Centrelink has been slammed for offering “a crock of you know what” after Liberal frontbencher Stuart Robert admitted he failed to predict 100,000 new clients would crash its website – before also dishing out incorrect advice about securing benefits.
As newly laid-off workers queued in the rain on Tuesday to enlist for welfare benefits, Mr Robert, the Government Services Minister, urged them to stop and “just go online”.
But it quickly emerged that Centrelink clients could not apply for benefits unless they had a Customer Reference Number (CRN), which could not be obtained without visiting an office.
Social Services Minister Anne Ruston then emerged to urge the newly unemployed to phone Centrelink to get a CRN.
Earlier, Mr Robert said Centrelink’s MyGov website usually had about 6000 concurrent users and had prepared for 50,000 after the federal government introduced coronavirus restrictions on businesses. In the days since, demand has quickly outstripped capacity.
“I didn’t think I’d have to prepare for 100,000 concurrent users,” he told Alan Jones on Sydney’s 2GB radio.
“My bad for not realising the sheer scale of the decision on Sunday night by the national leaders that literally saw hundreds and hundreds of thousands, maybe a million people, unemployed overnight.
“Of course we can do better. You don’t need to queue up for Centrelink. Just go online to MyGov.”
But just hours later, broadcaster Ray Hadley lashed the Morrison government, revealing he had been “inundated” by callers telling him that applying online was not possible.
“Therein lies the problem. No one answers the phone,” he said. “Then you get cut off after 1.5 hours waiting.
“The information coming from the Minister is a crock of you know what. It’s an absolute bit of BS because you can’t get a CRN from going to the MyGov website. And if you ring that number you will wait for long time – hours and hours. I am afraid it’s in complete disarray.”
Senator Anne Ruston confirmed new clients had previously been required to go to a Centrelink office in person to secure a CRN. They will now be able to provide proof of identity over the phone.
Centrelink customers must have a CRN before benefits will be paid.
“You can ring up any of our Centrelink call centres, you can say, identify yourself, we will not require you to provide any physical demonstration,” Senator Ruston said.
“We will only require you to actually advise us and we’ll take your word for it, understanding these are exceptional circumstances and we don’t want people attending Centrelink sites in person.
“Then you can go online and register through MyGov or, equally, if you don’t want to do that, you can remain on the phone and do your application on the phone.
Asked whether that meant people would no longer need to queue to sign up for benefits, she said: “I’m assuming so.”
“I’ve been speaking to my colleague, Minister Robert, who is responsible for government services, about making sure that we are staying ahead of the demand,” she said.
But, several hours later the MyGov website had still not been updated with the new advice.
Labor frontbencher Linda Burney described as a “ridiculous performance” Mr Robert’s initial claim on Monday that MyGov had been the subject of a cyberattack.
He later admitted the site had crashed under the large volume of new clients.
“Ministers need to be absolutely across their portfolio,” she said.
She said a dedicated Centrelink hotline was needed for people seeking information.
- Related: Centrelink website information
“There are up to 10 numbers you ring for different payments and, whether it’s unemployment, disability, age pension – that has to be a single number in my view.
“There needs to be an understanding that people will queue today because they are confused. They are confused as to whether they have to attend Centrelink offices or whether they have to go online, and whether everyone has the capacity to go online.”