Mr Wilson (4:04pm) — When it comes to the federal government and the Commonwealth, it's hard to think of a more important service responsibility than providing income support through pensions for older Australians and people with a disability. It's in the nature of income support that, when people need it, those people need it badly and they need it quickly. If you can't get that support, you go without. If you can't get that support, you're put under severe pressure. There is no good reason for older Australians and Australians with disability to be prevented from accessing income support. We've heard people in this debate today talk around it. They talked about other aspects of policies that may or may not affect older Australians, but they haven't addressed the point of this matter of public importance: why are these intolerable delays occurring? Why are they getting worse?
There's no good reason we can't expect that pension applications in this country get processed quickly. We should expect that technological change makes processing easier and faster, not slower, more dehumanised, more painful and more frustrating, but that is exactly what has happened since the very dawn of this government. What is happening is that people who need income support and who are eligible for it are waiting longer and longer. They are waiting for months and months. It's not because, as the assistant minister suggested, there's some question or some evidence about peoples' eligibility; they are waiting months and months because of a basic service delivery failure of this government.
Those delays began with the very beginning of this government, and they were entirely predictable. All of us in this place hear from people experiencing what are extraordinary Kafkaesque delays. You would have seen, through constituent statements and adjournment debates over the last several years, members on this side getting up and telling those stories, and silence from the other side. Their officers are hearing it too, but they're not speaking up on behalf of those people facing those kinds of intolerable delays. In the last financial year alone, the average processing time for the age pension went from 36 to 49 days. There are 5,000 claims sitting with the department that have been waiting for more than 70 days. Last year, 48 million calls—almost two phone calls for every living and breathing Australian—to Centrelink went unanswered, and millions of people abandoned calls out of sheer frustration and, I'm sure, on occasion, sheer exhaustion.
Earlier this year in March, I was contacted by a resident in North Fremantle. She was still awaiting the resolution of her age pension claim that was lodged last July. It was lodged in July 2017. This person was diagnosed with cancer in the middle of last year. At age 67, after working in Fremantle hospitals for more than 30 years, she decided it was time to step back from her demanding role in a cardiac care unit and look after herself. She waited nine months to have her pension application processed. This is a stark, bizarre and unacceptable failure of basic service delivery.
But there's no great mystery as to how the failure occurred. Under this government, it was entirely predictable, deliberate and self-inflicted. The recipe for this astonishing failure was pretty obvious: you cut the Public Service, you cut staffing levels, you freeze wages, you remove workplace flexibility, you outsource services and you undermine skills, morale and corporate knowledge within Centrelink and—hey, presto!—you wreck it. You wreck our social compact. You wreck the age pension system in this country.
It does make me think of a Mike Myers film—I can't remember exactly what it was called; he was some sort of self-help guru. He had a self-help book called Does it hurt when you do that? Don't do that. You would think that that's some advice that this government could take. Instead, vulnerable people in our communities around this country are waiting for months. They're facing the insecurity and the stress of going without income support. Instead of bearing down on the problem and fixing it—instead of doing something about it—this government's focus is on cutting public sector jobs, squeezing and demoralising the public sector workforce and privatising and outsourcing anything and everything that moves.
They've always been obsessed with small government. They're taking that to bizarre levels this week: the government is getting smaller with each passing day. Instead of looking after the people who need support, this lot are always on the lookout for enemies. Their enemies are the public sector, the public broadcaster, the Community and Public Sector Union and just about anyone who needs help in this country, especially disadvantaged and vulnerable Australians. We on this side of the House take a different approach.
We're going to restaff Centrelink, maintain the energy supplement for seniors in this country and restore funding to the public broadcasters. We've got a completely different agenda. I think Australia and Australians are looking forward to seeing a change in this place after five years of hopelessness from that lot over there.