Under the cover of darkness in 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic being used as an excuse, the Centrelink office in Benalla was closed. The local community were promised consultation on future services for Benalla, but that never happened. Instead, they were told a year after the closure, with just two days notice, that they would have to settle for an agency model—basically an office with a computer and a phone, with no staff who can actually make decisions on their payments. This caused major issues for people in Benalla. The closest Centrelink offices are in Wangaratta, an 80-kilometre round trip, and Shepparton, a 120-kilometre round trip. Fuel is incredibly expensive, and public transport options are unreliable and irregular.
The closure makes no sense if you understand Benalla. The population of Benalla is significantly older than the general population and less likely to have finished year 12, and the median household income is 32.2 per cent lower than the Victorian median. Almost one in five people in Benalla are on the aged pension. This all points to a community already facing significant disadvantage, with higher likelihood to have low digital literacy, to rely on government support and to have complex cases that need personalised attention.
While I highlight the challenges Benalla faces, don’t be mistaken: this is a special town. Since the Centrelink office closed, locals have rallied to make the case for it to be reopened. They’ve written letters to ministers and editors, made freedom of information requests and more. This is a community that gets involved and gets stuff done. People like Des Moylan, Hamish McPherson and Linda Tullberg, and many more, have stood up for community in a time of need. They’ve started a petition, which has been signed by more than 2,100 people, and more than 200 people have completed a survey about their experiences since the office closed. I seek leave to present this petition asking the government to reopen the Centrelink office in Benalla.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms Claydon):
I ask the member for Indi: has the petition been approved by the Petitions Committee?
Dr HAINES: No.
Dr HAINES: I table the document. The current Minister for Government Services, Mr Shorten, visited Benalla during the election campaign. Mr Shorten said the community had been ‘gaslighted’ by the then government over the closure of the office. The decision to reopen the office now lies with Mr Shorten, who said it so well:
We cannot have a safety net in this country which is just for blue sky days. We need a safety net which is there, which can respond in depth and in quality when people are doing it hard.
We need to ensure the people of Benalla have real access to the safety net, and I call on the government to reopen the Centrelink office as soon as possible. I challenge you to find any justification to [time expired].