Doctor and activist

Centrelink- an Encounter 9/6/16

Sometimes we have little experiences that are wake up calls.  We need to note them, and act on them.

I have little to do with Centrelink.  Like most North Shore doctors I assume it does its job, and also tacitly assume it has nothing to do with me.  It wrote to me about 6 months ago asking for a clarification of a certificate for someone I had written a disability pension form for, someone sensible called me, and then a letter offered me  a modest payment for my efforts if I gave them a tax file number and an invoice.  It seemed that God was in his heaven and all was well. 

But last week one of my patients came in quite distressed at 4.20pm. He is often quite distressed as he had a Workers Compensation accident that wrecked his life and left him in pain.  The insurance company had screwed his pay right down, and now have stopped it, presumably to force him into a minimal settlement. My medical partner had written him a certificate for Centrelink, for 3 months, modelled on the one 3 months before.  Centrelink had rejected it, and as my partner was not working that day he asked me to fix it or he would not get paid. It had to be in by Friday.  The certificate looked fine to me, so I was not sure what re-write it needed.  I said I would call Centrelink to clarify the situation.  He said, ‘That will not work. It takes at least an hour to call Centrelink, sometimes two’.  I called anyway. After a few menu items, I got to the right section. It told me that I was speaking to a computer voice recognition system. The computer asked, ‘What is your number, including the letter on the end?’ I asked him what his number was. By the time he had told me the machine had hung up. I dialled again and followed the menu. I gave the number, but he said he did not have a letter on the end. Again the machine hung up on me.  I went to the Centrelink website. It had a huge number of menus and images, with FAQs and all the information that you may or may not need in an effort not to have to talk to you, or even get an email. These are complicated menus and even when you click ‘Contact us’ there are many ways to try to divert you from actually doing so.  I realised that I was never going to find what I needed, so I clicked on complaint. More menus, and there is a special complaint section for health professionals.  Boxes asked my details and finally there was a fairly small box to write in.  I wrote that I was merely trying to help this man and could not find where the guidelines for certificates were or speak to anyone.  My complaint was all finished except the spellcheck. The phone rang. I took a short call and returned to my screen. ‘Timed out’. Completely blank. Try again. i.e. write it all again.  There was no point really- they did not want to know.  As  Marshall McLuhan said, ‘The medium is the message’.  You are not worth a person talking to, and even the computer voice not willing to wait for you, though you can wait a long time for it.   I told the man ‘to come back tomorrow’, when my colleague was in. 

I was at the bank and stopped in at the Centrelink office. Perhaps they could explain.  There were a lot of little cubicles having interviews, but a lot of people waiting with a hush that seemed oppressive. A large notice said, ‘Aggressive behaviour will not be tolerated’, then there was some smaller print underneath.   There was no point in waiting.  I turned to leave. The woman who had appeared behind me said, ‘You did not wait long’.

‘No’ I said, thinking how lucky I was that I could just leave.

I asked my colleague about the form. He said, ‘You just change the words a bit’.

When I was younger I used to wonder why people smashed phone boxes.  Now I understand why people hate an amorphous thing they call ‘the government’, and even why people get angry and bash people after what seems a trivial irritation.  The last straw breaks the camel’s back.  The law naturally blames the perpetrators, but how many of them are victims? 

The government has downsized Centrelink till it has to use computer’s voices, and complicated websites. The whole paradigm blames those with no jobs, or who do not comply with the conditions that assume there is a job there if you just apply for it often or well enough.

So I blame the government too. It is time that they recognised that if they want a job or at least a role  for everyone, they had better make one, because ‘the market’ is replacing people with cheaper people offshore or machines.  And it is time they stopped treating the people at the bottom as if they have no right to live.

And I just write this to tell how it is, in case you did not know.

Arthur Chesterfield-Evans

View more posts from this author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.