Labor has called out the federal government for “secretly” shutting Centrelink services across the country.
The services centres have announced closures in various communities that include Mornington and Newport in Victoria, and Newcastle and Tweed Heads in New South Wales, according to Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten.
“[The government has] been doing this without communicating to the public and with such haste and secrecy even Cabinet ministers have been caught by surprise,” he said on Sunday.
“The government is not informing the public of these plans and are leaving jobseekers, the needy, and vulnerable Australians out in the cold.”
In a statement released earlier this month, Mornington Shire said the announcement of the closure of its service centre was a complete surprise, and the intended shutdown date of March 23 gave service users “very little time” to make other arrangements.
Shire Mayor Sam Hearn said the news was a “real kick in the guts”.
“This is a terrible outcome for our community. The Shire calls on Minister Roberts to reconsider this action, which will have devastating impacts for so many vulnerable and disadvantaged people. We will continue to advocate for the federal government to do the right thing and provide reasonable access for our community to this critically important essential local service,” he said.
He noted the Mornington Peninsula has a much higher older population than Melbourne and the Victorian average, more people with a disability, more unemployed young people, and more people without an internet connection.
Last week the Health Minister Greg Hunt said he had secured an “agent service” that would provide Medicare and Centrelink services in Mornington — his own electorate. The agent would be available for 15 hours a week, up to three days a week.
“Within five minutes of being informed of the Mornington Centrelink closure, I was speaking to the Minister for Government Services, Stuart Robert MP,” he said.
“Importantly, I have confirmed that Mornington Service centre staff will be retained and continue to serve the community at the Rosebud and Frankston Service Centres, if they wish to do so.”
Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen on Saturday told 9News that “leasing offices is expensive”.
He argued foot traffic in the centres had reduced by up to 46% over the past five years.
“This is not about reducing our services overall. This is about consolidating into more appropriate locations,” he said.
Hunt agreed that individuals have been increasingly choosing to use internet based services rather than accessing services in person.
“However, it is important that those who wish to have a face-to-face interaction have that option, as well as assistance to gain the training necessary to access newer opportunities online,” he added.
Shorten has called on his federal counterpart Stuart Robert to either “come clean” on how many more Centrelink locations will close, or commit to maintaining the existing centres.
According to Service Australia’s 2018-19 annual report, the department employed 30,595 people at June 30 2019.