Karl Stefanovic has grilled the head of Services Australia over this week’s Centrelink fiasco, as more and more Australians find themselves out of work amid strict new measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
In a matter of just days, tens of thousands have become unemployed – and experts predict that number could hit two million – but the welfare system is already buckling under the pressure. Centrelink’s online portal has repeatedly crashed this week under the strain of so many jobless Australians attempting to seek welfare, while lengthy queues have become a fixture outside their offices all over the country.
Speaking to Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen on Today this morning, Stefanovic asked the question everyone wants to know.
“When we’re talking about two million-plus potentially, how long before you can get the system sorted?” he pressed Mr Jongen.
“I want to reinforce that we are doing everything possible, but my advice is this – be patient and persistent. The quickest way for us to get you into the system is for you to ring the number, 132 850,” he replied.
“Don’t put yourself at risk by coming into our offices. Once you get through, we will give you the links you need to enable you to then get into the system.”
During the interview, a frustrated Stefanovic also questioned why the initial issues hadn’t yet been fixed.
“No-one pretends this is easy. But the minister was on this show this time yesterday saying this would not happen again and it has happened again. It’s really not good enough for those people, is it?” he asked.
“Look, we are facing absolutely unprecedented demand. We have never been in a situation like this. There’s a lot of things we’ve done,” Mr Jongen insisted.
“Firstly, we have increased the capacity on our website and that means that 100,000 – more than 100,000 – individual users can access the website at any one time. In relation to call demand, we are mobilising staff right across the organisation. We’re mobilising all staff with experience; we’re recruiting additional staff.
“On top of that, we’ve extended the call centre hours … But nothing really could have prepared us for the demand that we’re now facing.”
Jongen then defended the current Centrelink system, explaining that normally when there’s a change, “we have months to develop the changes, to test them, and to implement them” – but this time, the Government was pressuring them to do it “in a matter of weeks”.
“It’s important to understand that we can’t just do it at the flick of a switch,” he told Stefanovic.
Jongen also detailed the major factors – many of which he claimed are “unnecessary” – which are contributing to the current system failures.
“Firstly, existing customers are actually clogging up our network because they’re coming in to find out about the stimulus payments and the supplements that the Government has announced. Those payments will be processed automatically; they will start to be distributed, people don’t need to do anything – it’s all automatic.
“The other thing is that in relation to people that are now finding themselves unemployed, our advice is this – don’t come into our offices. Don’t queue up. The number to ring is 132 850. If you ring that number we will be able to deal with your proof of identity and provide you with the links you need in order to lodge an online application.”
Centrelink’s online portal crashed for the second day in a row yesterday as tens of thousands of Australians sought welfare after losing their jobs due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
Labor’s government services spokesman Bill Shorten said people in the long queues forming outside offices should be triaged.
“They should be given preliminary forms and directed to phone or online services if they can to ease the strain,” Mr Shorten said on Tuesday.
At the same time Government Services Minister Stuart Robert admitted they hadn’t planned for so many people logging on to get unemployment benefits.
The site crashed on Monday after it was overwhelmed by almost 100,000 Australians, many who were making their first approach to Centrelink.
Mr Robert apologised for claiming MyGov had been hacked when it had actually crashed due to the number of people logging on.
Mr Shorten also suggested a callback option from Centrelink as well as a separate hotlines for existing and new users.
Centrelink will boost its workforce by 5000 people to deal with the influx of applicants and extend call centre hours.
The Australian Cyber Security Centre was being called in to help investigate the stability of the site, with 123,000 accessing MyGov on Tuesday morning.
– with AAP