Human Services Portfolio
The Committee took evidence from the Department of Human Services (DHS),
Centrelink and Australian Hearing on Thursday, 29 May 2008.
of Human Services
The main subjects of discussion relating to DHS
- absence of the Secretary from the Budget Estimates hearings;
- staffing levels;
- Members and Senators attending community consultations; and
- child support income assessment calculations.
Absence of the Secretary from the
On 26 May 2008, 3 days before the committee was scheduled to examine
DHS, the committee received a letter from the Secretary of DHS, stating that she
would be unavailable to attend the Budget estimates hearings.
Senator Coonan questioned DHS on why the Secretary of the department would not
be appearing before the committee. A DHS official stated that the Secretary was
attending an international social sector forum in Brussels. Senator the Hon Joe Ludwig,
Minister for Human Services, apologised to the committee for the inconvenience
that this may have caused.
The committee is disappointed that the Secretary of DHS did not attend
the Budget Estimates hearings, as the hearings present one of the few
opportunities for Senators to put questions to the Secretary. The committee
expects that in the future that Departmental Secretaries, as well as all SES
officers will make themselves available for Estimates hearings unless there are
exceptional circumstances. The committee encourages these staff to diarise
Estimates hearings, the dates for which are generally known well in advance.
Following on from the committee’s previous examination during Additional
Estimates 2007-08 of staffing levels
within DHS, Senator Coonan questioned officials about what affect the
efficiency dividend has had on the staffing levels across the department. This
information was provided to the committee on both a portfolio and departmental
Senator Ludwig drew the committee’s attention to the statistics relating
to the Human Services Portfolio average staffing levels:
...[T]here is an average staffing level and we use that as the
base for all staff across the portfolio...The total is 35 399 in 2008–09. This
reduction, which we are now referring to, results of course from a number of
factors such as the abolition of the access card, completion of some of the
child support reform measures and increased gains being made at Medicare Australia.
In terms of Centrelink, which is where staffing will reduce marginally by less
than one per cent, average staffing levels across the portfolio including SES
will reduce by 816, or 2.3 per cent in 2008–09.
An official from DHS also outlined the specific implications for the
result in the decrease in staffing numbers for the department. The official
informed the committee the reduction will cause the loss of 15 staff from the
Other noteworthy issues raised by the committee with DHS included:
- appointments made by the government to statutory authorities,
executive agencies and advisory boards.
Members and Senators attending
Senator Coonan also questioned officials about the protocols that are in
place for Members and Senators to receive information packs when invited to
attend community forums.
A CSA official stated that the department contacts local Members of
Parliament six weeks before a community forum to invite them to attend. Once a
Member of Parliament confirms that they will attend a session, an information
pack is then sent out.
For the benefit of the committee the information pack was tabled.
Child support income assessment
Senator Coonan questioned CSA officials about how the agency conducts
client income assessment calculations. Specifically, Senator Coonan examined
the issue surrounding checks and reviews that are put in place by CSA to
identify any weaknesses in income calculations.
A CSA official informed the committee that clients are notified of an
assessment based on information that CSA has stored in its existing database
together with the information that a client has supplied in response to
mail-outs and other requests for information. The official also referred to the
‘online estimator’ that is available for clients to gauge the likely impact of
the new child support scheme in terms of their personal circumstances.
In relation to the new arrangements for determining child support income
calculations, Senator Coonan questioned officials as to their assessment of its
application so far. A CSA official replied that change is often viewed with
uncertainty by clients, but that CSA had put in place additional staff to answer
all inquiries that the agency has received from clients.
The main subjects of discussion relating Centrelink included:
- the appointment of a new Chief Executive Officer;
- compliance issues and data-matching;
- baby bonus payments; and
- changes to income testing for the seniors health card.
Appointment of a new Chief
With the recent announcement of the resignation of the Chief Executive
Officer (CEO), Senator Coonan sought details about what action Centrelink is
undertaking to find a replacement.
A DHS official stated that the current CEO will finish on 24 June 2008. Furthermore a merit based process will be used to select an appropriate
candidate using a selection process as per the normal public service process.
The committee was informed that an interim arrangement will be put in place
whereby the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the Customer Service division
will act in the position of CEO until a replacement is found.
Compliance issues and data-matching
Senator Coonan questioned Centrelink about the practice of data-matching
people’s financial and other information between government agencies including
the Australian Taxation Office and Australian Customs.
Senator Ludwig provided the committee with a useful account of the two
Budget measures that were introduced to support the data-matching program:
There are two elements to the data matching program announced in
the budget; data matching with banks and the ATO. For banks the 2008-09 budget
provided...$138.9 million [in] funds to allow Centrelink to expand. It is to
expand the Commonwealth Bank data matching scheme and to start working with
other major financial institutions. In respect of the ATO, the data matching
program...is also being expanded.
Although a Centrelink official could not inform the committee about the
estimated savings from the data matching programs, the committee was informed
that 41 500 people are expected to have their bank accounts reviewed over the
next four years.
Baby bonus payments
Senator Coonan raised with Centrelink issues surrounding the
administrate processes behind the payment of the baby bonus. The committee was
provided with specific information including how many baby bonus payments have
been made, and an outline of the changes that have been made to income
A Centrelink official informed the committee that for the 2006–07
financial year, 286 896 people received payments that were previously referred
to as maternity payments. Senator Ludwig informed the committee about the
government's new arrangements for the administration of the payments will
include the introduction of an eligibility means test for families earning up
to $150 000.
Senator Ludwig justified the government's decision stating:
Income tests will be based on the family’s income in the six
months following birth on a pro rata annual basis, that is, $75,000 over six
months. This will ensure that the timing of the birth within a financial year
does not affect the family’s eligibility. The income threshold will also be
indexed annually and the new means test will affect less than 6 per cent of
families, that is, 16,000 out of 293,000 expected births in 2008-09. It will be
paid in 13 fortnightly instalments from the date of the claim. Paying the baby
bonus in a fortnightly instalment better supports families who often experience
a drop in income after the birth of a child.
Changes to income testing for the
seniors health card
Senator Coonan also questioned Centrelink officials about changes that
the government intends to make to the eligibility requirements for people
seeking a seniors heath card.
The committee was informed that there will be four elements taken into
account when assessing the income of people applying for a seniors health care
An official stated:
For the purpose of determining eligibility for this card the
adjusted taxable income test will change. The changes include gross income from
a superannuation income stream with a taxed source. That will be added to the
customer’s income. Income that is salary sacrificed to superannuation will be
added to the customer’s income. Net losses incurred through financial
investments will be added to the customer’s income and both members of a couple
for all health care card holders will have income assessed on the same tax
year. In previous years we have accepted income tax assessed in different
Other issues that the committee examined in relation to Centrelink
- the development of an income management card;
- child protection pilot and school attendance and enrolment pilot;
- Keeping System Fair multimedia campaign;
- Changes to Welfare to Work;
- staffing levels;
- different types of payment cards.
The committee briefly examined Medicare Australia. The notable issues
covered during this examination included:
- the use of the Medicare Card;
- the establishment of new Medicare offices.
The committee also briefly examined Australian Hearing. The notable
issues covered during this examination included:
the provision of universal newborn hearing services;
- the provision of hearing services within the Northern Territory;
- reforming the Hearing Services Consultative Committee;
- support for people with hearing impairments entering the
Senator Helen Polley
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