BILL SHORTEN: Services Australia staff need more recognition after woman stabbed while working at Centrelink

Bill Shorten
The Nightly
4 Min Read
BILL SHORTEN: This time last year Joeanne Cassar’s life changed forever because of a vicious knife attack in her workplace. No worker should have to face aggression for simply doing their job.
BILL SHORTEN: This time last year Joeanne Cassar’s life changed forever because of a vicious knife attack in her workplace. No worker should have to face aggression for simply doing their job. Credit: Supplied

We recognise there is a lot of grief and sadness in the community right now in the wake of recent high-profile, violent incidents.

As the Prime Minister has said, our first thoughts are always with the loved ones of the victims at these most difficult of times.

We also give thanks for the police officers, the first responders and brave members of the public who show courage in such circumstances.

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This time last year Joeanne Cassar’s life changed forever because of a vicious knife attack in her workplace.

Joeanne is a team leader with Services Australia at the Airport West Service Centre in Melbourne’s north.

You may have been in one of these centres where you can get assistance with your Medicare, Centrelink, Aged Care and numerous other payments.

The service centre is located in a shopping centre and thousands of customers come in to get help each week.

Some people come in distressed about a health or family situation, or needing urgent payments. I’m sure you get the idea. A lot of people coming in for help are not having their best day.

But let me be patently clear.

I don’t care how bad a day someone has had, there is never, never, an excuse for aggressive behaviour towards staff.

And yet, that is what Joeanne confronted as she did the job she loved and was extremely good at.

Because of the serious physical attack, Joeanne has been left with severe pain and mobility issues.

Just for doing her job.

The night of the attack, I decided to review staff safety at the 318 service centres around the country.

I asked former Victorian Police commissioner, Graham Ashton, to deploy his many years of street cop experience to tell the Government how we could make the service centres more secure for the 6200 staff and the 10 million visitors each year.

Mr Ashton made 44 recommendations to Services Australia and the Agency is implementing them all.

Joeanne Cassar joined me back at her workplace last Friday when I announced that the Albanese Government will invest $314 million over two years to fund initiatives to keep frontline workers and customers safer.

And that funding is on top of almost $47 million we’d already committed for security upgrades.

Now there’ll be more security guards — up to 606 will be employed — and the building of closer ties with local police.

There’ll be better security features at the service centres and enhanced design for 35 locations that have had higher levels of customer aggression.

Joeanne Cassar with her husband, Andrew Giusti. Supplied
Joeanne Cassar with her husband, Andrew Giusti. Supplied Credit: Supplied

Services Australia will also have the money to set up a centralised security operations centre, with live monitoring via upgraded CCTV.

But we’re not just stopping at these measures.

The Government has also introduced legislation to deter those who think taking out their frustrations on workers is OK.

The penalties for causing harm to a Commonwealth frontline worker will increase to align with penalties for attacks on other essential workers, like Federal police officers and judges.

This will not just protect Services Australia staff but other frontline public servants in places like the Australian Taxation Office, passport offices, airports and the Australian Electoral Commission.

We want to make sure all these people return home from work mentally and physically safe every day.

I was privileged to stand alongside Joeanne Cassar and her husband, Andrew, to deliver the funding news.

Joeanne is a picture of resilience and strength and would love to be back working with her mates at the service centre as much as they’d love to have her return.

I also want to take this chance to give a shout-out to another bunch of staff from the agency, those who have been processing a massive backlog of claims.

Earlier this year I announced an extra 3000 permanent staff for Services Australia which had its staffing cut under the previous Coalition government.

That had resulted in call wait and claims processing times blowing out to unacceptable levels.

This is not the fault of the staff. There was only so much they could humanly do with the resourcing they had.

The new staff were onboarded to the agency in record time and trained up by experienced staff members.

Once the new recruits got up to speed and the seasoned staff returned to their jobs full-time, some truly phenomenal work happened.

In a period of just 10 weeks 500,000 — half a million — claims were processed.

Medicare online claims came down by 78 per cent.

Low-income card claims by 77 per cent.

And Commonwealth Seniors Health Card claims by 59 per cent.

And for a bit of context, while the staff were offline training or being trained, more than 4.85 million claims came into Services Australia.

The staff of Services Australia deserve recognition for a mighty effort.

They do an important job for the community and deserve our thanks and support.

Bill Shorten is the Minister for the NDIS, Minister for Government Services and Federal Member for Maribyrnong.

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