Centrelink wait times improve, but are long-term solutions possible?

A massive recruiting drive is slowly trickling through to improve Centrelink call wait times and payment processing delays, but will it change decades of systemic neglect?

In November 2023, the government boosted the Centrelink budget by $228 million to recruit an estimated 3000 staff in a bid to tackle the wait times. 

The new staff will cover Centrelink, Medicare and child support services and will be frontline staff, not bureaucrats. 

Government services minister Bill Shorten last week announced that the backlog of payment claims, which had risen to 1.3 million, was down to 660,000.

Fantastic news

Mr Shorten described this still very high number as “fantastic news”. 

“Call waiting times are down. The amount of outstanding payments is down. We’ve still got a way to go. And I look forward to further good news in this area,” he said. 

It’s certainly an improvement on last year’s figures. In January, Services Australia apologised for a blowout on wait time and the backlog of payments. 

It was estimated that only about 56 per cent, or 12.6 million of the 22.4 million calls to Centrelink made in the six months to 31 December were answered and handled. 

Over the same period, just over 7.4 million calls, or 16.5 per cent, were met with a congestion message and 2.3 million were terminated by a customer.

Services Australia deputy chief executive Jarrod Howard apologised to customers who were trying to get through.

“We are working really hard to answer as many calls as we can,“ he told The Guardian

“I acknowledge and I apologise to any customer who is struggling to get through to us. There is not a person in the agency who does not want to serve customers.”

Outsource workers

While Centrelink has long had a less-than-stellar reputation for client service, it took a further dive after a 2022 decision to cut back on outsourced workers, which removed about 30 per cent of the call centre workforce. 

As well as the call centre cutbacks, Services Australia staff were leaving the organisation in droves. At a Senate estimates hearing last year, a report claimed about 180 workers were leaving each month and about 20 per cent of the workforce planned to leave within 12 months. 

The longest call wait time for 2022-23 was two hours, 54 minutes. However, sadly, that is an improvement from previous years. In the period 2016-21, the longest wait times were well over three hours, with the longest being three hours and 54 minutes for both 2017-18 and 2020-21. 

An expert has claimed that the persistently poor figures show the government is not motivated to significantly improve the situation.

Darren O’Donovan, La Trobe Law School senior lecturer in administrative law, told the ABC there were “so few institutions in Australia subject to such low expectations”.

He said a report by the Audit Office found the agency had been lagging for decades. 

Lack of ambition

“[It] found a fundamental lack of ambition in how this institution has been handled by a generation of politicians on all sides,” he said.

Since the 1990s, when Centrelink was established, key performance indicators for the timeliness of payments have remained the same, “or become longer”.

Some 69.7 per cent of all welfare or social security activity is now self-managed online, Mr O’Donovan said. 

“And in online, no-one can hear you scream.”

People were claiming on social media that Centrelink would routinely hang up on clients, with an automated response saying their helpline was too busy.

If clients attempted to ring again, the system would recognise their number and not answer.

  • block your number so the system can’t recognise you have called before
  • call at 8am, or as soon as you can in the morning
  • keep answering ‘operator’ when prompted by the automated system
  • if you are an older person, you can call a dedicated line on 132 300
  • call the complaints line on 1800 132 468, but be aware you will need a valid, fixable complaint – it’s not just the chance to vent. For example, you have waited an excessive time for a payment to be processed. Try to have as much supporting evidence as you can
  • if you continue to experience delays, contact your local federal MP.

Have you recently experienced call wait times or payment delays from Centrelink? We’d love to hear about your experience in the comments section below?

Also read: Centrelink warns of bonus payment scam

Jan Fisher
Jan Fisherhttp://www.yourlifechoices.com.au/author/JanFisher
Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.


  1. It is not just CentreLink keeping people who call waiting. I have had to call the Commonwealth bank twice in the last few months, the first time I waited an hour and th second time 45 minutes, all the while being told ‘Your call is important to us’.

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