28 March 2024

Commonwealth frontline staff to be better protected through new legislation

| Andrew McLaughlin
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Centrelink Woden

The new legislation to increase minimum penalties comes after service centres received upgraded security and staff received customer aggression training. Photo: George Tsotsos.

Commonwealth frontline workers in public-facing jobs will be better protected through harsher penalties for members of the public who threaten or perpetrate violence.

Legislation introduced into parliament will provide stronger protection for workers at Centrelink, the Australian Taxation Office, passport offices, airports and the Australian Electoral Commission who man outward-facing positions.

The legislation comes after Centrelink worker Joeanne Cassar was stabbed at a service centre in Melbourne last May by a client who was ejected from the office earlier that day. After the client left the first time, the office locked its doors and screened clients before allowing them in, but the victim was later ordered to discontinue the screening shortly before her attacker returned.

She was stabbed several times in her upper body and barely survived. Ms Cassar had worked for Centrelink for 37 years and will have lifelong injuries.

Following the attack, Services Minister Bill Shorten initiated the Services Australia Security Risk Management Review into the safety and security of Services Australia’s 318 service centres, led by former senior Victorian police officer Graham Ashton.

At the time, Mr Shorten said of the 10 million customer interactions Services Australia staff had in 2022-23, there were 9000 incidents of violence or aggression reported, and a similar number has been reported for the current financial year so far.

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Following the Ashton Review which was tabled in October and which made 44 recommendations, additional security staff were employed at service centres, IT systems were upgraded, service centres were redesigned, and advanced customer aggression training was provided to more than 500 frontline staff.

The Criminal Code Amendment (Protecting Commonwealth Frontline Workers) Bill 2024 will see minimum gaol terms increased by between two and three years for conduct that causes harm or threatens to cause harm to a Commonwealth frontline worker.

Minister Shorten said in light of the attack on Joeanne Cassar, he promised the government would increase security and safety for the thousands of people who worked at Services Australia, and the millions of Australians who used Services Australia offices.

“I have been in touch with Joeanne and wanted her to know we haven’t forgotten her, and that we’re making good on our promise,” he said. “Her life was changed as a result of the attack on her, but she knows her pain has helped others.

“I want to say to the approximately 30,000 Service Australia staff, you do a great job and we want you to be as safe at work as we can make it.”

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the government deeply valued the work done by all public servants on the frontline.

“Every day they help people in so many ways to access government services, support and payments,” he said.

“Violence and aggression towards those workers will not be tolerated. All Australians, no matter where they work, have the right to a safe, secure and respectful workplace.”

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The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) has welcomed the new legislation, saying it will bring the new penalties into line with those for assaults on other essential workers such as emergency services.

But it said the recommendations of the Ashton Review could only be achieved with safe staffing levels, and called on the government to work with the union to implement recommendations that would prevent acts of violence and aggression from occurring in the first place.

CPSU National Secretary Melissa Donnelly said Commonwealth frontline workers would be pleased to see this recommendation from the Ashton report being implemented.

“Assaults, threats and other acts of customer aggression are unacceptable and should not be tolerated in any workplace,” she said.

“Our members, who are deeply committed to their jobs, are often dealing with people at a very difficult or stressful time in their life.

“This pressure in addition to call wait times and claim processing backlogs can create a very difficult, and sometimes dangerous, situation for staff in customer-facing roles,” she added.

“We want to see the agency and the government doing everything they can to prevent these acts of aggression or violence from occurring in the first place.”

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Additional staff and harsher penalties won’t solve a thing. The recipients of centrelink are typically quite vulnerable, and are relying on an outcome at that time to survive. The better solution would be to have “virtual” staff – real people from another state speaking to them and handling their matters. It removes almost all risk to staff at these service centres, which often also have medicare and NDIS staff working at them.

It should be a given that all people, including public servants (let me add politicians also), should behave with civility and respect, no exceptions.

However, let us be honest and not continually feign surprise and horror about violence within Australian society at large. This modern nation was founded on extreme and wilful violence.

Systemic violence continues, yet we always seem to focus hardest on violence in its interpersonal physical manifestations. It seems to me that preoccupation of the mainstream media with violence committed by the lower classes (and please do not pretend we are an egalitarian society) provides an all too convenient for the violence perpetrated by the ruling class.

Perhaps, one day, we will stop simply attempting to treat the symptoms instead of the underlying causes of the disease.

Heywood Smith12:20 pm 02 Apr 24

Lynn, have you ever been stabbed by a staffer? Didn’t think so… Welfare recipients are amongst the rudest and most self-entitled individuals i’ve ever dealt with. .

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