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‘No respect’: Crucial Centrelink service axed in regional town

An image of the Centrelink sign and Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen
(Source: Getty)

The Federal Government has scrapped face-to-face services at a Centrelink branch in regional Victoria, in a snap decision that has left the local community reeling.

Earlier this year, Services Australia announced that the face-to-face Centrelink services in Benalla would be replaced by an ‘agent service’.

This means that people who visit the centre would only be provided with assistance logging onto computers, uploading documents or using phones.

The Benalla Centrelink has been shut since early 2020 amid COVID-19 restrictions.

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“Services Australia staff had been visiting Benalla four days a week, but have been unable to do so since April 2020 due to COVID-related issues,” said Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen at the time.

“After careful consideration we have decided that an agent model, operating daily, will provide a more sustainable and reliable service option.”

The changes are effective from today, Thursday 1 July 2021, Jongen announced.

‘No intention of listening’: MPs

The Government appeared to be engaged in consultation with the community of Benalla over the changes.

Last month, Benalla resident Des Moyland went to the local paper to voice his concerns about the impending changes, saying that many residents were older and would struggle to access their age pension via computer services.

“We’ve got an elderly population and we also have quite a number of people on a disability pension,” Moylan told Shepparton News.

“Benalla needs face-to-face options. Somewhere where people can go to speak to a trained person who can talk to them and help them understand what they need to do.

“For elderly people to be pointed towards a computer screen and told to make their claim, or ask their question will not work.”

Independent MP Helen Haines said she took the community’s concerns up with Government Services Minister Linda Reynolds, whom she met with recently to discuss the community’s concerns.

But on Tuesday 29 June, Reynolds wrote to Haines to say the new “agency model” would begin from Thursday, with no notification to the broader Benalla community.

“It seems there was never any intention of actually listening to the community,” Haines said.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 11: Independent member for Indi, Helen Haines during a press conference in the Mural Hall at Parliament House on June 11, 2020 in Canberra, Australia. Five federal crossbenchers have called for a private member's bill to establish a federal anti-corruption body. (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)
Independent MP Helen Haines is urging the Federal Government and Services Australia to reverse their decision to cut face-to-face Centrelink services in Benalla. (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

“I expressed my concerns and those of the community to the minister and understood Services Australia was going to consult with the people of Benalla on a new model.

“Two days’ notice without proper consultation shows no respect or understanding of the needs of the people of Benalla for Services Australia services.”

Haines added that she would be writing to Reynolds to express her disappointment at the way the community had been left out of the decision-making process.

“This is simply not good enough.”

Victorian Parliamentarian Steph Ryan said she had also written to Reynolds, who denied her request to have the decision reversed.

“Locals have struggled to access government services following the closure of the Benalla office in early 2020,” she said as reported in Shepparton News.

“I fear that government agencies and big corporations are using the pandemic as an excuse for the decrease in foot traffic.”

New ‘agent’ Centrelink service for Benalla

A third party provider will provide the ‘agent’ service at the Benalla Centrelink, Jongen said in a statement on Wednesday.

“This dedicated access to services will be provided by our new Agent service, The Personnel Group, at 85 Nunn Street,” he said.

“Residents will now have access to the agent 30 hours a week, up from a maximum of 24 hours a week through the old visiting service, ensuring the community has more access to consistent and reliable services.”

Agent service staff will undergo “extensive training and ongoing support” to help community members access the digital self-service platforms, he said.

Agents will help customers scan, print and upload documents; get advice on how to access the digital services; and be put through to a Services Australia staff member through the phone, said Jongen.

“Services Australia staff will make regular visits to the Agent to ensure the new service is meeting the needs of the local community.”

Services Australia will host two “digital learning events” for the Benalla community to help them better “engage with government services online”.

The first event will be held on Thursday 8 July and community members must book by calling (03) 5723 4279.

Yahoo Finance has reached out to Helen Haines and the mayor and deputy mayor of Benalla for further comment.

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