CANBERRA -- Tried calling Centrelink lately and got a busy signal on the phone? You're not alone. There were 28 million calls to the welfare department in the last year which got an engaged signal, confirming the frustrations of countless Australians who have struggled to get in contact with the agency.
Representatives from the Department of Human Services fronted up to a Senate estimates hearing on Thursday, preparing for a grilling over the controversial automated debt collection saga which has enraged many in recent months. They fielded questions about releasing personal information on a client to a Fairfax journalist this week, and defended the debt collection scheme, but also admitted some criticisms of Centrelink were founded -- 28 million of them, in fact.
Between July 2016 and January 31, 2017 -- just seven months -- DHS bosses confirmed 28 million calls got an engaged signal. There were also 4.1 million calls which were abandoned. The average waiting time for an answer was 14 minutes and 10 seconds, just beating the department's own goal of 16 minutes, but DHS claimed that dedicated debt lines for the debt collection scheme were answered within 10 seconds.
The long wait time and huge numbers of failed calls back up claims from Centrelink clients about the difficulty in reaching the agency. In January, we reported on people claiming to have called Centrelink hundreds of times in a row, with no success.
DHS staff also admitted using social media to track down and investigate complaints against Centrelink.
"We look at it about service delivery," said DHS secretary Kathryn Campbell. "My expectation is, in running the department, it's expected of us to look at those complaints to see whether they're true."
Another DHS staffer, Jonathon Hutson, said it was a case-by-case decision on which complaints -- from social media or otherwise -- were elevated to the minister's office.
"There would be a number of complaints that would be made, particularly on social media, which would be unidentifiable and indeed may be of a relatively minor nature," he said. "If there was a substantial article in a newspaper or indeed a substantial article on broadcast media, that would be a lot more important in terms of how we would deal with it."
Greens senator Rachel Siewert seemed surprised by the admission of social media monitoring during the hearing.
"It is deeply concerning that DHS staff have been trawling through social media to find people complaining about Centrelink to provide to the Minister," she said in a statement.
"The department confirmed they keep an eye on traditional media but to trawl social media is a new development that raises strong concerns. This looks to me more about trying to discourage people from speaking out."