Ms SWANSON (Paterson) (16:03): Today I rise to speak on the Turnbull government's failure to address inequality in Australia. I am not going to delve into generalisations, platitudes and fantasy like those opposite; I am going to tell you about a real person, about Giselle, a 53-year-old woman who came into my electorate office last week in an incredibly distressed state. Giselle was upset that her Austudy payments had been cancelled, while at the same time she had been asked to provide more information to Centrelink about what she was studying and where she was up to. Giselle, at 53, had been trying to re-educate herself to get back into the workforce, despite a number of serious health issues, including thyroid cancer, which led her to have her thyroid removed last year, and Bell's palsy, which requires ongoing treatment.
But Giselle wants to work. She wants to re-educate herself. She was enrolled in a Diploma of Community Services through the Hunter TAFE, which she changed to a certificate IV last year because of her health. She advised Centrelink at the time that she was changing to a certificate IV but was told she did not need to do anything more as long as her study workload had not changed. That information, regrettably, was incorrect and has led to considerable heartache.
Feeling better and more able to cope, Giselle re-enrolled in her diploma in July this year, and she is still studying—and good on her. But, incredibly, Giselle's payments were cut off in October, and she was given no opportunity, no time, to sort the matter out before her payment was cancelled. Listen to this: she received a letter asking her to supply further information about her study on the very same day the decision was made to cut her payments. 'We need more information,' and, 'We're also going to cut your payments,' on the same day—figure that. This was an unnecessary, harsh treatment, but unfortunately it seems typical of this government and oh so common. The phone calls we get on this side you would not believe.
A member of my staff sought to help Giselle by contacting Raymond Terrace Centrelink, a branch as understaffed as all the others since the Abbott-Turnbull government's savage cuts began in 2014. You should hang your heads still about that budget. It truly was deplorable. We all know it, and the Prime Minister admitted it today. Sadly, they were unable to help her and referred us to the study payments branch. However, my staff member was unable to call the study payments branch directly, so she went straight to Minister Tudge's office, such was the urgency of the matter. Giselle's payment was eventually restored when we were able to sort out exactly what information was required and send it through.
The fact that Giselle was not given any time to respond to the request from Centrelink before her payment was cancelled was callous, but unfortunately it is common. In Giselle's own words:
Things did work a lot quicker and better when there was a lot more staff present in the office and not behind walls or over the telephone.
It is very difficult to stay on a phone for three and a half hours, and still no one takes your call or solves anything.
The very few personnel in the office are not very willing to help.
The staff attitude is as if to say: there are only a few of us here and we—
can only do what we can. She continued:
What is the point of renovating and making offices look modern and up to date?
What the people want is prompt service and resolutions to their problems.
I need a job and I am looking for one.
That is why I am studying a diploma in community services.
Giselle was without payment for four weeks, and in that time she had no money for phone credit, for transport or for her much-needed doctors' appointments, not even enough money for food. She was forced to go to a neighbourhood centre for vouchers just to feed herself. And she is not alone. She is among an increasing number of people who cannot make ends meet, because of the callous actions of this government.
Cuts and more cuts mean there are far fewer Centrelink staff to look after more and more Centrelink customers. It is a system that is failing these people and a government that is failing to address this terrible inequality. And I say again to those members opposite: do not lecture our side on what is fair and just and what inequality is. We know it too well because we deal with it every day. It comes in tranches every day into our office. It comes over the phone. I kid you not; I feel as though as I am running a Centrelink office in my own office because they are not well enough staffed—and that is so true. We are all running it on this side. We are helping this government by trying to help the people who so desperately need it, and yet it continues to turn its back on them. That is the rise in inequality under this Turnbull government.