Government announces new rules for Centrelink
The Federal Government has made changes to its welfare application process to allow applications to be completed remotely as criticism flows towards its handling of the hundreds of thousands of Australians in need of income relief.
Applicants will no longer be required to visit a Centrelink site to prove identification while the MyGov website has had its capacity lifted from 50,000 visitors to 150,000 after the site crashed on Monday under the volume of the suddenly unemployed.
States are shutting borders and the closing of pubs, clubs, restaurants, cinemas and more non-essential services to control the spread of the coronavirus pandemic means millions now may lose their jobs.
The government has been criticised for botching the handling of the increased need for welfare, which initially blamed Monday's MyGov crash on a cyber attack before later retracting that claim.
This morning, Social Services Minister Anne Ruston was forced to defend the departments treatment of the anxious Australians flocking to Centrelink sites and website, with one reporter saying the lack of access to support represented "gross indignity".
"We certainly understand that yesterday was an extraordinary spike in the number of people that were looking to use the service and overnight Sunday night," the minister told reporters.
"This is an unprecedented situation. It is moving very rapidly. It is moving unpredictably and we are doing everything that we can to make sure that we keep ahead so that we can minimise the impact that we are seeing on Australians."
Senator Ruston said the changes mean those needing welfare support will no longer have to line-up on the street.
"You can do it over the phone," she said. "We don't want people attending Centrelink sites in person."
The minister also confirmed the $550 coronavirus supplement will be extended to Youth Allowance students and apprentices.
"I've done this this morning in recognition of the fact that many students, particularly those that support themselves, also have incomes from casual work to support their study," she told reporters.
"These are the kinds of people - for instance, people from the regions who go to the city to study to become doctors and nurses and teachers, who find themselves having to rely on their own incomes to support themselves through study while the government provides them with the study allowance.
"It also might be older people coming back into the workforce, who would like to do some study, and they might have families."
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese says "today the lines outside Centrelink are longer than they were yesterday".
Speaking to reporters in Canberra, Mr Albanese described "constructive suggestions" Labor has made to tweak the government's coronavirus assistance package to ensure people don't fall through the cracks.
"We have put forward constructive suggestions, just as we did in the bushfire crisis," he said.
"The fact that many of them have been adopted is a good thing. I've said from the beginning, from my first day as Labor leader, I wanted to be known as just that - the Labor leader, not the Opposition Leader. I've had some say to me that that's a mistake. It's not. We're elected to represent the national interest, and we should never forget it in this place."
UNEMPLOYMENT TO SKYROCKET
Unnamed senior figures in the banking and forecasting sector told Nine Newspapers the jobless rate in the coronavirus downturn could reach 15 per cent or more, up from 5.1 per cent currently.
That would be the highest jobless rate since the Great Depression and amount to up to two million suddenly unemployed.
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JP Morgan has predicted the nation's economy in the second quarter to retract by nearly 10 per cent which it says would lead to an unemployment rate of 11 per cent. This highlights the uncertainty surrounding the potential blow to the workforce but, whatever figures are considered, the shock to the Australian economy is going to be substantial.
It also comes after a senior Federal Reserve executive warned unemployment in the US could hit 30 per cent, worse than during the Great Depression and three times the level seen during the GFC.
That could lead to an unprecedented 50 per cent drop in GDP, or a $US2.5 trillion hit to the world's largest economy.
The grim predictions explain the long lines snaking from Centrelink doors across the country as Senator Ruston appealed to desperate Australians to hold off contacting welfare when she appeared on Nine's Today show this morning.
"We clearly understand the distress that this coronavirus is causing," she said. "We are asking for patience and calm. What we saw yesterday was heartbreaking."
The MyGov online portal crashed on Monday after it was overwhelmed by people trying to access it.
The government said the site could only handle 55,000 visitors at one time during the increased traffic, but numbers spiked to almost 100,000. On a normal day, visitor numbers are about 6000.
The volume of traffic was so high, Government Services Minister Stuart Robert initially claimed hackers were responsible for crashing the website. Senator Ruston said there was no excuse for what happened.
"I'm apologising," she said.
Centrelink will boost its workforce by 5000 people to deal with the influx of applicants and extend call centre hours.
But there will be fewer staff at the centres because of social distancing requirements. No pop-up shopfronts are planned.
Many families, workers and business owners have been forced to seek social security payments as the pandemic throws the national economy, which is likely heading into a recession, into chaos.
Senator Ruston said no-one needs to line up at Centrelink offices on Tuesday, unless they don't have a phone or internet access.
Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek says the government should have planned better and made sure the system was up to task.
"And if it does crash, for goodness sake, we've got a minister pretending it was a hacking job - the fastest way the government can lose trust of Australians is not to be frank about this stuff," she told ABC News.
"These are unprecedented times. It is likely the government will need to do more."
Prahran, 6.45am Tuesday. After yesterday’s farce, there are already 15 in the queue outside the Centrelink office (the first was here at 4.30am). Again, a potential social distancing risk but these people feel they have no choice. It opens at 8.30am. 😔 #coronavirusaustralia pic.twitter.com/wYQtaBK3gB— Paul Dowsley (@pauldowsley7) March 23, 2020