Hockey's space cadet schemes

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Astronaut with Joe Hockey's facePicture the scene. In one of the retail businesses that are still known as post offices but are mostly private contractors, not Australia Post-owned-and-operated branches, a longer than usual queue is forming. Apart from people buying stamps, paying utility bills and sending registered mail, other customers are appearing.

They are not there because they are eager to buy the coffee mugs, coloured pencil sets, computer mouse mats, mobile phones, DVDs and other assorted merchandise that the privatised post offices have to tout to turn a profit. These other customers are applicants for periodical payments such as the Youth Allowance or Newstart (the unemployment benefit, which at $250 a week is now more than $100 below the poverty line).

People used to apply for these benefits and receive advice about them in the offices of Centrelink, the Federal Government's one-stop shop for clients of its services. But Centrelink has been consigned to history and Australia Post is the new shopfront for just about anything you might require from the government, from the age or invalid pension to Medicare refunds.

Medicare? Oh yes, Australia's universal health insurance system has also been deemed not to require offices and a bureaucracy of its own. A separate counter in a privatised post office will do. Except, that is, in the smallest such businesses in country towns or newly (i.e. barely) established suburbs on the fringes of major cities, where there's only space for a single counter and a couple of overworked and untrained staff who have to deal with every kind of government customer and client, from the dwindling numbers of stamp buyers to the burgeoning numbers of irate people who want to know why their Newstart payment didn't arrive on time.

Does this scenario sound far-fetched? It shouldn't, because Treasurer Joe Hockey has confirmed that the transfer of Centrelink operations to Australia Post will be one of the proposals considered by the Commission of Audit, which the Government has appointed to advise it on cutting costs and eliminating inefficiencies in the public sector.

The idea that sending all recipients of government services to a single shop — and often a single queue — could ever be considered efficient is risible. The most charitable response to this proposal would be to say that it could only have occurred to people whose experience of queues is limited to cinema box offices.

But in this context, of course, 'efficiency' has a very specific meaning. It means notionally maintaining a service while reducing the cost of providing it, even if that in fact means reducing the quality of the service. It is the cost, not the service itself, that becomes the primary consideration. And if the service then deteriorates so much that people are deterred from seeking to become its beneficiaries, so much the better. If having fewer public agencies, with fewer public employees or contractors, dispensing Newstart or the Youth Allowance results in fewer people on Newstart or the Youth Allowance, that is the preferred 'efficient' outcome.

This is a different conceptual universe from that still inhabited by most Australians, for whom the efficient operation of a program such as Newstart means the provision of adequate income support to people who are in need of paid employment, and who can prove that they actually are devoting their time and energy to finding a job. Most people still expect governments to do things. That is not, however, the premise on which the Commission of Audit is likely to make its recommendations.

Nonetheless there is a bizarre and remorseless logic to proposals such as the absorption of Centrelink by Australia Post and to some others that Hockey has floated, such as making Medibank Private responsible for delivering the services of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, if and when it is established. These changes — and the privatisation of Australia's HECS debt, which Education Minister Christopher Pyne has 'refused to rule out' — are continuous with the steady attrition of the public realm that began in the 1980s with the sale of public trading enterprises under the Hawke and Keating governments.

The debate then was couched in relatively innocuous terms, e.g. why does the government need to own an airline? The obvious answer to that question was that if we want a national carrier that not only gives Australia a tangible presence in the world's major airports but has an unrivalled safety record, too, it won't be done by an enterprise that has to generate sufficient profits to satisfy shareholders. Similar arguments could have been made about the privatisation of other government enterprises. Obvious though they may have been, however, such arguments were simply dismissed in policymaking circles, including large sections of the media.

The end result is the situation we now have, in which a federal treasurer can seriously countenance making local post offices virtually the only shopfront deliverer of government services yet the response from most mainstream media commentators is barely even a raised eyebrow. The people who potentially have to use those services, however, will be horrified. They and their government live and move in different thought-worlds.

In an ABC Lateline interview this week, ACTU president Ged Kearney described the transfer of Centrelink's operations to Australia Post as 'moving into space-cadet territory'. Well, yes, Ged. The space cadets are flying the ship now.


 

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor.

Astronaut image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Centrelink, Joe Hockey, Youth Allowance, Newstart, Medicare

 

 

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Existing comments

It is quite clear that Joe Hockey has never been to a local post office.
Bmpermie | 30 October 2013


Whether we are space-cadets or savvy operators, we tend to cling on to our thought-worlds. But, if one votes for Klingons, the result can be very messy.
Pam | 30 October 2013


Is it any consolation then that the GST will not be increased? One wonders what Joe Hockey has been drinking lately; or for that matter who is the company he keeps to come up with some spaced out ideas? Is JH so disconnected from the reality of the Australian community? Will not be surprise if the Commissionon Audit comes back with a similar recommendation as they did for QLD. I thin the use of a Commission of Audit is just another ploy to show that an "independent" group has reviewed, assessed and evaluted the mess the prrevious government left behind to justify the promises and changes to be implemented to bring the budget out of deficit. Ths is Joe Hockey's job to resolve and not a Audit committee to perform... just a another waste of taxpayers money.
Jan | 30 October 2013


This is a disturbing article of yours, Ray. I am hoping that some of the things that Joe Hockey has said about what the Commission of Audit will consider are just Brave New Words to awaken the country to our National Debt problem. It's early days for the new Coalition government and I think they are considering all options. That being said, there are options, which you have mentioned, which I think would radically change the face of Australian society for the worse. Opposition to these should not be seen in terms of purely partisan politics, nor should the current government be denigrated as "space cadets". I think there are people who need to speak truth to power where it matters. Much is made of the current leadership's "Catholic" affiliation: now may be the time to test it. Judaeo-Christian-Islamic societies all have a conception that social welfare and the protection of the poor and weak are a cornerstone of any decent society. The modern neo-con economic model has none.
Edward F | 30 October 2013


The Centrelink office where I live sees anywhere between 600-800 people a day. I had to assist my brother-in-law claim some benefits. Fortunately, as he had worked most of his life,he had no reason to visit a Centrelink office until health reasons made it necessary. He couldn't believe the level of anger and despair of people. He was also very impressed with Centrelink staff and how they handled some very very challenging and difficult situations, while being verablly abused and threatened. God help Australia Post staff, if this happens, who will have no training or understanding of working with marginalised and disadvantaged folks. Yep, this is truly fanciful thinking. And I suspect Joe has never had reason to visit a Centrelink office. Perhaps he should before he embarks on his sacred mission to privatise everything that opens and shuts.
Lawrence | 30 October 2013


I'm speechless! Where does Joe live? On Mars? Suddenly I'm fearful of this new government.
John Morris | 30 October 2013


I'm sure if the money keeps rolling in it doesn't make any difference if it's the Post Office or Centrelink - both places are only open 9-5pm, Monday to Friday - so if you're working those same hours its hardly likely you will ever get a chance to step inside either of them.
AURELIUS | 30 October 2013


Ray Cassin your "obvious answer" to the side question that if we want a national carrier that not only gives Australia a tangible presence in the world's major airports but has an unrivalled safety record, too, it cannot be done by an enterprise that has to generate sufficient profits to satisfy shareholders is absolute nonsense of the highest order. It is not in the interests of any airline shareholder to operate an airline with anything but an excellent safety record. Go to any airport in the world and check out the privately owned airlines of the world with brilliant safety records. Compare them to Aeroflot!
Martin Loney | 30 October 2013


Gee, I didn't realize the arguments against privatizing the government airline were so weak back then! "Tangible presence at international airports"? What does that mean, and who cares? And the "safety" argument: what a furphy, especially considering the fall in accident rates that had just recently occurred when the Carter administration deregulated the US airline industry. And in fact, Australia's safety record is still in tact. But again, that's not really the issue. There is always a trade-off between safety and other aspects of transport, such as cost, convenience, and so on. We recognise this happily enough in other areas of life: that's why people in mini-minors are permitted to drive alongside much safer vehicles on the road. (Or consider sports such as lawn bowls, vs white water rafting) They're choosing their ideal mix of safety and other goods. (It's even more complicated than that: I might choose to drive a cheap small car so I have money to spend on my health in other ways. I.e., There are even different mixes under the head of "safety" or "health".) There is no reason to believe that the government's regulations provides the best mix of goods. There is every reason to believe people are better at arriving their own mix, as in other areas of life.
HH | 30 October 2013


I notice that Centrelink is now part of the Department of Human Services. Not sure about "Human Services", but this change that is being floated is anything but humane. If you go to Centrelink to inquire about payment or, for example, as a pensioner to tell them you will be overseas for two weeks, you will be instructed to make a phone call about it. I think the calls are answered in Canberra. You can sit listening to music for some time before getting through to an officer on the other end of the telephone. If you cannot hear on a telephone you will be asked to make contact by computer. Most local franchise post offices are quite small. How will they accommodate these telephones, computers, and queues and queues of people? Oh, and also the people making Medicare claims who now have to go to the Centrelink office? Lawrence speaks accurately of the despair and anger amongst Centrelink clients. Some of it walks in the door with them, some of it occurs because they are obliged to wait, yet again. So, will these post offices need security staff for outbreaks of anger and frustration?
Janet | 30 October 2013


It is just impossible to imagine how our very slow service at post offices would ever be able to deal with Centrelink customers who MUST have the right to privacy and respect.
Maurice Shinnick | 30 October 2013


Ray, please get this sort of thing into the popular media. There is a whole raft of us out here who have been worried about this since the 1980s. Worrying gets us nowhere. M.
Mahdi | 31 October 2013


Space Cadets? I don't think so. I worked for six very interesting months for Centrelink. Joe Hockey was the Minister in charge of it at that time. "Space Cadets" suggests inexperience, and Joe Hockey is not inexperienced. He knows the number and complexity of the issues that a Centrelink branch deals with daily. He knows the human pain and frustration of those that come to 'the government' for help. He knows, and he's still putting forward this crazy idea. Not good, Joe. And I do mean you.
Joan Seymour | 31 October 2013


Eleventyonics (or Hockeynomics- same animal) is simply following the revered LNP tradition of slashing and burning benefits and services to the poor in order to be able to grant wealthy mums $75,000 six months sit down money. Anyone who did not see this coming is naive, or misled (probably by the Murdoch press), or too young to know better. In two years time, check on the destruction levels before the next election.
Peter Daughtry | 01 November 2013


I note that the little "promo" -- though NOT, as I'm glad and unsurprised to see -- for this essay refers to the President of the ACTU as "he": Ged Kearney is, a woman.
John CARMODY | 02 November 2013


Oh, why did we vote the neo-cons into office? Labor must never blow its time in government again as it did in 2010-2013. We are all realising now the huge price our society will have to pay. The present government is already causing so many people so much pain and anxiety, and it has only been a few weeks and without having Senate control. It is going to get a whole lot worse. Motor manufacture, Qantas maintenance, asylum seekers, Ray's important and very disturbing essay here on Centrelink .... the list is growing.
tony kevin | 09 November 2013


Sounds like another piece of conceptual brilliance from the Coots-With-Queer-Ideas-from-a-Parallel-Universe (aka IPA)
Lawrence Winder | 22 December 2013


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