.

The Guardian reports that the JobSeeker payment, which is meant to have a ‘timeliness standard’ of 16 days, hit an average processing time of 29 days in August, up from nine days in the 2021-22 financial year and 11 days across 2022-23.

Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen says the department processes millions of claims a year and works as quickly as possible.

In the 2022-23 financial year, Centrelink processed 3.6m Centrelink claims, with the average wait time sitting at 27 days in September.

“We apologise to anyone who is waiting longer than they should be, and we remind our customers to let us know if they are in hardship to help us prioritise claims from those most in need,” he said.

“Our staffing has returned to more regular levels now that pandemic-era work, and associated extra staff, has concluded. We are doing our best to meet demands within this resourcing.”

Have you had a debt repayment paused? Have you had difficulty contacting Centrelink? Have Age Pension applications been affected? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

Also read: Pensioners in poverty need help, says seniors advocate

Janelle Ward
Janelle Wardhttp://www.yourlifechoices.com.au/author/janellewa
Energetic and skilled editor and writer with expert knowledge of retirement, retirement income, superannuation and retirement planning.


  1. I understand the frustration of low staffing at Centrelink, but this has been happening for years! You only have to walk into a Centrelink office – and look at the empty desks while standing waiting in a queue out the door.

    Some time ago, I was queued out the door of the Centrelink office, and when I finally got into the actual entry, there – FOR ALL TO SEE – were three Centrelink staff, standing there with takeaway coffees in hand chatting and laughing between themselves. HAD I SAID ANYTHING I WOULD HAVE BEEN THROWN OUT BY SECURITY!

    I tried to ring to arrange a meeting for my sister-in-law’s pension application in Ipswich – and all I got were messages telling me to go online. I started searching for the way to do that – and it just sends you around in circles! NOTHING HAS CHANGED AT CENTRELINK!!

    • You are right Peter about staff sitting and standing around chit chatting. My local office had a major (obviously that equates to expensive) upgrade. About 12 stations, never more than 3 or 4 being used at one time. I cycle to the Centrelink office, I have a very expensive safety cycle helmet which they refuse to allow me to carry in. Told to leave it on my bike or sit on an unsecured bench right next to front door. When I queried this, I was told it could be used to attack staff! Yet as I looked around at numerous other people waiting, there were people holding walking sticks, umbrellas, water bottles, even handbags – all could be used as a weapon. I am a pensioner with casual job, subject to the work bonus system, and they constantly make mistakes with my balance. I keep full records of all dealings with CL, as I do not trust them to come back in years to come and say I’d been overpaid. Funny how it’s never people being UNDERpaid.

  2. It is such a ghastly demeaning place. Their systems seem to be all about stopping people getting their entitlements and putting them down. They have done it to me and my hubby, both seemingly intelligent people who gave up dealing with them. They make it so hard and complicated and are so rude. If only they could simplify the system like almost every other country has done in having a universal pension. Easier to administer too.
    I also wish they had never taken Medicare into their fold. I used to be able to deal with Medicare easily and quickly. These days we get tangled up win their queues.

  3. Congratulations Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, no funds for the staffing and training of much needed Centrelink staff, but plenty of taxpayers money for Unnecessary Referendums, Constant Overseas Travel for yourself and the person your shacked up with, so you can rub shoulders with the important people on the world, unlike yourself. All this while Australia Burns and Plummets Towards a THIRD WORLD COUNTRY RATING. You might like to spend some time in Australia to see what’s actually going on, just a wild idea. JACKA.

  4. people should not be blaming centrelink staff, –INSTEAD aim your blame at the executives-that includes their general manager and anyone higher than him.
    THEY are the ones who make the rules.
    and until THEY feel the pressure nothing will improve.

    • Don’t know how hank Jongen can put his hand out every fortnight. Wait times for requests that cant be done on Mygov are getting worse and worse. But every now and then Jongen trots out figures to say how great it is. His department is a disgrace. I recently waited 98 minuets for a simple request to be taken off fortnightly income reporting as i was going remote camping.

  5. I deal with Centrelink professionally as a pension consultant and some of the wait times that they throw out are hilarious. A good call for me is anything answered in less than an hour (on hold with them now as I write this). Sometimes it can take three of four calls over a couple of hours just to get into the queue – the rest of the time you just get a message saying that they are too busy to take your call and please try again later. On more than one occasion it’s taken two days to actually get through.

    As for claims processing, a health card used to take a couple of weeks, now it’s 6-8 weeks. An aged pension claim used to take 6 weeks, now it’s 3 months and on two occasions recently, 7 months.

    Much of the claims processing used to be done on weekend overtime which this government cut the funds for. This now means that both the call queues and the claims processing times have blown out as it is all done Monday to Friday using the same staffing numbers.

    On the one hand, the worse they get the more business I get as people don’t want to deal with them. On the other other hand, there are many people out there in desperate need of their pensions and are running out of money while they wait for the claim to be granted.

    The staff are generally very good, it’s not their fault, and working on the call centre is extremely stressful. If you want to make noise go to Shorten’s office and your local member.

  6. I rarely have to deal with Centrelink, usually it’s online. But I closed account with one bank, opened account with different bank. Needed to update that. Online refused to let me, because I’d updated a month before and wasn’t yet reviewed by them. Weeks went by. Still no online access. Asked a Centrelink person on Twitter. They said I MUST contact Centrelink. Of course, online still no go. More weeks go by. Endless attempts to contact by phone went unanswered. Worried I’d be in trouble if I “failed “ to let them know. Didn’t want to go in person. Eventually I rang again, as soon as lines opened (8 am). Sensible person answered. Yes, no-one yet allocated to review previous update on my savings. She did it quickly. I could then update online myself. It shouldn’t be like this, nor should I be “frightened “ by telling me I MUST contact Centrelink when it’s so difficult.

  7. What a crock. I have been waiting now since July for my Pension application to be processed, with no update from Centrelink!! I have since complained to my Local Member, but know I’m not the only one. This is absolutely appalling took me around 6 weeks just to fill out and obtain the necessary documents!! Needs a serious overhaul!! Wait times on phones give the impression thatthey don’t really want to talk to us. It was revealed on ABCTV program WTFAQ that calls that hang up are considered “successful” and if that is correct then their stats are false. The Government, both Parties, in the case of the aged pension, knew decades ago that there was an aging population and did nothing to ramp up the staff numbers or improve the process to cope. Sadly none of those Public Servants or Pollies have to worry about applying their alright!

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